Several recent studies have shown that American students are alarmingly ignorant about U.S. history and world events.
Experts have attributed the problem to everything from failing schools to substandard teachers.
But what about content?
Who Discovered America?
For instance, did you know that Muslims discovered America? Or that Jerusalem is an Arab city? That's just some of the "history" that students in America's K-12 classrooms have been taught in recent years--with the help of taxpayer money.
A new report by the non-profit Institute for Jewish and Community Research finds that American high school and elementary textbooks contain countless inaccuracies about Christianity, Judaism, Israel and the Middle East.
The Institute examined 28 of the most widely-used history, geography and social studies textbooks in America. It found at least 500 errors.
One book ignored the Jewish roots of Christianity, saying the faith was founded by a "young Palestinian" named Jesus.
Another stated as fact that the Koran was revealed to Mohammed from God.
Yet another said ancient Jewish civilization contributed "very little" to to the arts and sciences.
The Stealth Curriculum
Textbooks like these are used by millions of schoolchildren in all 50 states. Sandra Stotsky--now an endowed chair at the University of Arkansas--has seen some of them firsthand.
Stotsky was a commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Education from 1999 until 2003. In that role, she helped set standards for students and teachers on the K thru 12 level. Stotsky wrote a book about her experience developing standards and professional development for history teachers called The Stealth Curriculum.
"We heard from a number of groups who were outraged because they didn't want what they called a 'Euro-centric' version of history," said Stotsky. "They literally wanted an Islamo-centric version of history. Which means you look at the world from the perspective of Islam and you don't talk about any negative aspects of Islam."
After the 9/11 attacks, the Massachusetts Board of Education funded a special seminar for K-12 teachers to learn about Islamic history and the Middle East.
The outreach coordinator at Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies helped organize the seminar. Stotsky said she was shocked by the teachers' lesson plans that came out of the week-long seminar.
"They ranged from having students make prayer rugs; describe what it would be like to go on a hajj--a pilgrimage; learn and memorize the five pillars of Islam; listen to and learn how to recite passages from the Koran; dress like a Muslim from a particular country.it was, to me, a clear violation of ethics involved in how one would expect children to learn about another culture. That they would literally go through the memorization and the learning of religious beliefs."
"These are unacceptable practices in a public school," she added. "In fact, they would be unacceptable academic practices in any school."
Harvard is one of 18 universities that receives government funding under Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965. To qualify for that funding, the universities are required to conduct outreach to K-12 teachers, helping them to shape lessons for schoolchildren. Elementary and secondary teachers have taken full advantage of the arrangement: after all, they believe they're getting expert insight on Islam and the Middle East from distinguished university scholars.
"You have a lot of politically naive teachers--well intentioned teachers who do want their students to learn more about Islamic history," says Stotsky. "It has not been well covered in most history courses they've ever taken, so they do genuinely want to learn more for themselves and teach their students more."
In some cases they may be getting more than they bargained for: the Saudi government has donated millions of dollars to Middle East Centers at universities that receive Title VI funding.
The Harvard Middle Eastern Studies Center--whose proposed lesson plans for K-12 history teachers originally drew Stosky's concern--is one of them. As CBN News reported earlier this year, the Harvard Center received a $20 million donation from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal in 2005. Georgetown University--another title VI recipient--also received $ 20 million from the Prince that same year.
It's through these Title VI university centers--all of them government-sanctioned and taxpayer supported--that Saudi-funded materials find their way into K-12 classrooms.
Education or Islamic Propoganda?
"Saudi donations to American universities should be seen in a much larger picture of Saudi promotion of a Saudi point of view," said Daniel Pipes, Director of the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia. "Whether it be Islamic or political, the Saudis have a point of view. And they have been very clever and very generous over the decades to promote that point of view."
Among the textbooks the Saudi-funded Harvard Center recommends for schoolchildren is the Arab World Studies Notebook. The book is published by a New Mexico-based group called Arab World and Islamic Resources , which was founded in 1990 with funding from organizations that include Saudi Aramco, a Saudi government-owned oil company.
The Notebook has come under fire for negatively portraying America and Israel while whitewashing Islam. It's been banned by some school districts.
"It's very difficult to find any discussion of ancient Israel--that it actually existed in time as a country,' Stotsky said of the Notebook. "That it had a king, that it had kings. That King Solomon existed, that Jerusalem was established as their capital city. It would discredit even the founding of the state of Israel by claiming that it was imposed by European or Western powers."
One of the Notebook's most controversial claims was that Muslim explorers beat Columbus to the New World. Older versions state that some Native American chiefs even had Muslim names, like Abdul-Rahim. These passages were eventually removed after widespread criticism from scholars and Native American groups. The Notebook's editor, Audrey Shabbas, did not respond to our requests for an interview.
The Middle East Policy Council--a pro-Arab advocacy group in Washington, D.C.--also conducts teacher training programs for K-12 teachers and has promoted the Arab World Studies Notebook as an ideal educational tool.
Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal donated $1 million towards the Council's teacher training programs last year. The group did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
Stronger Curriculum Standards Needed
Stosky says there needs to be stronger standards for K-12 curriculums to help offset the influence of outside pressure groups. That's traditionally been a job for local governments.
"State governments have not been given the power to set curriculum," she said. "No, this is a local responsibility. It was devised this way by our framers. You know, the local governments, local communities, would develop their own curricula, decide what they would want to teach their children. State governments could assess, as they now do, but they can't prescribe curriculum for local communities. And the federal government certainly can't prescribe a curriculum. That's why we're having a battle over where national standards are going to come from."
The standards Stotsky helped craft for Massachusetts schools include what she calls "politically incorrect but historically accurate" objectives about the Islamic slave trade, Islamic expansionism and treatment of women in Islam.
"What state governments can do--which to me, is the path we were taking in Massachusetts--is to make sure that the standards you create for a subject have been thoroughly vetted by first rate scholars--and a range of first rate scholars," said Stotsky.
Title VI Battle Hits Capitol Hill
The battle over Title VI has also reached Capitol Hill. In August, Congress approved revisions to the Higher Education Act of 1965--which includes Title VI. Universities must now explain how their Title VI funds will be used--and K-12 schools are now required to reflect a wide range of views on global issues in their lesson plans. Whether the Saudi point of view is still among them remains to be seen.
*Original broadcast October 9, 2008.