Friday, September 10, 2010

Life in an American Fifth Grade: It’s September 11 So Let’s Study Kenya!

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By Barry Rubin

Last year there was no discussion at all of September 11 in fourth grade. When my son requested one he was allowed to speak for a few minutes and then the teacher cut him off, saying that now they would talk about more pleasant things.

This year there was something done to commemorate September 11. The teacher read the students a book, 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy with Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah. It’s a nice story, ven worth reading, but questionable as the entire program in response to the September 11 attacks.

Naiyomah from Kenya--this is a true story--was a student in the United States during the September 11 attacks. When he returned home, he told fellow Masai in their village about the terrible events. So they decided to dedicate 14 cows from their herd in honor of the Americans killed and hurt in the attacks. The cows stay in the village and are treated like the other cows, the Masai drink the milk but don’t kill them. The U.S. ambassador came for a ceremony.

It’s a nice story about human solidarity. Asked what he thought the message was, my son responded that they were saying no country is strong enough to stand by itself.

But that was it. Presumably, the origin and motives of the terrorists wasn’t mentioned at all. So is this education about September 11 that is going to teach the kids anything about that specific event? Do they learn anything about the major international conflict of their lifetimes, of the event that set off American soldiers fighting today in Iraq and Afghanistan?

The fact that there was no discussion at all—just the reading of the book—shows that the students’ worldview is to be kept inside “acceptable” limits.

Again, I don’t think reading this book was a bad thing at all but it shouldn’t be the only activity. Of course, too, it is clear that the goal is to get children to love people in other countries and cultures. Nothing is wrong with that. But the idea there can be also conflict or hatred emanating from abroad is forbidden. After all, the kids might then—the ultimate sin—hate someone else and grow up to burn Korans or something.

Well, I don't suppose there is an American children's book entitled, A Lot of Candy Handed Out in the West Bank to Celebrate September 11, though, who knows, maybe Hamas has published something like that for its schools in the Gaza Strip.

Here’s the teacher’s guide for the 14 Cows book. The main proposed class activity is problem-solving: The cows want the adventure of going to America, so how do they get to New York and what do they do there?

True, one of the suggested questions in the Guide is, “What does September 11 mean to you?” But that wasn’t asked. I’d have loved to hear how the students answered that one.

Pretty much all of the other material however, relates to studying Africa, not studying September 11 or learning about those who died or those who were heroes. So pretty much what this amounts to is a chance to learn about Africa and the Masai, again a perfectly fine activity but not exactly focused on things like terrorist attacks, radical Islamism, American patriotism, and stuff like that, right? How about a story on the courageous New York fire-fighters, or the ordinary Americans who fought back against  the hijackers who took over their plane?

One might say that 11-year-olds should be shielded from hatred and violence. That sounds like a good idea in principle, but given Play-Station, X-Box, television, etc., the idea that this is what’s happening is a joke.

I asked my son what he believes to be the effect of all of this. This is precisely what he said word-for-word:

“People frequently ask me if the students accept everything they are told. The answer is `yes.’ A discussion in school is that the teacher talks, everyone agreed and if someone disagrees—which would be me—would be put down immediately or the subject would be changed. You should see the kids’ eyes. They believe everything the teacher says.”

To a large extent, this is inevitable. That makes it all the more important for a three-dimensional, two-sided picture to be presented.

PS: He recently went to see paper money being made at a U.S. Treasury facility and when a high school student in the tour group saw Benjamin Franklin’s face on a bill he asked who Franklin was. My son was appalled.

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). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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