Monday, January 11, 2010

A Mystery: What's Happening in American Schools and Why Aren't Parents Aware of It?

By Barry Rubin

As I contemplate what’s happening now with American schools and Western society in general-- especially ideological indoctrination by schools and seeming parental indifference to it—I’m reminded of a  relevant, true story.

It was in the 1870s or 1880s, a time with many parallels to today. Peretz Smolenskin, a Russian Jewish novelist, editor, and Zionist, was then living in Western Europe. A wealthy Russian Jew visited him to ask advice on what to do with his daughter. She’d been radicalized in school and joined the terrorist revolutionary movement, the People’s Will, which idealized the Russian peasantry. Members were assassinating officials and many were sent to Siberia or executed. The man complained bitterly about his problem.

Smolenskin tried to be sympathetic but was rather irritated and so ended up being quite blunt. The real cause of such problems, he told the father, was a failure of parents, not children:

"How did you bring up your daughter?....You sent her to high school, where she learned about other peoples. Did you teach her about our own people? Did you teach her our own language? Did you interest her in our own history? Did you want her to know about our own people and our own national aspirations? To whom, then, should you bring your complaints, if not to yourself?"

In other words, if you end up being shocked at what your children think doesn't this have something to do with what you have, or haven't taught them?

Responding to my "Life in an American Fourth Grade" series, a number of people in different parts of the country have written about their experiences with public school. One had been told by a student also in the same county school system the following exchange:

Question: What did you learn about WW II?
Answer: About the internment of Japanese-Americans.
Question: Did you learn about [the] Pearl Harbor [attack]?
Answer: No.

Ask yourself why this is being done. In my son's class they read not one, not two, but three books on the internment of the Japanese residents or citizens on the West Coast. It certainly would have been possible to teach about the Pearl Harbor attack; the courage of Americans on Bataan and on Wake Island; and other such things. Why not teach both? (My son says that the Pearl Harbor attack was mentioned in class but only to set the background for the internment.)

But the Pearl Harbor attack creates a problem for the dominant ideology today. It is a case of another, non-white nation attacking the United States. Anyone might conclude that Imperial Japan had acted in a cowardly and dishonorable manner by such a sneak attack in the midst of diplomatic negotiations. Such an attitude could lead to the PC sins of “racism,” “xenophobia,” and “patriotism.” Might someone draw a parallel between December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001? These were “dangers” to be avoided.

The same applies to Japanese torture of Western prisoners, most known in contemporary culture through the film “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” about the building of the “Death Railway” in China. There is a huge body of evidence about such things, which led to the executions of a number of Japanese officials after World War Two on war crimes’ charges. But, again, to show a non-white, non-Western country acting in such a matter might make Americans look down on a differentt, non-white, non-Western society. Parallels to contemporary terrorism and decapitation of Americans kidnapped in Pakistan or Iraq?

The same could be said for another theme, that is, the Japanese oppression of China. In class, the teacher denied a student's question about Japanese atrocities. She said there was no evidence and that, any way, those mistreated had been soldiers, not civilians as in the case of the interned Japanese. While she would be shocked to be accused of this, in effect she was saying that putting Japanese civilians behind barbed wire with no mistreatment was worse than starving, working to death, and using American soldiers for medical experiments. 

A reader wrote me to ask sarcastically whether the teacher had heard about the “rape of Nanking,” one of the most famous Japanese atrocities against China. Probably she hasn't. But at any rate, this theme cannot be dealt with because it shows non-white, non-Westerners acting in an imperialistic and racist fashion toward other non-white, non-Western people. This suggests that such sins are not those of the West alone, another idea the contemporary pedagogues want to avoid.

Finally, something I find fascinating is the very profound American sympathy for China and the Philippines on the basis of their mistreatment by Japan. Certainly, 1940s’ America did not treat these Asians equally, and yet they were seen as heroic people in very human terms. Indeed, I’d argue that the U.S. attempt to help China was a major cause of the Japanese attack. The United States put sanctions on Tokyo precisely to press it to treat China better. Such a theme would show both U.S. sympathy for others, indeed non-whites, and willingness to stick its neck out on an issue of human rights. This contradicts the narrative about America always being in the wrong.

So there are real problems in presenting a balanced picture of the Second World War in the Pacific. The European side is much easier since the Nazis were both racists and right-wingers. The only problem here is to avoid saying anything negative about the Soviet Union and the Communists.

A reader who is the child of Holocaust survivors was shocked to discover in a school of education mainstream texts that compared the housing projects of American cities to concentration camps. An education expert asked his son if he knew who George Washington was, to which his son replied: “You mean George Washington Carver?”

In place of liberal views that American society should transcend race through equal treatment has come the radical left position that society should be organized along racialist lines while America should be portrayed systematically as the oppressor and its history as a series of shameful incidents. Ironically, both social class and gender issues have been swept aside in this campaign.

Other readers recorded the implicit decline in freedom of speech by saying their children took it for granted that they should not write about certain topics or viewpoints either because they knew they would be derided for having a different perspective or feared getting a bad grade.

There are also readers who told me about problems on the quality of education being offered. One doctoral student was told by an advisor that archival research was irrelevant. Another was warned that the well-known university he attended would not accept a thesis on Islamist thought since this category was just an invention of Zionists (which would be quite a surprise to millions of Islamists).

Another reader sent me a study he had done on math instruction which concluded: “The situation went from bad in 1998 to worse in 2005 and 2006 for all ethnic groups, but there were more dramatic downturns for African-American and Hispanic students.” One reason for this was that instruction was tailored to get students good scores on state tests, which in turn made the schools, administrators, and teachers look good even though it left students more poorly prepared.

My initiation into this issue came from thousands of miles away when my daughter was taking the SAT at an exceptionally early age to qualify for an on-line writing program being offered by an American university. I leafed through the booklet provided by the testing service, examining sample questions used in previous tests. I was shocked to see the political bias to the left—and I don’t mean liberal—side evinced in many questions. Others were political neutral, but none were tilted in any other direction. When I took such tests years ago they were carefully written to avoid any politicization.

This does not mean everything about contemporary public schools is bad by any means, and of course the situation depends on the state, specific school, and even individual teacher in many ways.

Yet I still don’t get it: Why aren’t hundreds, even thousands, of parents asking their children what happened each day in school and writing about it? The answers I get include: parents are working harder and have less time, they assume everything is fine, the kids don't tell them much, they think it is futile to object, and they fear complaints will lead to the lowering of their children's grades. Some parents, of course, have turned to home schooling which is an admirable, but also a drastic, alternative.

One thing is clear, though: anyone who ridicules the idea that there is serious indoctrination going on in public schools has simply not done research by simply talking with the students.

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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