Rewriting History Textbooks Post-Sept. 11

Think back to those days in middle school: European and American history held sway, while the Middle East got no more than a mention. But the events of Sept. 11 changed all that. Liane Hansen speaks with Fred Risinger, former education professor at Indiana University in Bloomington.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

September 11th is now part of the curriculum in many middle schools. Kids are also finding other new entries in their social studies textbooks as they return to class: entries about Islam, global terrorism, and the war in Iraq.

Fred Risinger just retired as professor of education at Indiana University in Bloomington. He was also a president of the National Council for the Social Studies. We've spoken with him about social studies issues before. Welcome back.

Dr. FRED RISINGER (Former Director of Professional Development, School Services, and Summer Sessions, School of Education, Indiana University, Bloomington): Thank you. Nice to be here.

HANSEN: How exactly is September 11th addressed in these textbooks?

Dr. RISINGER: Well, in all cases, textbooks publishers and authors conduct focused groups of teachers and we find out that about 80 percent of them never even get to that part of history. However, 9/11 is in all of the middle school and high school textbooks and it's looked at as an attack on the United States and it's also viewed, I think, as a defining moment in the history of this country.

HANSEN: How about the war the in Iraq given that it's ongoing?

Dr. RISINGER: It has less of an impact, I think, on most textbooks. Of course, new textbook editions will be coming out soon. But I have seen one and after about three paragraphs after 9/11, the textbooks says, in 2003 Bush expanded the war to Iraq and at it describes the war, thus say, that no weapons of mass destruction were ever found but that the Iraqi people were happy to have Saddam Hussein removed. It ends, and this is almost at the ever end of the book, that both Iraqis citizens and U.S. troops face daily attacks from insurgents.

HANSEN: What about the idea of debate and controversy? Was there any, first of all, in deciding how to teach these two events the war in Iraq and the attacks on September 11th?

Dr. RISINGER: Well, on controversial topics and issues, I think textbook publishers and authors feel like they're walking a tight rope. Trying to cover the material but at the same time, not to offend anybody or to make generalized statements that six months down the road might be looked upon as incorrect or intolerant or something along those lines.

HANSEN: Is it your impression that the Middle East has been marginalized in Social Studies classes? If so, why?

Dr. RISINGER: I think because we don't know exactly what to say. One - in a very interesting topic that I looked at in several textbooks was the establishment of Israel after World War II. That is frequently covered in about two or three sentences. And then the next time Israel mentioned - is mentioned in the book is when President Carter brings together the Egyptians and the Israelis at Camp David.

HANSEN: You talk to Social Studies teachers all the time, what are they saying about what their students are contributing to this national conversation, about September 11th and the war in Iraq?

Dr. RISINGER: That so much depends on where you live. If you happen to live near an army base or a military base, you have a lot of military students who have heard at home one point of view. Other points of view, of course, are clearly expressed. I think in many cases teachers try to avoid controversy.

One person that works in an editorial department of a major publisher told me that in discussing Africa, they cannot use the word genocide - even though President Bush has - in describing what's going on in Darfur. They can mention that AIDS is causing a tremendous problem for Africa, but they cannot discuss how AIDS is transmitted.

There are some things that we simply try to not put in textbooks, but textbooks are a starting place. There has to be other kinds of resources of that level for students and the encouragement by teachers to use those resources.

HANSEN: Professor Fred Risinger recently retired from the school of education at Indiana University in Bloomington. He's also served as a past president of the National Council for the Social Studies. And he joined us from member station WFIU.

Thanks again for your time.

Dr. RISINGER: Thank you. I appreciate it.

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