Apr 19, 2005 9:37 am


Where Credit Is Due
April 19, 2005

By now, everyone knows that Pope John Paul II was a major world figure in 20th century history. People of all races, classes, and cultures responded to his powerful personality, which radiated faith, love, hope, and charity. Future historians are likely to remember him primarily for his role in helping to bring down communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash recently wrote: "Without the Polish Pope, no Solidarity revolution in Poland in 1980; without Solidarity, no dramatic change in Soviet policy towards eastern Europe under Gorbachev; without that change, no velvet revolutions in 1989." Biographer George Weigel described the dramatic impact of the pope's trip to Poland in June 1979. Huge crowds met him wherever he went with his message of religious liberty. More than a million people in Warsaw cheered his message: "Be not afraid."

These facts about Pope John Paul II may be well known to many adults, but they are apparently unknown to people who write textbooks for American high school students. At the time of the pope's death, I reviewed half a dozen widely used history textbooks to see what they teach about his life. What I discovered is that - with a single exception - today's textbooks ignore or minimize Pope John Paul II's significance in world history.

Two of the six - both published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston - recount the rise of Solidarity and the fall of the Soviet empire without any reference to the pope. Three others mention him only briefly. In two sentences, Glencoe's "World History: The Human Experience" says that the selection of a Polish pope gave "a strong boost to the anti-government movement" and "inspired confidence" among the Polish people, thus enabling them "to take further steps toward liberation from Communist control." But the book does not explain what the Polish pope did or said to boost the anti-government movement or inspire the Polish people. It just happened.

Similarly, in Glencoe's "World History" (a different textbook but similar title), John Paul II's significance is minimized in these words: "Workers' protests led to demands for change in Poland. In 1980, a worker named Lech Walesa organized a national trade union known as Solidarity. Solidarity gained the support of the workers and of the Roman Catholic Church, which was under the leadership of Pope John Paul II, the first Polish pope." This language ignores the role of the pope in emboldening Lech Walesa to launch Solidarity as a challenge to the communist regime.

McDougall Littell's "Modern World History: Patterns of Interaction" says that the key terms and names in the collapse of communism are "Politburo, Mikhail Gorbachev, glasnost, perestroika, Solidarity, Lech Walesa, reunification." Pope John Paul II does not merit a place on the list of key terms and names. His role is dispatched in a single sentence: "In 1978, a Polish archbishop became Pope John Paul II and lent his support to the anti-communist movement." Again, there is no mention of anything the pope did or said that made a difference.

The only textbook that gives the pope more than a perfunctory sentence or two is Prentice Hall's "World History: Connections to Today." It shows a photograph of Lech Walesa holding up a portrait of Pope John Paul II and includes two paragraphs, including a statement by Mikhail Gorbachev saying, "Everything that happened in Eastern Europe in these last few years would have been impossible without the presence of this pope." In the main narrative of this text, however, the chronology of actual events is reversed. The creation of Solidarity in 1980 and the protest movement that it led are described before the pope's visit to Poland in 1979. Again, students are left to wonder exactly what the pope did to influence events in Poland and why even Mr. Gorbachev thought he was so influential.

The textbooks share a problem in writing about the pope: He does not fit into their shared narrative about the end of the Cold War. The textbooks give credit for that outcome to Mr. Gorbachev, as if he intended to bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union by introducing limited freedoms into a calcified political system. "World History: Connections to Today" says that the causes of the Soviet Union's demise were "low output of crops and consumer goods," the war in Afghanistan, "Gorbachev's rise to power," high military spending, and shortages of food and fuel. Holt's "World History: Continuity and Change" attributes the end of the Cold War to a process of liberalization begun by Mr. Gorbachev: "With Soviet citizens enjoying greater rights than ever, the peoples of Eastern Europe soon began to call for similar reforms." "World History: The Human Experience" names economic problems as the cause of communism's demise. The policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher do not bear mentioning as reasons for the Soviet Union's demise.

In the world history textbooks, Mr. Gorbachev is the star of communism's collapse, and the pope is barely a footnote. As McDougall Littell's "Modern World History: Patterns of Interaction" puts it, "Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev promoted democratic reforms, which inspired many Eastern Europeans." As a result, "most Eastern European nations overthrew communist governments." Glencoe's "World History" states plainly: "After Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the Soviet Union began to change its foreign policy, and the Cold War rapidly came to an end." The textbooks do not explain that Mr. Gorbachev wanted to preserve the Soviet Union and the communist system, not to dissolve them.

Behind the neglect of the pope's role in history in our textbooks is a desire by publishers to avoid offending people who are strict secularists as well as people who are not Catholic. Their unwillingness to give credit to the pope, Reagan, and Mrs. Thatcher in bringing about the demise of an oppressive political system reflects the bias of the academic advisers. Perhaps the remarkable worldwide response to the death of John Paul II will serve to remind the publishers that their interpretation of the end of the Cold War is woefully inadequate.

Ms. Ravitch is a professor of education at New York University and a member of the Koret Task Force at the Hoover Institution.

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Jonathan Dresner - 4/19/2005

The straight-line history she writes is simplistic and politically charged, while the textbooks she criticizes are actually more balanced (if still somewhat simplistic). If she's typical of education professors, no wonder I have so much remedial work to do with my college students....