SPEARFISH — A book written to help elementary school teachers understand the religious beliefs of their students will be pulled from the curriculum at Black Hills State University’s College of Education after complaints surfaced about its scholarship and accuracy.
The book, “What Teachers Need to Know About Their Students’ Religious Beliefs,” is described as a handbook to help classroom teachers learn the religious doctrine and customs of 25 different religions and denominations. Written by Len Austin, an assistant professor of education at BHSU, the book was published in 2003 and used in Austin’s educational psychology course during the fall semester. The book is optional, supplemental reading and is not a required textbook for the course.
Dean Myers, dean of the BHSU College of Education, said Austin would be told to withdraw the book from his curriculum next semester, after Myers learned that some beliefs held by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly referred to as the Mormon church, were included in a section on American Indian religion.
Until recently, Myers said he was unaware that the Mormon theology concerning the genetic origins of American Indians, (that they are descendants of Jacob and the House of Israel and that they are Jewish by bloodline) appeared in the section of the book describing Indian spiritual beliefs. Austin is a member of the Mormon church.
That belief is not held by American Indians, unless they happen to be Mormon themselves, according Jace Decory, a Lakota woman who teaches American Indian studies at BHSU and who practices Native American religion. “No, that’s not what we believe. He should have put that in the Mormon belief section,” Decory, who follows the Canupa, or sacred pipe of the Lakota, said.
The idea that Indians arrived in the New World 600 years before Christ as one of the “lost tribes of Israel” is unique to Mormon theology, according to Ben Eicher, a Rapid City man who asked Myers and Austin to withdraw the book while reviewing it for a Catholic theological journal. Eicher said he found a long list of factual, theological, grammatical and typographical errors in the book, including a definition of the doctrine of the Trinity that he calls “grossly erroneous.”
Austin defines the Trinity as “three Gods embodied in one person.” The Christian concept of the Trinity is “one God in three persons,” and that Austin would misrepresent it is only one indication of the book’s poor scholarship, Eicher said.
But it is Austin’s depiction of Mormon theology as Indian religious history that Eicher finds most offensive.
In her Indian studies classes, DeCory teaches a number of different ideas and beliefs about the origin of Indians, including the commonly accepted scientific theory that Indians are descendants of people who crossed over the Bering Strait land bridge from Asia thousands of years ago. She includes the “American Genesis” version of that theory, which holds that a “bridge goes both ways,” DeCory said.
She tells her students that “there are two common origin stories in Indian thought — that we came either from the sky or emerged from inside Mother Earth” but also notes that “some people believe other migration theories about how we got here.”
The Lakota creation story is of buffalo people emerging from inside Mother Earth, but that belief does not appear in Austin’s book.
Myers said he did not respond to initial complaints about the book from Eicher, mainly because college professors have wide latitude in choosing the materials they use in their courses. Complaints about the content of college textbooks are not unusual, Myers said, and higher education errs on the side of academic freedom and always gives professors nearly “total autonomy” to choose their own textbooks.
The book made it into the syllabus for Austin’s course without any review or evaluation by his peers in the education department because it was optional, not required, Myers said. Students have the option of choosing it from among several projects for the class.
If students had been required to buy the book for the course, “we would have been concerned about that,” he said. Only textbooks written by the same professor who teaches the course are automatically screened, Myers said.
Eicher, who practiced law in Rapid City until recently, first saw “What Teachers Need to Know About Their Students’ Religious Beliefs” this summer when he briefly planned to enroll in education courses at BHSU. Eicher serves on the board of directors for the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, which publishes a quarterly academic journal called Pro Ecclesia, for which Eicher plans to write a review of the book.
He believes Austin overstepped his field of expertise in compiling the book. Austin acknowledges that may be true.
“The book is not a great authoritative work. I do not claim to be a religious scholar or theological expert on the 25 religions that are addressed in the book,” he said. He admits the vast majority of his research information was taken from Internet Web sites and from questionnaires he sent to people of different faiths. He did not submit the manuscript to any religious expert for review or ask any other professors at BHSU to edit it for him.
Austin decided to write the book after doing a survey of area elementary school teachers, where he found that 70 percent said a handbook on religions would help them cope with the frequent and myriad ways in which religion surfaces in their classrooms.
“I believe it fills a need in the education system,” he said, calling it nothing more than an “honorable attempt to do something good.”
He wrote it to sensitize teachers to the religious beliefs of their students and to help them address the questions about religion that invariably come up in elementary classrooms, he said.
Although Eicher questions whether Austin’s own Mormon beliefs may color the book, Austin denies that. “I’m not trying to convert anyone to Mormonism,” he said.
Myers also rejects that suggestion, saying he has never had any complaint to that effect from Austin’s students or any reason to suspect Austin of proselytizing in the classroom.
What Austin, Eicher and DeCory all agree on is that such a book for future teachers is a good idea.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Eicher said of the book, “and he doesn’t have to be a theologian to write it, either. It’s a terrific idea and if he just fixes the errors in it, it will be a terrific book.”
Austin said he plans to use Eicher’s detailed list of corrections and suggestions for improving the book, if a second edition is printed by its publisher, University Press of America. “My intention is to use some of Mr. Eicher’s comments to make changes, if and when the book is reprinted.”
Three hundred copies of the book were printed, according to Laura McLean, marketing assistant at UPA, an academic press that deals in specialized books on niche topics for smaller audiences.
A second edition with any changes is up to Austin, she said, since UPA’s publishing contracts require that authors supply camera-ready pages and are responsible for all editing tasks.