Educators Ponder Teaching of Divisive Issues

By Sheppard Ranbom — June 06, 1984 4 min read

Washington--When Sheila Scoville attempted to interest public schools in the curriculum materials she had devised, a segment of the local Jewish community reacted, she said, with “fear, over-emotionalism, anger, and personal attacks.”

Ms. Scoville, who is on the history faculty of the University of Arizona at Tucson, recalled the incident during a recent session at a global-education conference here on teaching controversial issues in the classroom.

The conference was coordinated by Global Perspectives in Education, a New York-based group that seeks to broaden students’ understanding of world cultures.

A teacher of Ottoman history and the Middle-East outreach coordinator for the Near Eastern Center at the university, Ms. Scoville told educators at the assembly that part of the Jewish community had claimed that her work was biased in favor of the Arab world. The critics urged the elimination of the curriculum materials from classrooms and “in essence, demanded that I be fired.”

Moreover, teachers who in 1980 were taking the graduate-level course she offered, “Survey of the History of the Middle East,” were initially denied course credit for inservice purposes by their school district. Although the district later reinstated the credits, no other courses were offered by the center after that, Ms. Scoville said.

She said that the local Jewish community also sent letters to U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell urging dissolution of the outreach center, which is funded in part under Title VI of the National Defense Education Act.

Limits to Instruction

Participants in the session, called “Teaching Controversial Issues in the Classroom: A Middle East Case Study,” agreed that community interference and the hostility of parents limit schools’ ability to provide adequate instruction in global issues.

The scholars, lawyers, advocates for Arab- and Jewish-American organizations, and teachers who spoke said that debate on controversial issues of global importance inevitably finds its way into schools and colleges, which at times become “a battleground for opposing views.”

But many schools are poorly equipped to be the forum for such debates, speakers said. There are few good curriculum guides available, they said, and teachers are “enthusiastic” but “limited in knowledge” about both current world events and the cultural history that underlies those events.

According to Helen Samhan, assistant director of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, D.C., history texts are “oversimplified” and provide “incomplete and incorrect” information about the Arab world. A diverse and broad history has been presented in terms of the “exotic and bizarre,” emphasizing Orientalism, camels, and Bedouins, she asserted.

Another disturbing trend, she said, is that exposure to Arab culture is viewed as inherently anti-Semitic. “The whole topic of teaching about the Middle East has become intimidating to educators,” she said, noting that the problem extends not merely to schools but also to postsecondary institutions. “Leading scholars have been blacklisted as pro-Arab propagandists,” she said.

Ms. Samhan questioned educators’ practice of providing “equal time” in dealing with the Middle East; she argued that prohibiting schools from providing an “hour of Mideast studies without an hour of Holocaust studies [suggests that] Arabs were responsible for the Holocaust.”

‘Vital Interest’

But Judith Muffs, director of research and curriculum for the Anti-Defamation League, which was founded by Jewish American leaders at the turn of the century, countered: “All we seek is to educate and inform the public and to let them make up their own mind. Teaching the Middle East is of vital interest to the United States; it is in living rooms and newspapers every day and continually affects policymakers.”

“Citizens have to understand background issues behind the latest headlines,” she said, urging that Turkish and Persian cultures be in-cluded along with discussion of the Arab and Jewish worlds.

The concepts of freedom of speech and the right of opposing viewpoints to be heard are too often forgotten when the issues being taught are controversial, suggested J. Wesley Watkins, director of the American Civil Liberties Union area office in Washington, D.C. “Ideas must be allowed to compete in the marketplace of the mind. Those of value will stay,” he said.

“Teachers should moderate opinions and establish the middle ground,’' said Susan Miller, executive director of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development at City University of New York.

To educate their students to deal with controversial topics, she added, teachers must not instruct them “just to know basic facts, but also key words and the emotional content of words.” Students need to know “the importance of the Holocaust in shaping attitudes of Jews and the importance of a homeland in shaping the attitudes of the Arabic World,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 1984 edition of Education Week as Educators Ponder Teaching of Divisive Issues