By Dr. Dan Olinger
Back in 1987, two bestselling books changed the way Americans thought about history. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind1 and E. D. Hirsch Jr.’s Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know2 called the country’s attention to the frightening lack of historical understanding among its allegedly educated citizens.3 Soon numerous studies, formal and informal, highlighted the problem.4 Newspapers reported surveys that demonstrated historical ignorance.5
The Controversy Not surprisingly, the years since 1987 have seen constant battles over the history textbooks to be used in America’s public schools.6 Some of the most well-publicized dust-ups have involved an unacceptable level of egregious historical errors in textbooks,7 for which blame has been assigned largely to changes in the processes for publishing textbooks8—changes, it is often alleged, that have resulted from the industry’s attempt to keep up with unreasonable expectations of revision cycles.9
But the problem of factual errors is not really at the heart of the controversy behind textbook selection. Factual errors are a problem, of course, but competent editors, given appropriate time and resources, can find them and correct them. The real controversy in textbook selection is not over facts but over the interpretation of those facts.10 How will the textbook view the events of history? What events and persons will it include? What trends will it emphasize or de-emphasize? What sense of progress or meaning will it find in the historical events? Most importantly, how will it present what is good or evil, desirable or undesirable?11
The battle is currently being waged on two fronts. The most immediate is in textbook selection committees where states12 determine which textbooks schools may purchase with state funds. Since public schools have no practical source of funding other than the government, the committee’s decision determines which textbooks may be used in the schools.
The larger battle, however, is in history standards committees, which determine the specific historical material the students will be expected to learn.13 What will a successful student of history know when he finishes his K–12 education? What will he be able to do? What attitudes will he evidence? How will he make his decisions? As the standards committee makes these determinations, it is setting the course for future textbook development since textbook publishers will seek to conform to the standards and thereby raise the likelihood that a given state will adopt their text(s).
What Are We Fighting Over? At the heart of the controversy is what the study of history is all about. History is not simply the reciting of a series of events in chronological order or the memorization of facts. A historian seeks to discover the meaning of history—to identify causes and effects,14 trends, and bases for success or failure. That means that he has to interpret the events as well as describe them. More fundamentally, he has to define success and failure; he has to base his telling of the story on a moral foundation.15 That is at its core a religious task, a theological one.16 It should be no surprise that attempts to teach history in an allegedly nonreligious system are chaotic, with varying factions doing battle for their own perspectives.
Perhaps a couple of examples, culled from a previous Renewanation Review article written by my colleague, Dr. Bryan Smith, will help illustrate this point.
McGraw-Hill is a leading publisher for public schools. The following is an excerpt from their first-grade social studies textbook. It’s how they teach Thanksgiving Day.
“A long time ago, Pilgrims came to live in America. Their lives were very hard. They had trouble growing enough food. A group of Native Americans helped the Pilgrims. They showed the Pilgrims how to grow new crops. The Pilgrims wanted to thank the Native Americans for their help. They invited the Native Americans for a special meal. This day became known as Thanksgiving Day.”
Anything missing? From this account, a child learns that the Pilgrims were giving thanks to Native Americans, and God had no place in the celebration.17
And from a seventh-grade world history textbook, “Much of the terrorism in the Middle East is aimed against the West. One reason Middle Eastern terrorists have targeted Westerners can be traced to the Western investment in the Middle East oil industry. ... This industry brought wealth to ruling families, ... but most citizens remained very poor. They often blamed the West, especially the United States, for supporting the ruling families.”
Dr. Smith evaluates this view: This suggests that if we evenly distribute the wealth in that region, strife and warfare will disappear. That’s how you think if you’re a secularist. Anyone who thinks that way is not living in the real world. In the real world, people are religious, and their religious beliefs play a central role in how they view the world and how they behave.18
In short, the controversy over history standards is a conflict of worldviews. On one side is naturalism, which says that humans exist by random chance, that we are self-determiners, that we can define our own values, and that if we do it right, we can continue to evolve our social and governmental structures into utopias. On the other side is the Judeo-Christian view, based in English common law that drove the thinking of the American Founders.
Bringing the Bible to Bear So what is a biblical worldview? How does it inform our study of history? How much freedom does it give us in the setting of standards and the consequent selection of textbooks? A biblical worldview begins with the following concepts:
There is a God who is the Creator of all things.
God’s will is the standard of right and wrong.
God is telling a story in history; it has a beginning, middle, and end; and it makes sense. He is sovereign, working out His will in “the affairs of men and nations.”19
Humans are responsible for their decisions and actions. They are expected to think and behave in ways consistent with God’s moral absolutes, and they will be held accountable.
God has allowed human freedom and consequent sin.20 Because He is sovereign, He is not threatened by deviations from His will.
The greatest good is the glory of God. A key way for humans to demonstrate that glory is to reflect the image of God that they bear.
As a revelation of God’s will and working, history should be interesting to those in His image. Teachers should present history with all the drama and personality that we find fascinating. We all love stories more than essays.
Within these boundaries, there is considerable flexibility in our study of history. We may see different trends at work, but we will agree that they are divinely directed. We may emphasize different actors on the stage for different reasons, but we will agree that they are in the image of God and also depraved. We may champion different political systems or cultural practices, but we will agree that they all are accountable to God and that the Scripture is the standard by which they must be judged. In his study of history, the Christian will constantly be updating, correcting, and revising his facts and even his interpretations, within the bounds laid down by Scripture.
Conclusion Because government-sponsored schools are currently prohibited from espousing a particular theological viewpoint, they cannot teach history from a biblical worldview—or as a conservative Christian would say, truthfully. Because they are written primarily with government schools in mind, secular textbooks cannot demonstrate the one great unifying truth of history: that it is a story the Creator God is telling, a story that tells us much about Himself and about us.
The battles over history standards will continue. Different factions will take the ascendancy of decision-making power and then lose it. But for Christian educators, parents, and pastors, the curriculum will have to come from somewhere else.
Dr. Dan Olinger serves as Chairman of the Division of Bible at Bob Jones University.
ENDNOTES 1. Allan Bloom, Closing of the American Mind (Simon & Schuster; Auflage: 1st Touchstone Ed, 1988).
2. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (Vintage; 1st Vintage Books edition, 1988).
3. These were not the first in the field. In 1979, Frances FitzGerald lambasted the quality of history textbooks. Frances FitzGerald, America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century (Little Brown & Co; 1st edition, 1979).
4. As one example, see “Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century,” https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED441736.pdf. It summarizes a 1999 study on pages 4–5.
5. Russell Baker, “SUNDAY OBSERVER; Relevant Ignorance,” The New York Times Magazine, (July 12, 1987). “Ocala Star-Banner - Apr 23, 1998,” Google News, accessed September 10, 2018. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=Y39RAAAAIBAJ&sjid=SAgEAAAAIBAJ&pg=4881,4975597&dq=survey+students+history+ignoran%20t&hl=en. “Toledo Blade - Apr 19, 1993,” Google News, accessed September 10, 2018. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=a0xPAAAAIBAJ&sjid=TAMEAAAAIBAJ&pg=6073,5693647&dq=survey+students+history+ignorant&hl=en.
6. This is not to say there were no animated discussions on the topic before that year, but public interest in the problem was heightened by the two bestsellers.
7. There have been numerous cases of textbooks with egregious errors. “D-Day for History Texts,” BJU Press, accessed September 10, 2018. http://www.christianvssecular.com/textbook_trap/history_errors.php Valerie Strauss, “The rich irony in Virginia’s history textbook error,” last modified October 20, 2010. http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/curriculum/the-rich-irony-in-virginias-hi.html.
8. “How Is an Author like an Appendix?,” BJU Press, accessed September 10, 2018. http://www.christianvssecular.com/authors. “Content Cloning,” BJU Press, accessed September 10, 2018. http://www.christianvssecular.com/authors/no_author.htm
9. Arthur Woodward and Kathleen Carter Nagel, “Old Wine in New Bottles: An Analysis of Changes in Elementary Social Studies Textbooks from Old to New Edition,” Book Research Quarterly 3 (Winter 1987–88), 22.
10. In 1995, James Loewen criticized history textbooks primarily from the left in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me. His criticisms involved not factual errors but what he viewed as errors of emphasis and of inclusion and exclusion. A similar example is Ray Raphael’s Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past (2004). Whether one agrees with these authors’ political positions or not, historical controversy erupts primarily on the issue of interpretation of the facts rather than the facts themselves.
11. One educator has noted that the importance of textbooks is not so much that they determine what the students will learn by reading but that they determine what the teacher, particularly the novice teacher, will teach. Kyle Ward, “The Missing Key to the Texas History Textbook Debate,” http://hnn.us/articles/127976.html.
12. The most influential textbook adoption states are Texas and California because of the size of their student populations and thus sales potential for textbook publishers. As most publishers seek to gain access to these markets, smaller states tend to follow the larger states’ decisions out of market necessity. The decisions of the Texas committee tend to receive more attention from the mainstream media probably because Texas tends to be more politically conservative, and thus more controversial than California, in the thinking of the media decision makers.
13. For a summary of the various states’ U.S. history standards, sponsored by the conservative Fordham Institute, see https://edexcellence.net/publications/the-state-of-state-us.html. The authors of this study define standards as “the substantive guidelines for determining what a state intends (or at least hopes) its young people will know when they complete various grade levels ... a reasonable and acceptable minimum level of content expectations.” Interestingly, the same authors commented, “Twenty-eight states rated a D or an F, and the average grade was a D.” They find, surprisingly to most Americans, that only one state—South Carolina—got an A on all rated factors. Sheldon Stern and Jeremy Stern, “Run Down by Traffic in Both Directions: Is it Possible to Have a Rational Discussion of State U.S. History Standards?” last modified March 1, 2011. http://hnn.us/ articles/136874.html.
14. Incidentally, the centrality of cause and effect in the study of history presupposes that at some point the study is presented chronologically. One must know, for example, that the Renaissance preceded the Reformation in order to deduce that it helped cause it. It’s noteworthy that much modern teaching of history is done thematically, allegedly so that it will be more interesting. Thematic study is, of course, a legitimate enterprise, but without the chronological foundation, it will lead to simple guessing about causes—a highly subjective, biased approach rather than a more disciplined one.
15. The current popularity of relativism is only imaginary. Even people who assert that there are no absolutes do not live by that philosophy; they are unanimously quick to hold others to their own moral standards by “sticking up for their own rights.” It has often been observed that relativism is self-defeating, for the statement “there are no absolutes” is an absolute. Matt Slick, “Discussion on logical absolutes as a proof for God's existence” accessed September 10, 2018. https://carm.org/discussion-logical-absolutes-proof-gods-existence.
16. The New Atheists have strenuously objected to this characterization. Sam Harris, for example, argues that atheism can indeed find a moral and ethical standard. He proposes the reduction of human suffering, but his argument suffers from lack of authority. Is his discrimination against sadists moral? On what grounds? Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: Norton, 2004), 170–71. For further discussion of this concept, see https://apologetics315.com/2011/04/william-lane-craig-vs-sam-harris-debate-audio and http://www.scribd.com/doc/4531646/Arthur-Leff-Unspeakable-Ethics-Unnatural-Law.
17. Dr. Bryan Smith, “Secular vs. Christian,” The Renewanation Review, Vol. 10, No. 1, 22; quoting James A. Banks, Our Community and Beyond (McGraw-Hill Education, 2013), 31.
18. Ibid., 23, quoting Jackson J. Spielvogel, World History & Geography: Modern Times (McGraw-Hill Education, 2014), 4.
19. The theological term for this concept is providence and specifically, a subcategory of providence called government. A good survey of the concept appears in Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology. See http://www.ccel.org/ccel/hodge/theology1.iv.xi.ii.html.
20. There is considerable disagreement, of course, over the relationship between divine sovereignty and human will. It is beyond the scope of this discussion to engage in that debate. Suffice it to say that God is indisputably sovereign and that He indisputably does not force complete conformity to His moral standards in the short term.