Textbooks, Lies, and Vulnerable Kids
Last week, a panel convened in Newton, Massachusetts, the well-heeled suburb of Boston. Newton, which Barney Frank represented in Congress for decades, is the epicenter for Jewish liberals, who spring up like gluten-free organic mushrooms on the lawns of Tudor mansions. But some of their multicultural sanctimony is wearing a trifle thin -- at least for those few who care. Their textbooks, it seems, are pockmarked with anti-Israel bias.
This is not a new problem for Newton. Last year, a student at Newton South High School was perplexed by a passage from the chapter she was assigned in her World History class, a chapter called "Women, an Essay," from a supplemental text called the Arab World Studies Notebook. In a paragraph devoted to women "in the struggle for independence from colonial powers," she found:
Over the past four decades, women have been active in the Palestinian movement. Several hundred have been imprisoned, tortured, and killed by Israeli occupation forces since the latest uprising, "intifada," in the Israeli occupied territories.
This represents a slice of what is known as taqiyya -- telling falsehoods for Islam -- and when the word got around, a small but determined group of parents took up the cudgel. They attended school committee meetings, badgered the superintendent and mayor, and wrote letters and columns for local newspapers. Ultimately, the offending text was dropped. But alas, the serpent will not die. A notice from the group, calling themselves Parents for Excellence in Newton Schools, tells of a film shown to students, The Hajj, which states that rabbis and priests are intermediaries between worshipers and God, whereas Islam is free of this problem (whatever that may mean). Moreover, the school committee and superintendent have been, to put it mildly, dragging their heels.
So the aforementioned panel, held at Temple Emanuel, a posh Newton Conservative synagogue, was timely indeed. Featured speakers were Sandra Stotsky, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas and author of The Stealth Curriculum, and Ben Chaika, director of curriculum at the Institute for Curriculum Services (ICA) in San Francisco. The moderator was Rachel Fish, a doctoral candidate and staff member at Brandeis. Rachel will be remembered as the spunky graduate student, then at Harvard's Divinity School, who in 2004 almost singlehandedly shamed Harvard into returning a $2.5-million gift from UAE president Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, known for his sponsorship of anti-Semitic invective.
Sandra Stotsky led off by asking rhetorically why bias flourishes in American textbooks. First and obviously, she said, many teachers from kindergarten through high school simply don't have the historical knowledge to counter the factual errors -- deliberate or otherwise -- in their teaching materials. According to The Trouble With Textbooks by Tobin and Ybarra:
Nationwide 44% of middle-grade classes in core academic subjects are assigned to a teacher who lacks even a college minor in the subject being taught. ... Nearly one-fourth (24%) of all high school courses in core academic subjects are taught by someone lacking an undergraduate or graduate major in the field.
Stotsky deplored the "low bar" in teaching standards, but, she said, not only are Middle Eastern studies, including the history of Islam and Israel, beyond the purviews of most teachers, but "very little thought is given to factual U.S. history, either." She admitted that hers was a "very barren and caustic" view, but she said that things are getting even worse -- with a "disaster" looming ahead, "an intellectual vacuum" in teaching standards.
She mentioned too the lack of responsibility on the part of publishers and editors, reminding the audience that, like it or not, the pressure group with the most cash, clout, and resources is still Saudi Arabia. Many of Newton's teachers have had the pleasure of a free week of indoctrination at Harvard's Saudi-funded Center for Middle Eastern Studies, where they are given the Arab World Studies Notebook and other texts, as well as learning how to go on hajj, how to pronounce verses from the Qur'an, and other useful tools for public-school teaching.
Add to Saudi largesse the pernicious legacy of the faux-Palestinian Edward Said, whose fallacy-laden book Orientalism continues to exert its malign influence on education and textbooks. "Orientalism," wrote Said, "is a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the west." Orientalism is "all aggression" against the vulnerable Other, and for that and other specious reasons, only a Middle Easterner is qualified to teach about the Middle East.
Which brings us to the widespread and often-misplaced sympathy for the oppressed, according to which, of course, the Jew is traditionally the oppressor. The new in-word, said Stolsky -- joining the buzzword "narrative" -- is "perspective." In a history course, then, our facts will be deemed our "perspective," while their falsehoods will be similarly received. Stotsky, whose latest book is The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum, illustrated the problem in lit courses with a poem, "Identity Card," by Mahmoud Darwish, which appears in a textbook designed for an advanced high school lit-comp course. The last two stanzas read:
Put it on record,
I am an Arab.
You stole my forefathers' vineyards
And land I used to till,
I and all my children,
And you left us and all my grandchildren
Nothing but these rocks.
Will your government be taking them too
As is being said?
Put it on record at the top of page one:
I don't hate people
I trespass on no one's property.
And yet, if I were to become hungry
I shall eat the flesh of my usurper.
Beware, beware of my hunger
And of my anger!
Much of what is happening in literature and social studies (and even math courses!), says Stotsky, can be traced back to the Brazilian Marxist Paolo Freire, whose 1970 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a handbook of colonizing vs. decolonizing, of learning vs. unlearning, of oppressed vs. oppressor, has achieved "near-iconic status in America's teacher-training programs," according to Wiki.
The other speaker, Ben Chaika, was a little gentler on teachers, citing their basic neutrality, limited time, and many demands. "You can't expect them to be expert in something as nuanced as Israeli history," said he. Yet it was Chaika who graciously provided free paperback editions of The Trouble With Textbooks, which presents multiple examples of anti-Israel bias. Here's a dandy one, from World History: The Human Journey, Modern World (Holt) -- a teacher-led classroom exercise from the chapter "The Arab-Israeli Confrontation":
[Bellringer symbol] LET'S GET STARTED! As students enter the classroom, ask them to imagine that the United States was structured so that only members of a certain religion could hold leadership positions in government and that all laws were based on that religion's beliefs. Call on class members to suggest social and political problems that might arise from such an arrangement. Ask students if they would like to live in such a society and to explain why or why not they feel as they do.
What to do? Chaika mentioned his own organization, ICA, and three instances of egregious bias in textbooks that through the efforts of ICA were edited out or changed. He also credited groups like CAMERA, whose executive director, Andrea Levin, was in the audience, with its numerous efforts, including creating its own curriculum, Eyes on Israel, to "help students reconcile perceptions with fact." The agencies ICA works with are the local Jewish Community Relations Councils, he said, of which the ICA is a project of the San Francisco branch. There was a tiny, polite titter in the audience at that, because of longstanding problems with the Boston JCRC, which, among other disputed decisions, has accepted J Street as a member. Whispered one member of Parents for Excellence, "Funny -- they haven't done a damn thing for us."
One activist, feisty grandmother Margot Einstein, who took the issue to local TV, wrote in The Jewish Journal that getting rid of The Arab World Studies Notebook was no easy task:
We appeared at almost all the school committee meetings, and protested at a public forum. The school committee cried "Academic freedom!" We answered: "Academic freedom does not entail a right to lie, misinform and propagandize."
She added that a deputy superintendent had indicated to her that "neither parents nor anyone else were permitted to view any material used by students, [that] Newton public school policy will not change, and that if we do not like these policies we are free to find other schools."
Not surprisingly, Matt Hills, the vice chairman (or, as they say in Newton, vice-chair) of the Newton School Committee, replied in a guest column in the local newspaper, the TAB:
Recently a small but vocal group of residents and non-residents have leveled accusations against our school system. ... Some of the accusations have included what I consider to be offensive and bigoted comments about Muslims and Islam, comments which have no place in any community[.] ...
The McCarthy-ite tactic of waving an unopened book and claiming it is filled with terrible prejudices does not mean that the book actually contains such biased material. ... [I]t is inappropriate to alter our curriculum in order to appease particular agendas. I find the notion that we use such hateful material and indoctrinate our students with anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish and anti-Israel biases to be ridiculous.
In turn, activist Charles Jacobs of Newton, president of Americans for Peace and Tolerance, finds the notion of Matt Hills ridiculous. Jacobs too was given the brush-off by the School Committee, where the chairwoman said the citizens shouldn't get worked up about "opinions you don't agree with." Jacobs writes:
Newton schools would never present the KKK's hateful "opinions" about blacks, or Islamist opinions about gays or women. And Matt Hills would never, ever call concerned black parents, or gay or women's groups "McCarthyites."
Jacobs makes the altogether sensible suggestion that "Newton taxpayers and parents should expect the school committee to promote openness and transparency and share all texts, study guides, handouts and class curriculums online."
High expectations? The end of anti-Semitic bias? We must wait and see.