History In The Making

March 01, 1991 7 min read

For many of the nation’s schoolchildren, the news that their country was at war came as no surprise; they had been discussing the Gulf crisis in classes since early fall.

“What could be more important to these students than to cover the most important issue happening today?’' asks Judith McGovern, a middle school teacher in San Francisco. “This is history they’re living through.’'

McGovern is among the thousands of teachers nationwide who altered their lesson plans in the months leading up to the war to discuss the unfolding events in the Persian Gulf, a part of the world rarely explored in depth by U.S. schools.

Officials at Scholastic Inc. and Newsweek report increases of 15 percent or more in requests for the news-oriented educational materials they produce for classrooms. Whittle Communications, which produces a television news program for use in classrooms, and Time Warner Inc. also say demands for their services have increased. And employees at several of the federally sponsored centers for Middle Eastern studies, located at universities across the country, say they have been flooded with requests from enterprising teachers.

“We have had an unprecedented number of calls over the last five months from every level of education in the United States,’' says Ronald Cathell of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations. “As tragic as this situation is in the Gulf, if there is a silver lining, it’s that Americans have awakened to the need to understand a little more about the region and how it can impact their lives.’'

It is difficult to gauge how much students were already learning in school about the Middle East before the Gulf crisis erupted. National groups that have studied the social studies curriculum disagree on that subject. But among experts who focus on that part of the world, the consensus is that most Americans--and most students--know very little.

A 1987 study by the U.S. Education Department indicated, for example, that only half of the seniors graduating from high school that year had taken a world history course.

“One out of two students probably can’t read a newspaper or watch a television news report on the situation and understand with any comprehension what’s going on,’' says Elaine Reed, executive director of the National Council for History Education, which was formed last year as a successor to the Bradley Commission on History in the Schools.

The Bradley commission was among several national groups calling in recent years for a broadening of the social studies curriculum offered to students. Representatives of these groups say that the events in the Persian Gulf make an eloquent case for the kinds of curricular changes that have been proposed.

“If students don’t know the geographical characteristics and the traditions and attitudes of the Middle East, they aren’t going to understand what’s happening at all,’' says Fay Metcalf, a co-chairman of the National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools.

But regardless of the extent to which the curriculum already covers the Middle East, teachers say they are seizing opportunities to talk about the Gulf situation in economics, social studies, government, history, and even English and science classes.

McGovern, for example, tacked her lessons on the Persian Gulf crisis onto a unit on the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia. “I decided to beam my 7th graders up to the future to talk about what’s happening with the Fertile Crescent, which is Iraq today,’' she says.

Mike Dawson of Albuquerque, N.M., rearranged the way he normally teaches American history to seniors at Manzano High School. He introduced lessons on the judicial system and Congress earlier than usual so that his students would be prepared to discuss the War Powers Act on the heels of the congressional debate over whether to support resolutions backing President Bush’s use of force against Iraq.

In Elkhart, Ind., John Chenoweth, a high school American government teacher, encouraged 300 students at Concord High School to walk to school one morning to dramatize the need for the United States to become less dependent on foreign oil. “The students wanted to show their parents and the community and the world, ‘We can make sacrifices if we have to,’” says Chenoweth, who trekked 11-plus miles to school that day.

“The students’ interest is there,’' says Mounir Farah, a high school teacher and university lecturer from Monroe, Conn. “What you have to do is make use of it.’'

That students have an interest-- and a stake--in the events unfolding in the Persian Gulf is obvious. The results of a poll released by Scholastic just before the United States launched the bombing raids on Iraq indicated that 40 percent of the 3,400 students responding had a relative or friend stationed in the Persian Gulf, 63 percent said they approved of the economic sanctions being used against Iraq, and 53 percent said they would also approve of going to war.

“This says to us that students are thinking about this,’' said Ernest Fleischman, a senior vice president at Scholastic. “Don’t hide from this. This is a time to stop class and have a discussion.’'

One problem, however, is that many teachers--themselves untrained in the history and cultural contributions of that part of the world--do not know where to put their hands on accurate information that is appropriate for their students’ age levels. “Textbooks are of no use,’' McGovern says.

Beyond the obvious problem of being outdated, many texts do an inadequate job of discussing the region. One 1990 textbook, for example, launched a discussion of Islam with a picture of a terrorist and a box listing the number of terrorist attacks claimed by Islamic Jihad, a group that Middle Eastern experts contend represents the views of no more than 2 percent of the region’s population.

“Would you begin a discussion of Catholicism by talking about the Irish Republican Army?’' asks Sandra Batmangelich, an outreach coordinator at a federally sponsored center on Middle East studies at the University of Chicago.

“If textbooks are inadequate and teachers are untrained,’' notes Elizabeth Barlow, a program associate for the Center for Near Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Michigan, “what we really have is the blind leading the blind.’'

As a result, many teachers have been relying on newspapers, national news magazines, news-oriented classroom magazines, and taped radio and television broadcasts to keep their students informed. Scholastic featured the crisis in nearly every issue of its six social studies magazines last fall. It even included articles related to the crisis in its science and English magazines for classrooms.

Newsweek, in addition to its classroom-education program, co-sponsored a seminar last fall on the Persian Gulf crisis for 250 Connecticut teachers. The turnout was double that of previous seminars the magazine had co-sponsored with the state education department on the upheavals in China and Eastern Europe. “With textbooks pretty much out of date,’' says Richard Burch, circulation manager for student marketing at the magazine, “we have a unique position in the classroom.’'

Like textbooks, however, the media are often biased in the way they portray stereotypes, according to many experts on the Middle East. “The image is either terrorists, greedy oil sheiks, or Bedouins riding around on camels,’' says Cathell of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations.

Such stereotypes are difficult to overcome. For that reason, Batmangelich encourages teachers to stress commonality between families in the Middle East and the United States as they talk about the Gulf crisis. She describes how she helped a 4th grade teacher arrange a visit to a mosque, one with a school associated with it so the students could visit with Moslem children. She learned later, after reading essays by the students, that several had been afraid to visit the mosque.

Batmangelich notes that fears and emotions engendered by the situation in the Gulf may have caused some teachers to avoid discussing it before the war actually started.

Few teachers, however, were able to avoid the topic as their bleary-eyed students arrived at school on the morning of Jan. 17, roughly 12 hours after the United States launched its air attack against Iraq. Despite the grim atmosphere, many educators say the outbreak of the war presented a unique opportunity for students to grapple with fundamental issues that might otherwise remain abstractions.

Says James Marran, chairman of the social studies department at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill.: “I met one of my colleagues coming back from lunch, and he said, ‘You know, when something like this happens, schools are the greatest places in the world to be, because there is such curiosity and such interest.’ Students are really trying to figure it out.’'---Debra Viadero, Education Week

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as History In The Making