Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Life in an American Fourth Grade: George Washington’s and Abe Lincoln’s Twelve Minutes of Fame

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By Barry Rubin

I’ve been waiting to see how my son's fourth-grade class dealt with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln on the occasion of their birthdays. Finally, the topic came up today.

There was a free period in which students could read whatever book they wanted. One boy, a foreign student (not an immigrant), was looking at a book containing short biographies of every U.S. president. Seeing him the teacher said something about, oh yes, we shouldn't let this occasion slip by. She took the book and read the class the short entries about these two presidents.

Does this mean that if a foreign student, realizing he wasn't learning anything about America's history, hadn't been reading the book nothing at all would have been done in class? That's what appears to be the case. Certainly, the teacher had nothing prepared whatsoever regarding Washington and Lincoln. She just picked up the book the boy was reading and then read the short section to the class.

For the teacher to read these two entries took only about ten minutes. This was followed by a very brief discussion, which my son estimates took two minutes. That’s it for George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Interesting question: Does the Montgomery County, Maryland, curriculum tell teachers to do something about Washington and Lincoln or not? What's happening elsewhere? Is there any interest in teaching young Americans to take pride in their country, feel patriotism, and learn fully about why the United States has arguably been the most successful democracy in history? Not that I can see.

Then the class returned to one of the two favorite interlinked topics that have taken up more than 90 percent of the social studies' time. The two topics are: American racism, that is, mistreatment of other racial groupings, and immigrants (recent ones, not historical immigration). The only other topic discussed at any length has been global warming.

Please understand that this is NOT an exaggeration and it is NOT a satire. I have been asking about what happened every day after school and--except for a homework handout involving learning the names of the thirteen original colonies and a couple of dates--this has been the sum total of social studies during five months of class. There has not been a word in praise of America's political or economic system, or its culture and society. We aren't talking about a balanced assessment nor about just rah-rah America without any criticism. We are talking about nothing but negative evaluations of the United States (at least as it was before November 2008), with a very small number of neutral ones thrown in.

And so immediately after the short reading, a short film was shown to the class about four immigrants, coming from El Salvador, Togo, Taiwan, Russia (thus covering Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Europe equally). My son asked about illegal immigration. This set off the class which began talking about various anecdotes or things they had seen. The teacher told them to stop it and added that this wasn’t the subject of discussion at the moment. There was nothing objectionable about the film as such, thus the focus on three topics to the exclusion of everything else.

Teaching kids that they should not be racist and that (legal) immigration is a good thing is quite reasonable. Teaching them almost nothing else about the American system or history (except that it is characterized by slavery and racism) isn’t. Once again I ask: Aren't any other parents simply asking their kids what happens in class every day and being shocked by the answers?

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). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. 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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