I saw a story come up in my feeder the other day and I have to say, I was shocked. The title is clearly provocative and the content is vitriolic. The article, from a self-proclaimed “powerful” conservative source (I appreciate the honesty), discusses a “World Geography” class in Texas that dressed students in burqas and were instructed to “no longer call those who commit terrorist acts terrorists [instead they] were to be called freedom fighters.” Finally, the students were assigned to write an essay, based on a Washington Post story, that Egypt’s problems are due to democracy, not the Muslim Brotherhood. Evidently the lesson plan came from a “controversial” electronic curriculum system. The article goes proceeds to give significant words to a vocal critic of the system saying that it “without question promoting the Islamic religion.” The evidence includes teaching that Allah is God, reading selected texts from the Qur’an, and “proselytizing”. The final damning piece of evidence is a photograph that was posted to Facebook (and reproduced below).
The Lumberton Independent School District posted a response to the photo and the uproar and some bits are worth quoting: “[the lesson] informed students to the customary culture of the people in the Middle East”. It then goes on to cite the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills from the Texas Education Agency (essentially, the desired learning outcomes) for World Geography, “Culture. The student understands the distribution, patterns, and characteristics of different cultures.” Of course, this leads that “damning” picture. Or does it?
As the Lumberton ISD response points out, and as we can see closely in the picture behind the students, all three principle religions in the Middle East show up on the white board, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. The principle breakdowns of each religion are also shown, Sunni/Shi’a, Reformed/Conservative/Orthodox, Catholic/Orthodox/Protestant. As for the students in typical Middle Eastern garments, the ISD says that this was only meant to reflect the variations on customary attire.
While I think the dressing of students in garments is questionable (if not stupid, given the easily misconstrued narrative that the picture provides), I agree with the ISD. Its clear from the white board that the discussion focused around religion in a particular area of the globe. This is a legitimate World Geography exercise. What’s harder to explain is the charges of rebranding “terrorists” as “freedom fighters”. While clearly one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist, I don’t think either term should be used at school. Why? Because they’re loaded at this point, they come with a lot of baggage. No one can say “you’re a terrorist” and simply mean “the method in which you fight asymmetrically is to instill terror in the target populace”. Calling someone a “terrorist” is the modern day equivalent of a “communist” in the McCarthy era. Do terrorists exist? Of course they do, a lot do. Are they freedom fighters? I’m sure a lot of them think they area, and I’m sure a lot of the people who believe in their political ideology think they are too. Thus, I think militant would be an appropriate word for a school setting, it captures the violent aspect of the occupation while leaving behind the emotional baggage.
And yes, Allah is God. Allah literally translates as “God.” Though I’m making excuses here, reading selected texts from the Qur’an is rather strange and these allegations aren’t refuted in the Lumberton ISD response. A December 2012 memorandum from the company contests that its detractors are taken its lesson plans out of context and misinterpreting them.
Perhaps the biggest piece of “missing” information is the one reported on the company’s website, which essentially blames Lumberton. They say that while they provided the lesson plan the activity of dressing up the students was “locally developed”.
As for the Washington Post article essay, well that’s just critical thinking. Last I checked the foundations of this country rested on the capacity to think and say what you think, not what someone tells you to think. Being the rogue that I am I argued against the American Revolution in my Texas high school, and may have gotten detention. So if everyone is saying the Muslim Brotherhood is THE problem, which of course they are part of it, somebody else better stand up say that there’s other issues ongoing as well. As usual scape-goating the bogeyman of the day, violent Islamism, allows us to suspend critical thought. However, inhibiting cross-cultural education in Texas’ public schools is a recipe for strengthening ethno-religious stereotypes and geographic illiteracy, but by the same token school districts really need to be aware of what “interactivity” a lesson plan calls for. Unfortunately in the age of information, when a simple picture can launch a thousand protest movements, everything is taken as negatively as possible.