6 Overlooked Takeaways From a Reviewer of Controversial Texas Textbooks

In September 2014, I found myself standing before a mostly hostile Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) testifying about religious imbalance and inaccuracies in public school textbooks under consideration for adoption. To my great surprise, I also found myself quoted in Politico, the Washington Post, and several Texas newspapers. Al Jazeera America sought me out for an on-camera interview. For a religious studies scholar more at home in the classroom or library cubicle, the swirl of media attention was, well, disconcerting.

Six months earlier, the nonprofit watchdog group Texas Freedom Network (TFN) had asked me to join ten other scholars in an independent review of the social studies textbooks up for adoption. They were troubled by the exclusion of credentialed scholars from the official textbook review panels and my job was to evaluate the coverage of religions in world geography and world history textbooks.

Since Texas is the nation’s second largest market for public school textbooks, the results of our work drew media attention well beyond the Lone Star State. Politico’s piece was titled “Texas textbooks tout Christian heritage,” while the Christian News Network‘s read: “Texas Textbooks Under Fire for Suggesting Moses Influenced Founding Fathers.”

The media focused on the Culture Wars aspects of the controversy, which isn’t surprising. Back in 2010, in what RD’s Lauri Lebo aptly called the “Texas Textbook Massacre,” a Christian Right bloc on the SBOE pushed through curriculum standards promoting Christian Americanism, an ideology claiming that, as Mark Chancey writes,1 “America was founded to be a Christian nation governed by Bible-based laws, that the country has tragically departed from its roots, and that it should reclaim its Christian heritage.”

The 2014 adoption process marked the first opportunity to see how textbooks would be affected by the 2010 standards. (For more RD coverage of the 2010 controversy, see here and here.)

While the media focused on Moses and the Founders, however, an equally important story went underreported: the coverage of the world’s major religions in the standards and the textbooks. The curriculum standards and the adoption process in Texas don’t simply lack balanced and accurate coverage of the world’s religions; they work against it. And while textbook publishers generally struggle against this tide, they are sometimes dragged along with it.

Below are six items that have been largely overlooked in mainstream media reporting on this issue. The first three involve obstacles to religious balance in the Texas curriculum standards and the process by which textbooks are reviewed and adopted. The next two involve religious balance and imbalance in the textbooks themselves. The last item offers some overall lessons.

1. Boosterism of Christianity

To be approved for use in Texas public schools, textbooks must satisfy at least half of the Texas curriculum standards—the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or “TEKS” (often pronounced “teeks”).

While the TEKS for middle school and high school world geography do a fair, if minimal, job of presenting the world’s religions, that’s not at all the case with the TEKS for world history, which encourage an emphasis on Christianity over other religions. Out of 34 references to specific religions, the TEKS mention Christianity (and related terms) fourteen times—as opposed to nine mentions for Islam, six for Judaism, and only two for Hinduism. Buddhism, Confucianism, and Sikhism are mentioned just once each in the entire set of world history standards, which doesn’t reflect the current global distribution of religions. (Note: I count the two references to “Judeo-Christian” in the TEKS twice, once under Judaism and once under Christianity).

Christianity accounts for around 31% of the global population, but receives 41% of the mentions in the TEKS, whereas Hinduism, which accounts for 15% of global population, only receives 6% of the mentions; and Buddhism, which accounts for 7% of people worldwide, only receives 3%. The second and more important measure cannot be quantified: the impact of a given religious tradition on world history generally. Judaism, for instance, has clearly had a historical impact far greater than its tiny share of the global population (less than 1 percent) would suggest. While Christianity has undoubtedly had a major impact on world history as a whole, it would be difficult to argue that it has had one-and-a-half times the impact of Islam, or more than twice the impact of Hinduism, or nearly five times that of Buddhism. Nevertheless, that is what the TEKS imply.

Christianity is also the only religion for which the TEKS require a discussion of its major divisions (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism). The TEKS do not require equivalent coverage of the major divisions in Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam—even though these are, after all, world history standards, and those religions represent billions of people.

The world history TEKS also foster a one-sidedly positive version of Christian history. They expect students to explain how Christianity was “a unifying…factor in medieval Europe,” but not how Christianity was also a divisive factor (e.g., the East-West Schism, the Inquisition, etc.) For example, the Catholic crusade against the Cathars, a heretical Christian sect, lasted two decades; one battle, the siege of Béziers, resulted in the massacre of thousands, including clerics, women, and children. Nor do the history standards ask students to show how, say, Islam was “a unifying factor” in the Muslim world, or Confucianism was “a unifying factor” in China.

Another standard locates the origins of three key legal concepts—trial by jury, presumption of innocence, and equality before the law—not only in ancient Greece and Rome (which is historically supportable), but also in “the Judeo-Christian legal tradition.” While this feeds into the Christian America myth, the scholarly consensus finds little convincing evidence that these three legal concepts are Jewish or Christian in origin.

The message to publishers is clear: the SBOE wants textbooks that emphasize Christianity and put a positive spin on it.

2. No Religious Studies Experts

In the 2014 adoption cycle the official review panels were woefully short on credentialed specialists in the various social studies fields. When TFN looked at the credentials of the more than 140 individuals appointed to the official review panels, they found that only three were current faculty members at Texas colleges and universities; meanwhile, at least a dozen eminent field specialists who had applied to serve were passed over.

Even more worrying, TFN also found that “political activists and individuals without social studies degrees or teaching experience got places on the panels”—apparently through the intervention of SBOE members. As far as I’ve been able to determine, no credentialed specialists in religious studies were appointed to the official review panels.

Furthermore, the official review process is tightly restricted in both time and scope. Official reviewers have only one week to review all textbooks—an absurdly short time. My review of world geography and world history texts took over three months of full-time work. And the official reviewers are charged only with checking that the textbooks comply with the TEKS and with spotting any “factual errors,” defined as “a verified error of fact or any error that would interfere with student learning.”²

The official reviewers seem to have construed “factual error” quite narrowly. To judge from the official reviews of the world history and world geography textbooks (not yet posted on the TEA website), only on rare occasions do the reviewers point out errors of fact (usually typos), and they never raise questions about religious balance.

3. Ideologues Over Experts

Whatever the limitations of the official review, the real power in the adoption process lies with the elected members of the SBOE. “The real movers and shakers in content,” as Hindu American Foundation spokesperson Murali Balaji notes, are “the real movers and shakers in content,” are the bloc of right-wing members, “who have made remarks questioning climate change, urging publishers to endorse ‘free market’ economics, and pushing for a Christianization of textbooks.” One way they control textbook content is through their handling of the public comments phase of the review process.

Any member of the public can comment on the textbooks, either in writing or in person at the public hearings, and publishers are obliged to respond to what members of the public have to say. The small-“d” democrat in me celebrates the fact that all sorts of folks can put in their two cents about the textbooks.

The problem is that, in 2014 at least, the conservative majority on the SBOE quite clearly gave comments from ideologically-driven pressure groups (such as Texas Eagle Forum and Texas Values Action) greater weight than comments from credentialed field specialists (such as myself and my fellow reviewers).

A mere two weeks before the SBOE was to take its final vote on the textbooks, and long after other public groups had filed their comments, Truth in Texas Textbooks (TTT), which has allies on the SBOE, presented their reviews—469 pages of material. Two days before the final adoption vote was to take place, Christian Right members of the SBOE made much of the TTT criticisms and insisted that publishers address them.

To judge from its website, the only TTT reviewer with relevant social studies credentials was a professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas. However, he reviewed only one world history textbook, and quite appropriately restricted his comments to his areas of expertise.

The other reviewers on TTT’s list appear to have no academic credentials in history, geography, economics, or religious studies (though they do include an Ed.D.* in “educational leadership,” and a professor of foreign languages). Despite a lack of pertinent credentials, the TTT reviewers weighed in on a wide range of topics, including prehistory, climate change, economics, political science, and U.S. government.

But they directed special vitriol at the alleged “dangers” posed by Islam. One reviewer wrote of Islam’s “threat to the Western world,”³ while another lumped Muslims together with communists and socialists commenting, bizarrely, that “The greatest fear for a communist, a socialist or a Muslim is Truth.”⁴

Other TTT comments were just plain false: “Islam is spread by the sword while monotheistic religions are not.”⁵

(Try telling that to an Aztec or Inca—not to mention the fact that Islam is a “monotheistic religion.”)

Yet despite TTT’s lack of credentials and the obviously biased and tendentious nature of their critiques, conservative SBOE members insisted that publishers give them the same level of attention they gave comments from credentialed scholars.

Sadly, in some cases, publishers actually changed their text to suit TTT, as when Pearson Learning (see page 16) removed from its world history text the factually correct statement that jihad “is most frequently used [by Muslims] to describe an inner struggle in God’s service.” In its place Pearson inserted more ambiguous wording: “For some Muslims, [jihad] means a struggle against one’s evil inclinations. For other Muslims, it refers to a struggle or violent holy war to defend or spread Islam.”⁶

While this change may please TTT and other anti-Islam groups, it deprives students of the important fact that the “holy war” interpretation of jihad is held by only a small minority in the Muslim community today.

4. Textbooks Mostly Balanced 

While I was disappointed that Pearson caved to TTT pressure, I sympathize with them and other textbook publishers trying to serve the Texas market. They are truly caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they have reputations to maintain, for quality, fairness, and accuracy. Yet the standards with which they are expected to comply do not foster fairness and accuracy. Purely in terms of securing SBOE approval, the path of least resistance would be for publishers to give the SBOE what it seems to want—that is, to sacrifice religious balance.

The good news is that publishers generally didn’t take the path of least resistance. Indeed, the coverage of major world religions in the textbooks I reviewed was generally much more balanced and accurate than the Texas standards. (Readers interested in greater detail can check out my review of the world history textbooks here and my review of the world geography texts here. Publisher responses to all public comment, including mine, can be found here and here.)

Nonetheless, I did find instances of imbalance, and sometimes patterns of imbalance, in the textbooks. While these problems spanned a number of religious traditions, I will discuss two representative examples, Christianity and Islam—the two religions about which the most heat was generated in the textbook debate.

5. Pro-Christian, Anti-Muslim Slant 

As I mentioned in item 1, the curriculum standards (TEKS) promote Christianity over other religions. Sadly, I found a similar pro-Christian slant in many world geography and world history textbooks up for adoption.

Back in 2010, after the current social studies TEKS were established, the Christian Right bloc on the SBOE claimed to have uncovered “pro-Islam anti-Christian bias” in Texas textbooks. Though skeptical of those claims, I nevertheless was on the lookout in my own review process for signs of bias for or against any religious tradition.

I found no traces of a “pro-Islam anti-Christian bias” in the textbooks I reviewed, but I did find the opposite: many presented Christianity more favorably, and Islam more unfavorably, than is historically warranted. (For the record I should note that I am a Christian.)

Some texts soft-pedaled Christianity’s record of violence toward non-Christians. For instance, in the Pearson Learning middle school world geography text, the authors write that in the century after Christianity became the Roman Empire’s official religion, “Christianity spread and most Romans became Christians.”⁷

That’s correct, but what’s missing is the fact that after the adoption of Christianity, the imperial state persecuted competing faiths, with the active encouragement of Christian leaders.⁸

Other such errors of omission made the spread of Christianity appear less violent than the spread of Islam, the most dramatic of which cropped up in a Cengage Learning world geography textbook. During the colonial period, according to the authors, “Europeans spread Christianity around the globe.”⁹

Again, while factually correct that statement becomes deceptive when compared with the account of Islam just one page later: “In the centuries after Muhammad’s death, Muslims spread their religion by conquest.”10

Students reading those pages would naturally come away with the idea that Christianity’s spread was more peaceful than that of Islam. In fact, Islam spread at times by conquest (for instance, in North Africa), and at other times through trade, settlement, and missionary work (for example, to Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia). Christianity, too, spread by conquest—most notably, under the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, and in the Spanish conquest of the Americas.

I cited the Cengage mismatch in my TFN review, and to their credit, the publisher revised the passage to say that Muslims “spread their religion by conquest, through trade, and through missionary work,”11 although they did not indicate that they would revise the passage on the spread of Christianity.

In several world history textbooks, accounts of Charlemagne’s efforts to spread Christianity gloss over the fact that he forcibly converted many pagans, and made non-Christian practices punishable by death.12

For instance, the McGraw-Hill world history textbook notes that with Charlemagne’s coronation as Holy Roman Emperor “Christianity was triumphant in Europe. The Germanic peoples…adopted the faith of Christianity.”13

That sounds as if the conversion to Christianity was wholly voluntary. True, with some hunting, students can find out that Charlemagne spread Christianity through military conquest.14

But this information is contained in a bio attached to an image, not in the main text. And neither passage mentions forcible conversions or capital punishment for non-Christian practices.

In contrast, the same McGraw-Hill text makes quite explicit the use of forcible conversion by a Muslim ruler. The authors write that the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (1618-1707), “a devout Muslim,” “forced Hindus to convert to Islam.”15

(By the way, in so doing Aurangzeb directly contradicted Qur’anic teaching that there shall be “no compulsion in religion” (2:256).16)

Neither the Charlemagne account nor the Aurangzeb account is factually incorrect, but taken together they lack balance. If a world history textbook tells students about forcible conversions under some Muslim rulers (as it should do), then it should also tell students about similarly violent practices by Christian rulers (as well as rulers from other religious traditions). To do otherwise gives students a distorted view of the role of violence in the spread of both religions—and robs students of the tools they need to evaluate the anti-Islam propaganda they will encounter from groups like TTT.

6. Get Involved

Today’s public school students need to be prepared to function effectively not only in a global society that is already religiously diverse, but also in a United States that is growing more so. Since religions continue to shape human viewpoints and motivations, students need a solid grasp of the religions of the world.

One thing I learned from participating in the 2014 textbook process is just how important public school textbooks are in shaping attitudes towards religions. Certainly college-level religious studies courses such as those we offer at SMU play a vital role in increasing religious literacy, but attitudes toward religions are formed at an early age. While students today can draw on a vast array of information sources, their main systematic exposure to information on the world’s religions may well be through their textbooks.

Therefore it’s incumbent on textbook publishers to present a balanced account of the world’s religions. I don’t mean a simplistic parity (e.g., giving each religion an equal number of words or lines). Religious balance instead means presenting each religious tradition as fairly and accurately as possible.

While that might seem an obvious good to most RD readers, the textbook review process also taught me that entrenched, politically powerful, and well-organized forces in Texas and beyond are working to undermine that kind of religious balance in the public school curriculum. They seek to use textbooks to indoctrinate students in a myth of Christian exceptionalism and fear of Islam. Even the best publishers can fall victim to that pressure.

It’s up to all of us to keep a close watch on what goes into public school textbooks. For scholars, that means ensuring that textbook content reflects the best available scholarly consensus. For parents and other citizens, it means identifying the decision-makers responsible for adopting textbooks (this will vary from state to state) and holding them accountable to the will of all the people, not just ideological pressure groups. None of this is easy, but its importance can’t be understated. After all, our children’s education, and their future, are at stake.

*Correction: The reviewer had an Ed.D. not a Ph.D, as the article originally indicated. RD regrets the error. 


1 Mark A. Chancey, “Rewriting History for a Christian America: Religion and the Texas Social Studies Controversy of 2009–2010,” The Journal of Religion 94:3 (July 2014) : [325-353] 329.

2 19 TAC 66, Subchapter A, §66.10.c.1.

3 Truth in Texas Textbooks, “TTT Report to Texas SBOE on Pearson World History incl publisher response,” p. 1. URL: http://truthintexastextbooks.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/TTT-Report-to-Texas-SBOE-on-Pearson-World-History-incl-publisher-response.docx. Accessed December 5, 2014.

4 Truth in Texas Textbooks, “TTT Report to Texas SBOE on Worldview World History B incl publisher response,” p. 71. URL: http://truthintexastextbooks.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/TTT-Report-to-Texas-SBOE-on-Worldview-World-History-B-incl-publisher-response.docx. Accessed December 5, 2014.

5 Ibid., p. 38.

6 Pearson Education, “P2015_Pearson Rsp to Public Comment_World History_11_19,” p. 16. URL: http://tea.texas.gov/Curriculum_and_Instructional_Programs/Instructional_Materials/Review_and_Adoption_Process/Proclamations/Proclamation_2015_Pre-Adoption_Samples/November_12,_2014—Additional_Proclamation_2015_Publishers__Responses_to_Public_Comments/.

7 Pearson Realize, Contemporary World Cultures Texas Grade 6 (rev. f30be5c), 4.3, Text 1:8.

8 See, for example, Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), 12-16. I should add, however, that to their credit, the authors of the Pearson text do note that Christians’ brutal treatment of Muslims and Jews during the Crusades (6.8, Text 3: 3), a point sometimes omitted in other textbooks.

9 Cengage-National Geographic, World Cultures and Geography: Texas, R52.

10 Ibid., R53.

11 Quoted in “P2015_NatGeogWCGResponsestoTX—110614,” p. 3. URL: http://tea.texas.gov/WorkArea/linkit.aspx?LinkIdentifier=id&ItemID=25769818836&libID=25769818945 

12 “Involuntary conversions and the establishment of an organized church followed Charlemagne’s military victories over the Saxons (beginning in 772), but Saxony was for years beset by bloody and destructive rebellions. Nevertheless, the monastery of Fulda, the bishopric of Würzburg, and new settlements such as Paderborn became centers of organized missionary activity. In 785 the leaders of Saxon resistance accepted baptism, although it may be doubted whether many Saxons followed their example until further pressures, including severe punishment for ‘pagan’ practices, had been employed. The conversion of the Frisians was simultaneously being achieved, although with less violence.” Donald A. Bullough, “Charlemagne,” Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 3. (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005), 1556-1557. Gale Virtual Reference Library.

13 McGraw-Hill Education, World History, Texas, Ch. 8 (Byzantine/Emerging Europe), Lesson 4, p. 3.

14 Ibid., Ch. 8 (Byzantine/Emerging Europe), Lesson 4, Resources.

15 Ibid., Ch. 19 (Muslim Empires), Lesson 3, p. 3: Mogul Dynasty.

16 Holy Qur’an, trans. by M.H. Shakir (Elmhurst, NY: Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, Inc., 1985), 26.