As a liberal I am deeply concerned at the illiberal teachings of American public schools today, but what American children are being taught should not be a partisan issue. The liberal view of America was as both a melting pot and a pluralist society. People should not be judged by their skin color but by their skills, beliefs, and achievements. The United States was a great country which had succeeded in large part due to its emphasis on individual liberty.
The job of government was like a referee in a sporting event, to keep things open and reasonably fair by calling penalties, not calling the plays. A government that imposed its will on society would be like the old non-democratic regimes in Europe which the United States had rebelled against and immigrants had left behind..
As for public institutions, like the schools, they should be careful to avoid any indoctrination, either political or religious. Contemporary issues were dealt with cautiously in order to avoid any partisanship. While these ideals weren’t always met, they were attempted with a reasonable degree of success.
Today’s public schools seem quite different and at least in the one my son is attending are following a clear left-wing agenda. If conservatives are outraged by the content of what’s going on, real liberals should be upset by the violation of their basic principles. Yet I find that parents in the public school my son is attending this year usually have no idea of what’s going on or at least no comprehension of its implications.
In many cases, the problem is not so much the individual items but the coherent and deliberate ideological direction of instruction or at least the lack of balance. For example, it’s great that fourth-grade students in Montgomery County, Maryland, are taught the civil rights’ movement song, “We shall overcome” in music class but they haven’t been also taught, say, “America the Beautiful ” or “My Country Tis of Thee.” Something unobjectionable in a broader context–it’s good to learn about the civil rights’ movement–becomes part of a specific design in which other things are omitted completely.
After about four months in this school year these fourth graders have not been taught anything about America except that it has oppressed those from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Native Americans in a variety of ways. They have read three books on the internment of Japanese during World War Two (and any attempt by students to give reasons why it was done or even talk about Japanese atrocities was dismissed by the teacher), as well as books on slavery and African-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans. Is this bad? Not as part of the curriculum but as the entire curriculum?
The ideological context here is that there are two classes of people in America: guilty whites and their non-white victims who are owed a vast debt. The emphasis is not on the success of a system which could make so many changes over time and absorb so many different groups which now constitute a single people. On the contrary, U.S. history is presented as a story of oppression. Note that this is not a conspiracy theory–it is the carefully formulated official curriculum for all schools in the county.
Now the teacher has told them that the election of Barack Obama as president is a great thing because it shows America isn’t racist. But the kids aren’t taught that the American ideal is to believe people should be dealt with as individuals solely based on their behavior and achievement. In other words, a candidate shouldn’t be supported or opposed based on their skin color (or other such factors) but because of character, experience, and stand on issues.
It is unimagineable that a 10-year-old student would dare stand up and give reasons why another candidate should have won. What does this say about the concept of freedom of speech? In fact, the kids were encouraged to parrot the line being given them.
Why should there be advocacy of a specific politician? I think that this is probably the first time in Amerian history that public schoolchildren were taught to support the election of a particular candidate. And it isn’t just respect for the incumbent president. If John McCain had won would the students be taught that it was wonderful for a veteran who had braved torture in a prisoner camp was president? I doubt it.
The absurdity of this way of celebrating Obama’s victory in this way, a year after it happened, is revealed by pointing out it is equally logical to say that if one voted for Hillary Clinton against Obama that makes one a racist but if one voted for Obama against Clinton that make one sexist. Talk about a no-win situation.
Moreover once you tell children that it is a good thing that Obama was elected, that conveys the idea that he must also be elected for a second term. And what if someone criticizes him or opposes his policies, doesn’t the same point apply?
Should this kind of partisan instruction be given fourth graders in a public school when there are lots of other things they can be talking about? Why should teachers be indoctrinating students to support Obama’s election? Is race really the only social studies topic of any importance whatsoever, the only issue in American history?
On another matter, one can see the merit in teaching fourth-grade students that if they are nice they will be popular (though around them they see that this isn’t true); that it is good to give away things; or that one should not show that one is well-off financially because those who can’t afford things will feel bad. But they should also be taught to have a healthy and moral self-interest, that hard study, work, and innovation also gets people more possessions?
The attempt to shape character seems to be replacing academic instruction as the priority in American schools, which led one writer to joke that Americans in the future would be stupid but enjoy high self-esteem.
Then there’s the basic problem with imbalance generally on political issues and concepts. Can one object to students being given three days on climate change and more on environmentalism without being also taught that there are trade-offs involved, that if they want to enjoy high living standards a certain amount of tree-chopping, oil-drilling, and river-damming is necessary?
To give equal time to the made-up and non-existent festival of Kwanzu with Hanukah and Christmas, as this school did, is ridiulous. The apparent purpose of this exercise is to racialize even this matter of holidays. In my opinion, it would be better not to deal with such religious matters at all–which should be left to family and place of worship. But as one of my readers remarked, promoting racial separatism–i.e., Kwanzu–is the whole purpose of the exercise in the first place.
In short, schools should teach a balanced curriculum or stay out of certain areas rather than attempt to indoctrinate 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)