From the HoustonChronicle.com
April 23, 2005
Use of B.C. and A.D. faces changing times: Some teachers and historians are using alternatives to Christian-based designations
By MICHAEL GORMLEY
ALBANY, N.Y. – In a world encouraged to embrace differences, B.C. and A.D. are increasingly finding themselves on the wrong end of the religious sensitivity meter.
Educators and historians say schools from North America to Australia have been changing the terms Before Christ to Before Common Era and anno Domini (Latin for “year of the Lord”) to Common Era. In short, they’re referred to as B.C.E. and C.E.
The change has stoked the ire of Christian conservatives and some religious leaders who view it as an attack on a social and political order that has been in place for centuries. Ironically, for more than a century Hebrew lessons have used B.C.E. and C.E., with C.E. sometimes referring to Christian Era.
That begs the question: Can old and new coexist in harmony, or must one give way to the other to reflect changing times and attitudes?
The terms B.C. and A.D. have clear Catholic roots. Dionysius Exiguus, an abbot in Rome, devised them as a way to determine the date for Easter for Pope St. John I. The terms were continued under the Gregorian Calendar.
Although most calendars are based on an epoch or person, B.C. and A.D. have always presented a particular problem for historians: There is no year zero.
“When Jews or Muslims have to put Christ in the middle of our calendar … that’s difficult for us,” said Steven Brown, dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. “They are hard for non-Jews, because they assume a centrality of Jesus … it’s not offensive, but it’s not sensitive to my religious sensibilities.”
The new terms were introduced by academics in the 1990s in public elementary and high school classrooms.
“I started using B.C.E. when some of my students began asking more earnestly than before just what B.C. meant,” said Bill Everdell, a history book editor, teaching instructor and Brooklyn history teacher in the private, formerly religious St. Ann’s School. Everdell said most history teachers he knows use B.C.E. and C.E. “I realized the courtesy was mine to extend.”
Seen as an attack
In New York, the terms are entering public classrooms through textbooks and worksheets, but B.C.E. and C.E. are not part of the state’s official curriculum, and there is no plan to debate the issue, said state Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman.
“The standard textbooks primarily used in New York use the terms A.D. and B.C.,” Burman said. Schools, however, may choose to use the new terms.
Candace de Russy, a national writer on education and Catholic issues and a trustee for the State University of New York, said she doesn’t accept the notion of fence-straddling.
“The use of B.C.E. and C.E. is not mere verbal tweaking; rather it is integral to the leftist language police — a concerted attack on the religious foundation of our social and political order,” she said.
For centuries, B.C. and A.D. were used in public schools, universities and in historical and most theological research. Some historians and college instructors started using the new forms as a less Christ-centric alternative.
“I think it’s pretty common now,” said professor Gary Nash of the University of California at Los Angeles and director of the National Center for History in Schools. “Once you take a global approach, it makes sense not to make a dating system applicable only to a relative few.”
But not everyone takes that pluralistic view.
“I find it distressing, I don’t like it,” said Gilbert Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, which finds politics intruding on instruction. He said changing terms accepted for centuries because of a current social movement such as multiculturalism could threaten other long-held principles.
“That’s the shame of it. Though I have only seen it in isolated cases so far, wait five years and A.D. may disappear.”