CAMARILLO, Calif. — When students return to school this year, many will have a new resource that has not been available for more than 35 years — a modern, full-color, authentically Catholic history textbook.
For the past three decades, secular publishers such as Harcourt Brace and Silver, Burdett and Ginn have largely dominated the textbook market. The new book, All Ye Lands: World Cultures and Geography, published by Ignatius Press, hopes to fill the void.
Written for sixth-grade students, All Ye Lands is the first in a series of five textbooks to be published as part of the Catholic Schools Textbook Project. Seven U.S. bishops served on the project's episcopal advisory board, along with a team of history scholars, researchers and writers under the direction of Dr. Rollin Lasseter of the University of Dallas.
“This project is long overdue,” said Douglas Alexander, executive director of the Catholic Schools Textbook Project. “For the past 35 years Catholic schools have been forced to use secular history textbooks because the older Catholic history textbooks have become increasingly out-of-date.
“Books from the 1930s and 1950s were written to help Catholic students face a certain set of challenges,” he continued. “Students today face a different set of challenges. They need freshly written books to help them.”
As an example, Alexander cited the canonization of hundreds of new saints by Pope John Paul II. The textbook project's books will include vignettes about saints.
Alexander also cited the powerful impact of a few of the many events of the past 35 years: moon landings, the ending of the Vietnam War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Internet, the launching of World Youth Days, the saintly examples of Padre Pio and Mother Teresa, and the devastating effects of 30 years of legalized abortion.
“We have a whole generation of Catholic children who are simply unaware of their own reality,” Alexander said.
James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, agreed.
“The books usually studied by Catholic students teach them the Church was backward and tyrannical until the Second Vatican Council came along,” Hitchcock said. “As a result, Catholic students do not cherish those who have gone before them or identify with the sacrifices made by previous generations to evangelize and build up the Church.”
“Even worse,” Alexander added, “many of today's popular secular history textbooks contain blatant factual errors, some of which directly involve the Church.”
He provided as an example the world history textbook Continuity and Change, published by Holt in 1999. “On Page 404, it reads, ‘Copernicus … accepted the idea that the planets moved in perfect circles around the earth.’ The truth is that Copernicus, a Polish university professor and Catholic priest, argued that planets moved around the sun, not around the earth.”
Catholic schools across the country have expressed interest in the project. “They are hungry for good, Catholic, up-to-date history textbooks,” Alexander said.
Unfortunately, printed only weeks ago, the textbooks are too late for most schools to use this year. However, schools in California, Michigan, Alaska and Nebraska have already ordered them for use this year. The Lincoln Diocese in Nebraska plans to order books for all its sixth-graders.
Because of the book's late arrival, Anthony Ryan, marketing director for Ignatius Press, said he expects to launch a full marketing campaign prior to next school year.
Birth of a Textbook
The idea for the textbook came from Michael Van Hecke's teaching experience. When Van Hecke started teaching history 13 years ago, he was given a copy of Prentice Hall's Pageant of World History and a black-and-white photocopy of a Catholic textbook.
The secular textbook, though colorful and glossy, had no religious coverage. The old Catholic history textbook, while it contained some good stories, wasn't graphically inspiring. Van Hecke found it overly parochial. “Why can't we marry the two?” he thought.
That idea grew and grew until 1996 when he received a $17,000 bequest to kick off the Catholic Schools Textbook Project. The project gathered a group of people to work on the project, received support from Ave Maria University and hired writers Carl and (Register correspondent) Ellen Rossini of Dallas, to write the manuscript. About three years ago, they struck a deal with Ignatius Press to print the book. The result was printed and shipped to the warehouse four weeks ago. It retails for $55.
“The textbook meets the grade-level standards of most public school systems,” Van Hecke said, “but it's decidedly Catholic.” Van Hecke, currently headmaster of St. Augustine Academy in Ventura, Calif., plans to use the textbooks in his school.
Tina Sabga, a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at Spiritus Sanctus Academy in Ann Arbor, Mich., had the opportunity to use a test version of the book last year with her 22 students.
While Sabga gave the textbook high marks, she said some students struggled with the book's language and thought it was a bit advanced for their grade level. “In some sections I had to break it down word-by-word. It's probably more appropriate for a seventh- and eighth-grade level,” Sabga said.
Still, the majority of her students received As and Bs — and that while using a test version without maps or pictures.
In particular, Sabga noted students enjoyed the textbook's section on the Church's history and heresies. “I have a degree in theology and thought that the way the book covered the different aspects of the Church was beautifully done,” she said.
One example comes in Chapter 6, “Christianity: A Gift from God.”
Says the book: “St. Augustine was widely known for his defense of Christianity against two major heretical groups, the Donatists and the Pelagians. In doing so, he developed several major teachings of the Church. The Donatists had long ago separated over the issue of bishops who weakened during persecution. To them, St. Augustine argued that sacraments are valid even if the minister is a sinner, and that the Church is holy even though it consists of saints and sinners.”
An early review from the Love to Learn Catholic home school Web site has also been positive. The site described the textbook as both helpful and enlightening.
“There is a distinct effort to be fair to our Catholic legacy without whitewashing faults,” it noted. “It recognizes the role of Christianity in shaping Western culture without ignoring the contributions of the Hebrews, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.”
The review noted the textbook's fun features as well. For example, a “Let's Eat” segment for each culture, toward the end of the chapter, provides information on what people ate and some simple recipes.
The text has also received praise from bishops. “I am a strong believer,” says a promotional text by Bishop Raymond Burke of La Crosse, Wis., “in the importance of the knowledge of Church history for the understanding of our Catholic faith and its practice. Therefore, I am happy to give my endorsement to the Catholic Schools Textbook Project.”
Mark Brumley, president of Ignatius Press, said the book was a natural for the nonprofit company.
“Fifteen years ago, when I was teaching junior high and was on the St. Louis archdiocesan textbook evaluation committee,” he said, “I would have loved to have a book like this. The content is solid, the graphics are superb, and it reflects a Catholic worldview that is neither pietistic nor biased in favor of Catholicism.”
No stranger to textbooks, Ignatius is also the publisher of the popular Faith & Life religion series, which is currently being revised. In addition to All Ye Lands, the project is writing a high school American history textbook. Next fall the group hopes to have its fifth-, seventh- and eighth-grade textbooks completed.
Tim Drake is the Culture of Life editor.