I went to seventh grade today, a place I haven't been in 40 years. The maps on the walls and the little desks in rows all looked familiar, but the world history curriculum has undergone improvements since my time, and the textbooks are more detailed and inclusive.

Take Across the Centuries, a Houghton Mifflin textbook used in California schools. This is the text I found teacher Bruce Schulman using today in his classroom at the San Lorenzo Valley Junior High School.

It leads off with a 50-page unit that runs from Roman times to the rise of the Byzantine Empire. Then, to my surprise, come 50 pages, the whole of Unit Two, on "The Growth of Islam" from its seventh-century Arabian roots to a colorful six-page section on Islamic Spain. Not only that. The first 11 pages of the unit are devoted to a well-organized presentation of Muhammad's life and times.

Admittedly, at a glance, I caught errors of content and a few illustrations that seemed inappropriate. (Perhaps this was because I was looking at the 1991 edition; this year, the publisher has revised and improved the whole chapter.) Errors aside, that this material was being presented at all, and at such length, astonished me.

"Do you use this book a lot?" I asked. "Not really," Schulman said. "It's kind of spotty. I fill in a lot with handouts and articles. When I give a test it isn't on the book. It's on their class notes. Especially with topics like Islam."

This is a very far cry from the blackout on Islamic history that characterized U.S. public school courses in the late 1950s. My own history teacher back then was so impressive I still recall his name. In addition to the usual topics, Mr. Samuels used to treat us to blackboard excursions through Buddha, Confucius, Dante, Newton, Descartes, Kierkegaard, Marx, Einstein and Sartre. Thanks to him, we were exposed to a lot more high culture than most kids in those placid, blinkered days.

But Islam? As a religion? As a network of many cultures? Oh, I recall quite a bit about the Crusades from the European angle. But little or no reference to medieval Muslims-- except as nameless squatters on the Bible's Holy Land. Saladin got a paragraph, Richard the Lion-Hearted several pages.

Islam? Forget it. And Muhammad? That whipping boy of Western thinkers from Dante to Gibbon to Voltaire to Fill-in-the-Blank? Don't even ask.

Never mind that medieval Islamic culture elaborated the Known World's first global society, linking contiguous Muslim lands from Spain to China. Never mind that Muhammad's example inspired billions of human beings. An information vacuum knows no reason.

And so I was completely unprepared for how much these non-Muslim boys and girls knew about Islam after 3 weeks study. I had been invited to speak to all five of Schulman's classes through the day, and I'd come prepared to lay out the bare essentials: the five pillars of Islam, followed by a thumbnail sketch of Muhammad's life and the early formation of Islam.

But when I began to tell the first class that "Islam has five core practices, called pillars. The first one is..." six or seven hands shot up to cut me off. Each of five students reeled off one pillar: acknowledge God's oneness, pray, fast, give charity, and make a pilgrimage to Mecca. The class also knew what these pillars meant.

What they wanted to hear about first was fasting. "The third pillar, Ramadan," a boy began. "What's it like to do that? Do you really not eat all day every day for a month?" We discussed the ins and outs of Ramadan from a faster's perspective. "

And what do the prayers really look like?" another asked. I demonstrated the prayer postures.

"And Mecca, what about that? Have you gone to Mecca yet?" We discussed Mecca. This allowed me to bring our talk around to the second subject, Muhammad. They already knew his year of birth. I filled them in on his early days, especially about his adolescence. When I let it drop that at their age Muhammad had helped his uncle accompany a camel caravan to Syria, their eyes widened to saucers. They went silent at the suggestion that Muhammad came of age and rose in society without having spent a day in school.

I left the classroom at 3 p.m. wondering how public school education had become so open to a subject that in my own day was virtually taboo. I made a few calls, then explored the Web for related sites, and soon discovered a number of national institutions and organizations working to improve the teaching of history in schools.

I learned that the federal government's National Endowment for the Humanities has for more than a decade been funding seminars where university and high school teachers meet in small numbers to reassess the world history curriculum.

I discovered the National Center for History in the Schools, which publishes its own National History Standards and provides upgraded content and study guides on subjects like Muslim Women through the Centuries, The Crusades from European and Muslim Perspectives, andImages of the Orient: 19th Century European Travelers to Muslim Lands.

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