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Actual History Teachers On Why Removing Islam From Curricula Hurts Everyone

'When you get exposed to the actual history, it tends to melt away prejudice.'

As a writer, former history major and a generally curious person, I often wonder how history will treat us; how the textbooks of the future will encapsulate this profoundly weird period of time.

This is a dreadful time to be alive -- that is to say, it is full of dread. I personally dread reading headlines like this one from today, in which an entire Virginia county shut down its schools over the backlash it received from a homework assignment about Islam and Arabic calligraphy.

If only this were an isolated incident -- fleeting fuel for the outrage cycle, destined to be replaced tomorrow. If recent events at schools across the country are any indication, it's not.

In September, MTV News reported, "Greg Locke, a pastor in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, encouraged students of the Wilson County School to 'Take an F' in their world history classes, as a way of protesting the inclusion of Islam into world history curriculum." And just this month, a middle school in Ohio made national headlines when its superintended defended the school's decision to allow seventh graders to "opt out opt out of a small part of the state's social studies curriculum" -- specifically a lesson on the "achievements in medicine, science, mathematics, and geography by the Islamic civilization that dominated the Mediterranean after the decline of the Roman Empire."

This disturbing vilification of Islam in academic settings can lead to the bigoted, violent rhetoric we see from politicians and everyday people alike. MTV News spoke to history educators at the college and high school levels about what young people lose when they're barred from learning about Islam.

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Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, Turkey, completed in 1574.
"It feels like we're really making decisions for young people rather than allowing them to have a broad range of experiences and then come to a place like [Marshall University] and become a whole, educated person," Dr. David Trowbridge, an associate professor of history at Marshall University and former Air Force firefighter, told MTV News. "We're not here to train employees, that's not the purpose of K-12 or the university. We're here to build citizens."

Trowbridge, who previously served in Iraq, said living and interacting with Muslim people there was an "extremely valuable" experience that allowed him to come to terms with his own preconceptions. "In my first teaching experience, it was me and a couple of guys in a tent, 80 miles from the Iranian border," he said. "I [had] an M16, we had guys training to be firefighters, and I found out pretty quickly that only half the class spoke Kurdish and our translator didn't speak Kurdish that well.

"So I'm thinking this is over because the Arabs and the Kurds want to kill each other -- that's what I've been told so many times by the media."

But Trowbridge found that everyone in the class immediately wanted to help each other. "I felt so foolish -- why would I assume that?" he said. "Why would I assume the worst? I think it's because we've been told the worst."

Trowbridge explained this experience affirmed for him that understanding comes from exposure to new beliefs and cultures, which he said is imperative for history students of all ages.

Brian Hilly, a high school history teacher on Long Island, NY and adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College, echoed this sentiment.

"Post September 11, the best-selling book on Amazon was Bernard Lewis' 'What Went Wrong,'" he told MTV News. "I think that if we allowed ourselves to more vigorously study other parts of the world and other cultures, we might understand the routes and the antecedents of events that happen." (Disclosure: I'm a former student of Hilly's.)

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Vakil Mosque in Shiraz, Iran, completed in 1773.
Hilly added that the role of an educator is to "expose students to as many things as possible, not to guide them in terms of what they should believe, or what they should not believe."

"If we allow ourselves to curtail learning about other areas, cultures, belief systems in the world, then perhaps we might miss out in understanding what's going on in parts of the world -- we don't get as full a picture," he said.

If educators don't give students the view of the "full picture" -- the broad palette of beliefs, histories and cultures -- they are left to accept an obstructed one as reality.

"When you get exposed to the actual history, it tends to melt away prejudice," Trowbridge said. "I mean, Mark Twain said that I think better than I ever could -- how travel was deadly to prejudice.

"Maybe we can't afford travel for sixth graders, but we certainly can have them in classes where they are exposed to other cultures, religions and ideas."