Saturday, October 3, 2009

Life in a Ninth Grade American Classroom: Military Victory is Nothing to Celebrate

By Barry Rubin

As some of you know, I’ve been writing about my ten-year-old son in fourth grade in a Maryland public school. But now it’s time for my fourteen-year-old daughter who is ninth grade to get into the act.

Since she is going to a Jewish day school, I’d expect less of a problem with Political Correctness. For example her school, unlike the public school, had a commemoration for the September 11 victims.

But some weirdness is afoot there also. In her Jewish religion class, the teacher asked why the rabbis had built up the story of the miracle on Chanukah, when a lamp in the Temple burned for eight days despite the fact that there was only oil for one. For those of you who don’t know, Chanukah commemorates the victory of the Maccabees in revolting against the Selucid kingdom which tried to ban Judaism. After a heroic war, they won and reestablished the independent kingdom of Israel.

Compared to most Jewish holidays, the strictly religious part seems pretty much an afterthought and a secondary factor.

My daughter answered with what she learned in Israel—and is clearly the correct answer. Since Chanukah as the victory of the Maccabees did not involve much of a theological nature—it is really more of a national event though the rebellion was to preserve Judaism—the rabbis tacked on or built up the lamp story to inject a religious element.

The teacher said, in what sounds like an insulting tone from my reliable reporter who was there, that this was completely wrong. The correct answer, she explained, was that they didn’t want to have a holiday that commemorated a war.

This is utter nonsense and if anyone said such a thing even a few years ago they would be laughed at. It was certainly, too, a just and defensive war—the Selucids killed Jews who did not bow down to idols—and Jews have always been proud of that victory.

Today, of course, you cannot be proud of any war (perhaps World War Two, which was against right-wingers, and of course was especially important for Jews, is an exception.) Religion--or at least Western religion--must be seen as equivalent to pacifism in order to have any legitimacy. So a teacher can make up something that has nothing to do with history but everything to do with contemporary ideology.

This seems like a small point but it is irksome precisely because it is so dishonest and has absolutely no basis in any historical or religious source. It is wrongful to misinform young people, presenting some newly minted theory derived from current political fashion as the incontrovertibly, traditional, and only right answer.

Actually, this may be a good point at which to mention something interesting. It is admittedly only marginally related to the specific anecdotes above but has a lot to do with how teachers behave in classrooms nowadays.

Many years ago, I became interested in a historical question: Did American professors who were members or supporters of the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s use their classrooms to preach their politics to students? I did a huge amount of research and wrote a journal article on it.

My conclusion was that this almost never happened. While to some extent one could argue they were scared of possible punishment for doing so, in the pre-McCarthy era this was far less true than people think today. The main reason professors kept their ideology out of the classroom as much as possible was simply that they believed in a professional ethic which said it was wrong to bring their politics into the classroom and use their position as teachers to intimidate or indoctrinate their students. In their Marxist views they may have been cynical about such things yet they couldn't shake their professionalism.

Can you imagine anyone acting that way today? Indeed, I’m confident in asserting that in the social sciences and humanities it is harder for someone who doesn’t toe the hegemonic political line in academia today to get a job or tenure than it was for a Communist in pre-1950 America.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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