Simple Answers To A Complex World: Teaching The Middle East
By: Noah Robertson/Arab America Contributing Writer
It is well known that the education system in the U.S. has long been criticized for whitewashing history and offering overly simplistic explanations of people, places, and events. As a result of pressure from various groups there have been improvements on some topics, but the accuracy of teaching the Middle East has not improved. The Middle East is a deeply complex region, but is often misrepresented, underexplained, and at times completely ignored. There are many solutions to teaching the Middle East more accurately, but first there are many problems to address.
Important note: Using the term “Middle East” is Eurocentric and dated but for our purposes we will use it since it is the term educators use.
Whitewashed Textbooks: A Widespread Problem
The problem of textbooks not including enough non-Western centric history and describing complex events, people, or regions too simplistically exists at all levels of education; some states/school districts are admittedly worse than others. One of the main contributors to pervasive biases are textbooks. With a large majority of textbooks from four publishing companies they cannot be too controversial without losing revenue and typically are barely updated between editions. Not only does the content come from a limited source, but in 19 states the state approves textbooks, which isa political process. Even for states with school boards approving textbooks, they are still subject to ideological leanings and political lobbying.
While some lobbying has resulted in more accurate discussions on many important topics, there is a major hole in the history of the Middle East. One study looking at major social studies textbooks found that not only is the Middle East only briefly mentioned, but the region is portrayed as a once great area now in shambles with endless conflicts, sand, and terrorists. In a world history textbook used in Fairfax County classrooms, published by McGraw-Hill a major publisher, the Middle East is described by saying, “Much of the terrorism in the Middle East is aimed against the West.” This statement is a perfect example of the way the Middle East is portrayed in textbooks, with sweeping generalizations, little context or details, and playing into common media portrayals.
Not Just the Textbooks
While textbooks are a problem they alone do not teach about the Middle East and it matters how teachers use them and what they share outside of the book. Unfortunately for many educators, especially those below higher education, they must rely on textbooks to fill in gaps in their knowledge base; the Middle East is one of many examples. With a biased textbook this is a problem. Another issue is that teachers are encouraged to teach to the test in K-12 education, which results in quick jumps from lesson to lesson and broad generalizations. The Middle East is far too complex to be broken down into a two week unit and properly taught.
A lack of pre-existing knowledge and time is further exacerbated by a lack of resources/support on how to teach the Middle East. Teachers at all levels have to go out of their way to find content to help students understand the region properly.
Teaching the Middle East in Higher Education: Additional Barriers
All this said, to teach the Middle East is a struggle in K-12 education. In higher education, classes can be devoted to the Middle East and taught by subject-area experts, but there are other barriers they encounter. One is the censoring of discussions about the Middle East. Specifically, there are major lobbying groups pushing to align Middle East discussions with U.S. foreign policy, Zionist groups, and simply those who believe America is being vilified. Anexample is California’s passage of CA-HR 35, which prohibits anti-Semitism in the classroom. This is of course essential,but people have taken advantage of the legal protection it provides to curb academic freedom in Middle East courses.
Another recent example occurred at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill during a joint UNC-Duke conference on Gaza. During the conference satirical comments, from a Palestinian rapper about anti-Semitism, and critical comments about Israel’s role in Gaza’s struggles were reported. Though many agreed they were taken out of context, and the discussions were fully within academic discourse, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos used this as an excuse to push an agenda. She ordered the UNC-Duke Middle East program to focus on more “positive” imagery of Judaism and Christianity in the region. Terms like “occupied”, “war for independence”, “Islamism”, and others have become highlypoliticized and especially in more conservative areas educators who use them in the “wrong” context are defunded and their academic freedom curbed. Wrong too often means using them at all.
Along with intense lobbying to control curriculums on the Middle East, most collegeintroductory courses have to dedicate much of the class to overcoming biases and stereotypes. The average student will only take one or two college courses on the Middle East, if any, and the region is far more complex and cannot be explained so quickly. Along with this, only students who want to learn more about the Middle East take these classes meaning many biases are never addressed.
How Teachers Are Teaching the Middle East
Despite these barriers, teachers especially in higher education, have found ways to help students learn about the Middle East and hopefully spark a long-term interest in learning more. Numerous teachers use non-fiction literature, films, and interviews to give a non-Western perspective of the region. They then pair this content with open and honest Socratic seminars about different government policies and current/historical events. Other teachers work to focus on the rich histories of Middle Eastern countries through food, art, music, etc. and take the narrative away from the violence and conflict the media focuses on. Almost all professors comment on how finding good, unbiased materials is difficult but necessary to inform, but not tell, so students can draw their own conclusions.
Despite many problems with education of the Middle East there is hope. The National Arab American Women’s Association launched a committee to address misconceptions and misrepresentations with Fairfax County Schools. This may be only one school board, but people are working towards change. There is also more awareness being spread about the Middle East and more studies being conducted to reveal the disparities in how some regions of the world are taught compared to others. In addition, our increasingly online world provides more resources for teachers to discuss the Middle East honestly and accurately.
How Can You Help?
A full-honest narrative about the Middle East needs to be taught and anyone can help. Parents can push their school boards or state education committees to provide more accurate and complete textbooks. Students should also go out of their way to think critically and find additional resources on what they study. Overall, this is another issue people need to be active on and advocate for to make a lasting change, so that students learn about the Middle East as it really is.
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