Saturday, April 10, 2010

Life in an American Fourth Grade: The Months of the Year Are Politicized

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By Barry Rubin

Having had Asian, African, African-American, and South American months, it's now Arab-American month. Not there's anything wrong with that.

The theme could be, should be, that America is a great country. Yes, there were periods of discrimination against various newly arrived groups--a problem that goes back to the coming of Irish Catholics and just about every immigrating group, even those that were white, faced--and a very long one against those who arrived as slaves which persisted even long after they were freed. But the democratic and open system overcame all of those shortcomings pretty quickly, except for the latter case which took a very long time. And once overcome, equal opportunity quickly became available and people were integrated into the society with amazing success. No other country in the world has achieved such a thing. Isn't that a remarkable story?

Instead, though, the contents have been used not just to glorify the contribution of each such group and include the problems faced but to make the almost total theme criticizing the United States as innately bigoted and mean-spirited. Again, though, different places have different approaches. A colleague tells me that his fifth-grader in Pennsylvania was assigned to memorize the Gettysberg Address. In this fourth-grade classroom, however, the name Abraham Lincoln has barely, if at all, been uttered.

On Friday, the class was read a book whose title is Saladin: The Noble Prince of Islam. [You can read the first page by clicking on the link.] It describes his upbringing, education in Islam, and his life generally. My informant tells me that the book explains that Saladin taught the Muslims how to like the Christians until the Christians invaded in a "religious frenzy." I cannot verify it says that but this is what he heard.

Presumably, there will be no reading about The Noble Soul of Richard the Lion-Hearted: King of Christian England [I made that title up] or any balancing material. The Crusaders did some bad things; the Muslims did some bad things. But these students will only hear about the former. They will not be told that it was military pressure by Islamic states on Byzantium whose ruler begged his fellow Christians for salvation, the Muslim seizure of Jerusalem, and their cutting off of direct trade from Europe which were among the factors starting the wars.

There are three basic options to teaching about this to young people:

A: The Christians were right and the Muslims were wrong.
B. The Muslims were right and the Christians were wrong.
C. An accurate accont of what happened and in the course of events both sides did things right and wrong or--without putting a right or wrong on it--just say what they did do.

In the West, Option A was often taught historically. Today, at least in this classroom, Option B is taught. If anything, Option C should be taught.

Of course, teaching fourth-graders this piece of history--when nothing about what Lincoln did just ten miles away from the schoolroom--is no mere matter of chance. It is intended to have an effect on these children's view of today and recent history. It plays right into the evil imperialist West versus the good and innocent Muslims (and Third World peoples generally) narrative that is being presented more widely.

In the minds of ten-year-olds what else possibly is going to be formed by such indoctrination? The Crusaders become identified with the Americans. Remember that the term "Crusader" is often applied to the United States by radical Islamists, notably Usama bin Ladin and his colleagues. Such analogies are justifications for anti-American--and anti-Western and anti-Israel--terrorism.

There is still another problem with the approach being taken: turning history into a morality play. What's perhaps even more important is that students should be taught to understand the clash of nations and peoples results from a search for their own security, conflicting claims, and ambitious visions. In itself these are not necessarily moral issues. The content of the society--its ideas, behavior, and political system--is what brings in moral questions.

People tend naturally to believe that their own side is right. This tendency must be curbed by teaching how to be more open-minded, inculcating an ability to stand back and be more objective. Yet if this becomes teaching people that their side is always wrong, that not only goes against what I might call the gravity of human nature but is also wrong in terms of honesty and intellectual values. It is very wrong when a basically good society is being subverted.

There is nothing at all liberal about this approach. The liberal approach is Option C above. Why is the situation today in intellectual life so bad? It isn't because just conservative values are being so often trashed. It's because both conservative and liberal values are being simultaneously trashed by a radical ideology which as protective cover portrays itself as liberal. It's because the values and methods that are the very basis of democracy--a passion for accuracy, honest striving for objectivity, courage in preserving open debate, eagerness for fair balance, willingness to teach people to ask questions rather than to ram down their throats prefabricated "correct" answers--are so often violated.

The fact is that there isn't going to be in public schools a Christian or Jewish month; or a Caucasian month; or a Polish, Irish, English, or Italian month; or a male month; or an America-is-great month, or a democracy-is-good-and-dictatorship-is-bad month, or a free-enterprise-has-given-us-high-living-standards-and-a-lot-of-real-social-justice month, or a Western civilization month, or a Constitution month, or a federalism month, or a terrorism-is-bad month. All the more need, then, for a reasonable balance in what is taught about these things.

If a huge percentage of the curriculum focusing on "other" communities is implicitly portraying this above-mentioned list of groups and ideas as bad, there isn't going to be any redress elsewhere during the school year. Thus, if they learn that Japanese-Americans were interned during World War Two but not that the Japanese side in the war tortured and murdered Americans or if they learn that Christian Crusaders were aggressive but not that Muslim Saracens were, this is a one-sided story that is going to produce some terrible results.

Once again, one bad deed does not justify another, nor are all bad deeds necessarily equal. Japanese-Americans were not responsible for what the Japanese government and army did. But providing more than a one-sided view does teach us that all people are capable of good and bad, that none is innately superior. Isn't that what tolerance and anti-racism is all about?

But to teach systematically that non-Americans, non-Christians, non-whites are pretty much always good and that the other side is pretty much always bad is a form of--guess what!--racism, national chauvinism, and religious bigotry, isn't it?

There is nothing wrong with giving praise to various previously neglected groups. By the way, though, it should be remembered that children today are growing up in the twenty-first century and are not being socialized during the era of slavery or segregation or the British Empire and the concept of the white man's burden. There doesn't have to be some desperate attempt to persuade them that--to quote a neglected document--"all men [in the sense of all people] are created equal." They know that already.

A democratic society that teaches a large proportion of its students that its own society, values, and history are always good is making a mistake that will have some real costs. A democratic society that teaches a large proportion of its students that its own society, values, and history is evil is committing suicide.

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