Curriculum reform should start in the U.S. and Israel

One of the bitter ironies of the last few years is the continuous calls issued from the United States, by official and unofficial channels, that school curricula across the Arab (and Muslim) worlds should be changed in order to reflect the American (and Israeli) view of the world. America’s extra-curricular Arab targets for such change are the occupied Palestinian Authority, occupied Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. While few in the Arab world would question the need to overhaul school curricula across Arab countries to eliminate the biases that each regime injects them against myriad national and international causes, including historical inaccuracies, the position of religion in civic life, sectarian biases, gender biases, ethnic biases, and the like, most are astonished that such calls would be issued by the United States and its local subsidiary in the Middle East, Israel. The amazement is due to the fact that the school curricula and textbooks which the United States and Israel both use are in need of equally, if not more, major overhauling, to come close to objective, or at least more inclusive, representations of reality.

In the case of the United States, its official history remains taught in school and university curricula, is propagated throughout media venues, and reiterated ad absurdum by government representatives and ideologues. The main claim of such uncritical self-view is that the United States has been a democracy for well over 200 years. This claim is paraded time and again across the educational system (school and university) and in popular culture so much that most Americans are shocked to the level of disbelief when it is pointed out to them that the first 100 years of their political system were years, not of democracy, but of legal slavery while the second 100 years were years of legal racial apartheid. The fact that women did not have suffrage for the first century and a half of the republic or that only white property owning men could vote in the first half century seem immaterial to such conceptualisation.

When it is pointed out to most Americans that it is nothing less than a white male-supremacist assertion to claim that the United States has been a 200 (and 27) year democracy, as the only people who had democracy for that period were exclusively white property-owning men, they are generally stupefied with indignation. One wonders how Americans would feel if this American model were exported to post-1994 South Africa. Should South African school textbooks today be rewritten again to speak of a South African democracy existing since 1948, irrespective of the fact that such a democracy was exclusive to white people? The problem is that in the US context, it is not that people do not know that there was slavery and apartheid for 200 years, but rather that they are taught to think of them as irrelevant when judging their political system as a 200 year democracy, or that their judgment of their political system and their knowledge of these historical facts are somehow unconnected!

This is only part of the problem. Most US history textbooks, whether in school or university curricula, begin with the arrival of white colonial settlers in the United States, devoting little history if any to native Americans prior to the colonial encounter. Except for the specialised, few Americans know of the Chinese Exclusion Act in operation since 1882 and until 1943, which, based on race and nationality, would not allow Chinese to immigrate to the United States and would refuse to grant citizenship to the 300,000 Chinese immigrants already in the country. Fewer know of the Red Scare of the 1920s and the deportations of anarchists, or the later use of the US National Guard to crack down on strikers in the 1930s. When US curricula address Soviet history, they speak of Stalinist repression in the 1930s as if it were to be contrasted with a “democratic” America of the time. Few speak in the same breath about the reigning apartheid in the America of the 1930s, its rampant anti-Semitism, or its massive repression of communists and workers while Stalinist repression was in full swing.

America’s picture is further beautified by the way it represents its performance during World War II. Reading such descriptions in school and standard university texts, one would think the US was the main force that defeated the Nazis. Few would know from such accounts that 90 per cent of all Nazi casualties were actually on the Soviet, not the American, front. More sinister still is America’s continued official justification of the fact that it remains the only country on Earth that dropped atomic bombs on human civilian populations, not once but twice. Most American students at schools and at universities adopt the self-defence justification (which no one outside the United States accepts) uncritically half a century after that nuclear genocide. When the US invasions of Korea and Vietnam are addressed (and when they are, they are referred to as the “Korean War” or the “Vietnam War”), it is not the three million Koreans and Chinese killed by US troops in the first invasion or the close to five million Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians killed in the second that are addressed, but rather America’s war strategies, America’s military dead, and, occasionally, the situation of US war veterans after the war.

One wonders if Arab curricular and pedagogy experts should be dispatched to the United States to rewrite its curricula for it, as it is indeed shameful that most American school pupils are encouraged to learn by heart the names of all US presidents since 1776 without ever knowing what their policies actually were towards different populations in the country; or that such pupils are called upon to learn by heart the names of all state capitals without ever learning the manner in which these states were conquered and governed. That Native Americans or African Americans are forced to think that the racist founders of the United States who enforced their dispossession and slavery are “our founding fathers” adds insult to injury. Instead of embarking on a fresh self-critical view of US history that is inclusive of the entire population, these curricula remain committed to the notion that America has been a 200-year old democracy, and that anyone who questions this “fact” is a Communist (or now perhaps an Al-Qa’eda) sympathiser!

Not to be outdone, Israel follows a similar model of curricular planning. It is not that ideologically driven and/or poor European Jews came to colonise Palestine with the financial assistance of Jewish philanthropist bankers and later with the support of the British Empire, and that their evicting Palestinian peasants off their lands led to resistance against their colonisation efforts. Rather, it is oppressed European Jews who were seeking to “return” to their “ancestral land” fleeing anti-Semitic oppression who were faced by “Arabs” who fought them out of “anti- Semitic” motives. The history of the Palestinians is obliterated from the picture except as primitive savage folks who refused the peaceful civilising call of the Jews and decided to kill them instead. While colonisation is rendered “redemption of the land” in Israeli school curricula, and the 1948 Zionist conquest becomes the “war of independence”, Palestinian resistance to these foreign invaders becomes savage “terrorism”. The history of Arab Jews who were abducted into the Zionist project late in the game is in turn irrelevant to the curricula of Israeli schools, wherein only the history of white European Jews is taught as the relevant history of all Jews. Images of the dangerous Arab punctuate Israeli children’s books as it does Israeli Jewish culture more generally. It is not the numerous massacres of the Palestinians by the Israeli army and other Jewish terrorist groups that Israeli Jewish kids learn at school, rather it is the acts of Palestinian resistance (which sometimes were terrorist in nature and sometimes not) dubbed as “Arab terror”, against the colonial settlement that they memorise. It is not the names of Palestinian villages and towns destroyed by the Israeli army that Israeli Jewish pupils learn by heart but the names of the Jewish colonial settlements built on the ruins of the destroyed Palestinian villages. Palestinians appear in such textbooks, as they do in Israeli films and novels, as criminals, liars, terrorists, and primitives, in line with the popular Israeli Jewish racist epithet that renders all Arabs “dirty”.

One could go on about the unself-critical views that such accounts of history constitute and the pedagogical uses to which they are put. The point, however, is that these two societies claim a measure of democratic process (in the case of Israel, the process only applies to Jews by law), yet their school textbooks are so full of bias and self-glorification that they can only be compared to Iraqi school textbooks under Saddam’s rule. Indeed, in the United States, moves to change the curricula spring, not from those who think it too conservative, but from Christian fundamentalists who think it too radical and call for censoring, among other things, science, especially, evolution, and infuse curricula instead with “creationism”. Indeed, attempts to introduce “multicultural” concerns into US curricula precipitated a strong national backlash by religious and secular conservatives alike. Yet, and herein lies the irony, the American consultancy firm Creative Associates International Incorporated (CAII) recently won the USAID bid to revamp Iraqi education, including the rewriting of textbooks, to the tune of $65 million. CAII had already rewritten the textbooks for post-Taliban Afghanistan. Should not the United States expend some of that money on rewriting its own school textbooks instead? Many Arab experts would immediately flock to help, as, I am certain, would many critical American intellectuals and experts.

Indeed this situation in America, as it is in the Arab world, is contrasted with the availability of numerous books in bookstores and university libraries that question the official versions of history. In the Arab world, such books may be banned in one country or another but can be found in neighbouring Arab countries by those who seek them. In the United States, except for experts and a minority of self-critical leftists and academics, as well as members of downtrodden ethnic minorities, few read such books, and their impact on curricular history texts is negligible at best. In the Arab world, the situation is comparable except that the lack of effect of these books on curricula is engineered by regime censorship. In such light, the US situation looks much, much worse than that of the Arab world, as critical thinkers in the Arab world are not allowed access to power by dictatorial means, while in America, they are denied such access by “democratic” ones.

When Arab neo-liberal intellectuals, who accept America’s self-representations at face value, join the Western chorus and sing the praises of “self-critical” Western intellectuals and teachers in order to shame Arabs whom they represent as unself-critical, they should exercise some critical thinking themselves and examine the evidence first. After all, as grandiose as their claims have been, few Arab regimes have represented their rule as “democratic”, although most do represent their eras as epochs of “freedom”. Such bold claims, however, pale in comparison with US curricular (and extra-curricular) claims that its system of slavery and apartheid spanning two centuries was in fact “democracy”, or Israeli curricular (and extra-curricular) claims that a modern European colonial-settler movement set on colonising an Asian land was in fact a “liberation” movement intent on civilising an ungrateful primitive “Arab” population and on “liberating” European Jews by arranging for their self- expulsion from Europe!

What the US and Israel object to most in Arab school textbooks is not necessarily the false self- representation of each regime and its religious, ethnic, and gender biases, but rather the representation of Israel as the enemy and of Zionism as a European colonial settler movement allied with European imperialism. Aside from the fact that these two claims are fully justified by historical evidence and actual reality, the US and Israel insist that until and unless the Arab world begins to view the world from the US and Israeli perspectives, their demand for changing Arab school textbooks will not abate. Indeed, the capitulationist Palestinian Authority (as attested to by a number of studies, including the March 2003 study commissioned by the US Congress and carried out by the Israel/Palestine Centre for Research and Information), heeded such calls and transformed Palestinian textbooks to agree with US and Israeli demands. As occupied Iraq and possibly Saudi Arabia are following suit, it might be time for others to embark on similar changes. Indeed, in light of the actual situation, if rewriting school textbooks is a necessity, then the US and Israeli cases beg for more immediate emergency intervention than do Arab countries. The question then becomes, can USAID funds be set aside to aid US society rather than the rest of the world?

Joseph Massad is assistant professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University in New York. This article first appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly. It is reproduced by EI with permission of the writer.