Friday, September 25, 2009

Where’s America? Where are the Americans? Life in a Fourth-Grade Public School

By Barry Rubin

My son who is 10 years old is going to the Montgomery County school system in Maryland this year to give him some wider experience after having all of his previous education in either Israeli or Jewish community schools. It certainly is an experience!

In some ways, it seems like a parody of multiculturalism. My children are tough, well-informed and have strong characters, largely informed by an Israeli world view. But they also have a very American persona, though one that may be becoming increasingly rare among upper middle class elite counterparts.

Here are some highlights of fourth-grade life in Montgomery County for my son:

--He wrote a fantasy genre story in which there was violence (quite a good story by the way). The teacher refused to let him read it because it included violence and said that this was not permitted. He received another warning after his second such story.

--Two units on man-made global warming as a fact with no indication that it is still an unproven and controversial issue. Children are told that unless carbon emissions are vastly reduced the oceans will rise, large parts of the land will be flooded, catastrophe will ensue.

--But there was no commemoration for the September 11 terrorist attacks that killed around 3,000 Americans (including a number of local people). When my son brought it up and complained, he was allowed to speak two minutes at which point the teacher interrupted him and said that now they would discuss some happier subject.

--Another student in his class, a Nigerian Christian, on finding out that he was from Israel said in private conversation between them that she’d heard Israel “was one of the worst countries in the world.” (My daughter had a parallel experience while attending a summer course at an elite Washington private school.)

--They had a session in which they were told that the “Golden Rule” is observed by people all over the world. This is an ironic example of multiculturalism as provincialism since of course it is a specifically (in the version they were being taught) Christian concept. In addition, while “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” can be a good social and ethical guideline (though don’t try it with con-men, sociopaths, etc) it is a very bad concept for international relations.

Those trying to defeat you in war or conquer you or get the advantage of you in a trade deal (hundreds of examples could be offered) don’t want you to treat them in the same way they treat you.

Under Islamic Sharia law, there are very different treatments of the two genders, for example. This law is based not on individual preferences or reason but on what is believed to be divine legislation.

--But the apex of his indoctrination so far is the “Schedule of Book Projects, October 2009." No, I’m not making this up. Here’s the entire plan:

“October 22 (Thurs.) Fiction book about an Hispanic American OR Native American (American Indians).

Jan. 14 (Thurs.) Non-fiction OR Fiction about an African-American or a book with the setting in Africa

March 18 (Thurs) Non-fiction book on the topic of your choice

May 27 (Thurs) Fiction novel placed in Asia or about Asian Americans.”

Where to begin?

Learning to know about and respect minority groups is certainly worthwhile but it should never be the center of the educational process. First, establish your own identity and understand your own society as a whole, then go into details, sub-cultures (a word which expresses an outdated view of a pluralist rather than multiculturalist society!) and only after you do that phase should you go on to compare it to other societies.

Note that this is not defined as a unit on international literature or learning about other countries and cultures (which would be more understandable and quite reasonable in a balanced context) but as their main interaction with literature, at least for the first half of the year.

There’s nothing whatsoever on the majority of Americans (70 percent or so?) who don’t’ fall into any of these groups and are now reduced to being their own “other.” Perhaps more important, there’s nothing about Americans as such. Americans don’t exist as a category; there is no overall experience or culture in this concept. (The school, of course, could pretend that this is to be covered in the one out of four book of choice but there is no indication that this is intended).

Yet perhaps the most egregious problem is this one: these aren't defined as novels with a range of characters—including Native American or Hispanic or Asian or African-American ones—mixing together in American society but take each group as if it is in a separate (dare we say, “segregated”) world of their own. Yes, in a sense—I don’t want to exaggerate here—it’s a return to the pre-civil rights days. What is multi-culturalism, after all, but a revised version of “separate but equal” societies?

There are tremendous political and psychological implications to such an approach that I will let you fill in for yourselves. But it is worth noting that America succeeded brilliantly as a melting pot, as a country with a unified worldview but freedom for groups to maintain their own organizations, customs (within reason), and beliefs.

Recently, I engaged a graduate student in a discussion about Judaism. She only had one question that interested her (and it was not based on personal interest, which would have been understandable): That life must have been difficult for homosexuals in past centuries.

Now there is nothing wrong with raising this as one issue to discuss, but I realize that in her education only that which is more marginal and minority is paramount. The majority experience or mainstream ideas was of little interest. And of course on such secondary issues any system could be made to seem illegitimate and oppressive.

Has America provided wonderful lives, tremendous freedom, high living standards?

Yes, many students are being taught today but that's not important. What's important is that it discriminated against African-, Hispanic-, and Asian-Americans.

But didn't it work hard to correct these problems? Didn't hundreds of thousands die in a Civil War to abolish slavery? Didn't the system fix itself in response to--in all honesty--rather low-level pressure and a call to conscience by the civil rights movement? Hasn't it leaned over backwards to provide equality?

Yes, many students are being taught today but that's not important. What's important is that only the left worked to change things and there's still racism today. (Even the smallest, most marginal is made to assume tremendous proportions.)

Wasn't America a unique society where people from many backgrounds could blend together to create a common culture, worldview and polity through what was called a "melting pot"?

Huh, many students can say after being taught. What's a melting pot?

In the same way, all America’s achievements could be invalidated by the situation of various sub-groups. Even the fact that it had allowed for the recognition of all of these problems and the solution of many of them did not count if any “oppression” could be found (or invented) to still exist.

For example, the fact that racism in America has probably declined by 90 percent over the last half-century (the number cannot be proven but the proportion seems reasonable) did not say anything great about the United States. Even the election of an African-American president might only be the occasion for acting as if racism had greatly increased.

In addition to all that, however, something else struck me on hearing all of this, as well as from my son’s cross-cultural observations. Aside from the subtle indoctrination to the left and the quite open indoctrination to multiculturalism, there is a kind of naïve-making process. These children are not being prepared for the world as it is but rather a cocoon in which they are taught to harbor unreal expectations and unworkable methods.

So the bottom line is this: the structure of the world view and skills being taught is similar to what went on in the 1950s, albeit without the patriotic aspects and confidence in their own civilization.

The destruction of the commonality of experience, the very concept of mainstream, is terrible. The dissolution of the concept of America is terrible. The creation of a foundation on which college professors can later add a superstructure of saying that America stinks, Western civilization stinks, capitalism stinks, is terrible. The creation of a generation of naifs unable to deal with a tough real world and an even tougher global world is terrible.

No wonder Bill Ayres, former but unrepentant Weatherman terrorist, close friend and apparently key political patron of Barak Obama’s early career is now putting his efforts as a professor into designing the public school curriculum.

Of course, things are much more complex and mixed than these generalizations indicate. It is easy to exaggerate. There will be a U.S. history unit later in the year, though such a thing should come before the current reading project. When we get there I’ll tell you about that one. I’ll just mention for now that a correspondent whose kids go to a school in the western United States told me they covered 1492 to 1789 in one week.

Yet there are worrisome trends and a lack of consciousness about what is being done and why it’s wrong that may grow even worse in time.

When asked about the main goals of their educational effort, the principal at another local school said that the most important was to teach children self-esteem. Yet what about social, civilizational, and national self-esteem?

Of course, they won’t even know what their civilization is, why it has been great, and how to sustain it. That is extraordinarily dangerous and troubling. This is an area, and an era, in which parents—especially the educated and affluent--take a tremendous interest in their children’s schooling. They want them to be advanced in everything, to get into good colleges, and they often arrange extra courses for them.

But how about the values and self-image they are being taught?

PS: A non-American colleague who is currently in his local Massachusetts public school and has no political ax to grind, tells me that during the election campaign students were openly intimidated if they said they supported McCain. He said: "You see such things on Fox and think they are marginal phenomena, but there's a huge amount like this going on."

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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