10 Most Controversial Excerpts Taken from American Textbooks

By: Samantha Gray

Americans can’t seem to agree on anything anymore. It’s always war between left versus right, 99 % versus 1 %, gays versus straights. And like any war, children sometimes get caught in the crossfire. One of the latest battlegrounds is the classroom, and the spoils of victory are the hearts and minds of little learners. Debate rages among school boards across the land over what to leave out of textbooks, what to include, and how exactly to word it, which is ironic because everyone knows one of the hallmarks of being an American adult is forgetting everything you learned in school. Oh well; here are 10 textbook passages clothed with controversy.

  1. “Explain how Arab rejection of the State of Israel has led to ongoing conflict.”

    We could make this entire list solely out of controversial excerpts from textbooks from Texas, but we’ll limit ourselves to two (see next). It would be hard to find an example of an issue that divides people around the world more than the events of Palestine in the last 50 years. With one fell swoop, this loaded discussion question from a world history book places the entire blame for the Arab-Israeli conflict on Arab people. It’s akin to saying, “Explain how colonial America’s rejection of the British Empire led to years of conflict.”

  2. “Explain the impact of the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Sir William Blackstone.”

    This Texas history book excerpt deals with major philosophers whose ideas were crucial to political revolutions since 1750. The question used to include one man’s name at the end of the list: the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence. That’s right, they cut American icon Thomas Jefferson from a book about history. Instead, Protestant superhero John Calvin was added, the argument being Jefferson cribbed many of his ideas from Calvin and others.

  3. “Men had many more rights than women. Unless there were no sons in a family, only a man could inherit property. Only men could go to school or become priests.”

    In 2005, the State of California began to hear grumblings from members of the Hindu community about the representation of their religion in school history books. Among other complaints, they preferred the history of women’s rights in their culture be set in a better light. Their suggested revision spoke of men’s “different rights” and how women weren’t prevented from learning, but that their education “was mostly done at home.” Multiple experts called it a deliberate attempt to distort the record books.

  4. “Egyptian records from the time don’t mention the Exodus of the Israelite slaves. And archaeology hasn’t uncovered any evidence of their years in Egypt or of their dramatic departure.”

    This was another headache Oxford University Press created for California around the time they were ticking off Hindus. Although Jews did not dispute this statement in a sixth-grade social studies book Oxford was offering, they were perturbed that such figurative asterisks were not placed next to discussions of major events in other faiths. The board of education rejected the book after opponents from the Jewish community complained.

  5. “Christian worldview … is the only correct view of reality; anyone who rejects it will not only fail to reach heaven but also fail to see the world as it truly is.”

    Homeschools are one of the last bastions of biology materials that espouse creationism. This doozy of a sentence appeared in Biology: Third Edition, printed by Bob Jones University Press. As inflammatory as the line is, because the majority of homeschoolers are fundamentalist Christians, there hasn’t been a major outcry against it. But non-Christian parents teaching their kids at home have a devil of a time finding Big Bang books.

  1. “This textbook discusses evolution, a controversial theory some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things, such as plants, animals, and humans.”

    The South would be the other place you can still find Darwin disagreement. Although Alabama has since modified their stance, in 1996 and 2001 the state’s Board of Education ordered a sticker be attached to all public school biology textbooks clarifying evolution as a “controversial theory.” The label went on to say, “any statement about life’s origins should be considered as theory, not fact.” The 2005 version of the sticker removed the word “controversial.”

  2. “Then there was a dreadful scream, and there glaring at her in the doorway stood the Witch of the Future…”

    What started in Chicago suburbs in 1991 as a parent crusade against an elementary reader was taken up by national conservative groups like Focus on the Family. Their anger was directed at the “Impressions” line of children’s textbooks because they included stories like “The Witch and the Rainbow Cat,” about a young girl who gets trapped in a witch’s cabin. The issue became a hot-button topic in Chitown, and boy, were the school board elections crazy in ’92.

  3. “All praise is due to Allah that I moved to Boston when I did. If I hadn’t, I’d probably still be a brainwashed black Christian.”

    In 1974, the school board in West Virginia‘s Kanawha County was tasked by the state with promoting more diversity in their textbooks. When this quote from Malcolm X’s autobiography was discovered in the language arts books the board had committed to buy, there was an uproar. One thousand people protested the meeting where the board finalized the book purchase. Then 12,000 people signed a petition to ban the book from schools. Three thousand coalminers went on strike. Dynamite was thrown. People were shot. But the books stayed.

  4. “Scholars of the People of the Book know that Islam is the true path because they find it in their books. But they shy away out of ignorance and stubbornness. And God knows their deeds and will judge them.”

    The Islamic Academy in Virginia had already been the source of a study by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that found the school’s textbooks promoted discrimination against non-Muslims. This quote is supposedly one of the results of a move toward tolerance in the books. It appears in a book for 11th-graders and basically condemns all Christians and Jews.

  5. “We want you to help clean the weapons and fight the Russians in jihad.”

    Technically qualifying as American textbooks because they were produced by the University of Nebraska, in the late ’80s, millions of textbooks were sent to Afghan children to try to turn them against the Communists while teaching them math and language skills. The books were a blatant attempt to mix education with propaganda, as the primers were illustrated with pictures of tanks and assault rifles and math equations like “5 guns + 5 guns = 10 guns.” It’s still a controversial moment in the history of education in this country.

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