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Tainted Teachings [part 3] What Teachers Are Learning About Islam, Israel and the Mideast

Chairs are lined up in neat rows. Coffee is brewing, muffins arrayed. The table is thick with handouts. One of them is Saudi Aramco World, a magazine published by Aramco, the Saudi government-owned outfit that is the largest oil company in the world.

“The Arab World in the Classroom,” published by Georgetown University, thanks Saudi Aramco on its back cover. Alongside it is the brochure of The Mosaic Foundation, an organization of spouses of Arab ambassadors in America, whose chairwoman and president of the board of trustees is Her Royal Highness Princess Haifa Al-Faisal of the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia.

If you think this is a meeting of Saudi oil executives or Middle Eastern exporters or Saudi government officials, you are wrong: It’s a social studies training seminar for American elementary and secondary teachers, held last year at Georgetown University.

It’s paid for by U.S. tax dollars, as the organizer points out in her introduction.

“We are grateful to the grant we have under Title VI of the Department of Education that underwrites these programs,” Zeina Azzam Seikaly, outreach coordinator of Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, tells the more than three dozen current and former teachers at the seminar.

Georgetown’s Middle East outreach program is one of 18 affiliated with federally designated national resource centers, each of which receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funds under Title VI of the Higher Education Act.

Much has been written about the biased nature of many Middle East studies programs at universities around the country.

Less known is that with public money and the designation as a national resource center, universities such as Georgetown, Harvard and Columbia are dramatically influencing the study of Islam, Israel and the Middle East far beyond the college campus.

As a condition of their funding, these centers are also required to engage in public outreach, which includes schoolchildren in grades K-12. Through professional development workshops for teachers and resource libraries, they spread teaching materials that analysts say promote Islam and are critical of Israel and the West.

Georgetown’s outreach and the materials it disseminates are singled out for special praise by Dar al Islam, an educational center in Abiquiu, N.M.

Dar al Islam, which houses a mosque, religious school, summer camp and teacher training institute, was financed in part by the late King Khaled ibn Aziz of Saudi Arabia. Its Web site lists four other outreach centers it admires: the University of California at Berkeley, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan.

Professional development workshops like the one at Georgetown provide the most frequent paths for the dissemination of supplementary materials to history and social studies teachers, according to “The Stealth Curriculum: Manipulating America’s History Teachers,” a lengthy inquiry by educational expert Sandra Stotsky.

Stotsky is a former director of a professional development institute for teachers at Harvard and a former senior associate commissioner of Massachusetts’ Department of Education. Her study was published last year by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington-based education think tank.

The problems with many of the supplemental materials, Stotsky said in her report, stem from “the ideological mission of the organizations that create them.

“Their ostensible goal is to combat intolerance, expand students’ knowledge of other cultures, give them other ‘points of view’ on commonly studied historical phenomena and/or promote ‘critical thinking,’ ” she wrote.

But an analysis of the materials convinced her that their real goal “is to influence how children come to understand and think about current social and political issues by bending historical content to those ends.

“They embed their political agendas in the instructional materials they create so subtly that apolitical teachers are unlikely to spot them.”

Among the materials Stotsky cites is “The Arab World Studies Notebook,” which has been widely criticized for bias, inaccuracies and proselytizing.

Two school districts have banned the book, and the American Jewish Committee has urged others to follow suit.

Audrey Shabbas, editor of the notebook, rejects the criticism.

“We’re providing the Arab point of view,” she said.

Responding to criticism that the material paints an overly rosy picture of Islam, she said, “My task is not to defend what Muslims do in the world” but to focus on the “difference between what people call themselves and what they do.”

Experts say the materials are popular because they’re recommended by the national resource centers of prestigious universities.

In an interview with JTA, Stotsky recounted that in the summer of 2002, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Massachusetts Department of Education decided to offer a seminar on Islam and the Middle East for area teachers. They accepted a proposal from Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies that “looked very promising.” One of the organizers of the seminar was

Barbara Petzen, the center’s outreach coordinator.

But when Stotsky and other officials saw the syllabus, which included the “Arab World Studies Notebook,” they requested that the course present a more balanced view of Islam. Officials wanted at least to include a book by Bernard Lewis, a Princeton University professor emeritus who is considered one of the pre-eminent authorities on Islam.

But Petzen and her colleague “ducked recent history” by agreeing only to include one of Lewis’ older books from the 1970s, rather than one of his more recent critical perspectives on Islam, Stotsky said.

Petzen could not be reached for comment.

Stotsky was further shocked when she saw the lesson plans created by some of the seminar participants. One, which required the students to learn an Islamic prayer and design a prayer rug to simulate a mosque in the classroom, crossed the line. “It’s really indoctrination to have students do such religious things,” she said.

While there is no way to know the extent to which the teachers, from 20 Massachusetts schools, ultimately incorporated their proposed lessons into the classroom, the assumption of the education department, which paid for the seminar, “is that the teachers use the material they learned,” Stotsky said.

In New York City, meanwhile, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has barred the head of Columbia University’s Middle East Institute from lecturing to city teachers enrolled in professional development courses on the Middle East.

Klein’s move in February against Rashid Khalidi, who holds the Edward Said chair at Columbia, was in response to “a number of things he’s said in the past,” said Michael Best, the department’s general counsel, according to The New York Times.

A spokesman for Klein said last week that “nothing has changed” in Khalidi’s status, meaning that he still is barred from lecturing at teacher-training seminars.

Khalidi declined to comment on the issue.

For Stotsky, a major problem with the teacher-training seminars is the lack of oversight. “What teacher or principal is going to challenge” material that comes “with the sterling credentials of Harvard?” she said.

While she doesn’t claim to have all the answers, Stotsky recommends halting public funding for professional development until there is “strong evidence that most history teachers learn something useful from a majority of workshops they attend.”

(JTA Editor Lisa Hostein was among the contributors to this report.)

TAINTED TEACHINGS Series

Part 1: Saudi-backed lessons at taxpayers’ expense

Part 2: What the textbooks teach

Part 3: Teaching the teachers distortion

Part 4: The debate over Title VI

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