Outdated terms give opportunities to teach

Sunday, July 13, 1997

Current textbooks and curriculum guides suggest that teachers use literature and primary source documents in teaching history. Many of these materials were written in a time when people used terms such as “Mohammedan” and “Papist” that are considered inaccurate or offensive today. How can teachers deal with these issues sensitively while using these primary source materials?
Peg Hill, San Bernardino, Calif.

Teachers shouldn't be afraid to use primary sources, even those with outdated terms that may offend us today. These terms provide a “teachable moment,” because they provide insight into conflicts and misunderstandings that have caused much suffering in our history.


The two terms you mention illustrate the rich opportunity that primary source documents offer for understanding how religions and cultures have interacted through the ages. “Mohammedan” was widely used by some Western scholars in the 19th and early 20th centuries to describe adherents of the Islamic faith. Perhaps because of their Christian bias, these scholars assumed that Muslims were followers of the Prophet Muhammad. While Muhammad is considered by Muslims to be the last and greatest of God's prophets, he is not looked upon as the “founder” of Islam, nor do Muslims consider themselves his “followers.” Islam means submission to Allah (God), and a Muslim is one who submits to the will of Allah.


When the term “Mohammedan” or “Turk” — another term used to describe Muslims in early American documents — appears in a primary source, teachers should take the time to discuss the ways in which Western perceptions of Islam were — and often still are — based on misunderstanding or prejudice. Documents like these should only be used in the proper historical context. Without adequate explanation of the historical setting and societal conditions, documents can easily mislead and confuse students.


The term “Papist” has a similar history. It is a negative expression widely used by Protestants in 17th- and 18th-century Europe and colonial America to depict Roman Catholics as followers of the pope and, therefore, not truly Christian. The term reappears in anti-Catholic documents and books produced by nativists in 19th-century America. Allegiance to the pope was seen by many Protestants as allegiance to a foreign political power and thus incompatible with American citizenship — a false charge that persisted as late as the 1960 presidential campaign of John Kennedy. Many Protestants joined with Catholics to fight against this misunderstanding of Roman Catholics in America.


High school students should be exposed to nativist literature and the responses to it for a full understanding of the anti-Catholic movement in American history. Only by confronting the bitter debate and ugly terms of that early history can students prepare themselves to build a more respectful and civil society for the 21st century.


Teaching with documents is an effective and powerful way to address religious issues in teaching history. Studied in their proper historical setting, primary sources can help to move students beyond gut reactions and prejudices as they discover first-hand the root causes of many contemporary religious differences and conflicts.


Primary source documents are the laboratory of history. They give students direct access to the tools of the historian, encouraging them to analyze and evaluate for themselves the building blocks of history.