Education Opinion

The Rushdie Affair: Lessons for Educators

By Diane Ravitch — March 08, 1989 5 min read

When Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini threatened the life of the author Salman Rushdie last month, an international drama began. Mr. Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, was banned in most of the Arab world, as well as in India, Pakistan, France, and West Germany. Several major American booksellers removed the book from their shelves to protect the lives of their employees and patrons.

This series of events, striking directly at fundamental rights of citizens in a free society, should cause American educators to think hard about whether and how they are teaching their students the meaning of such rights.

Our teaching of history and social studies must be grounded in democratic values. To hold the nation to its best ideals, our children need to know what those ideals are and where they came from.

Would our students know enough to be offended if pressure groups tried to prevent controversial views from being expressed in their community or their school? We can’t expect them to be upset about the international campaign to suppress Mr. Rushdie’s book--or about the removal of a book from their own school library’s shelves--unless we have taught them about the long, unfinished struggle for freedom of expression.

To mark the publication date of The Satanic Verses, the Association of American Publishers, the American Booksellers Association, and the American Library Association jointly issued a simple and eloquent statement:

Free people write books;

Free people publish books;

Free people sell books;

Free people buy books;

Free people read books.

As the writer Pete Hamill pointed out on a recent “MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour,” large numbers of Americans died at Anzio and Normandy Beach defending such freedoms. But in an age when terrorists can place an undetectable plastic bomb inside a cigarette pack or a cassette player, many people are unwilling to risk their lives for the sake of a writer they have never heard of or a book they have not read--nor even for their favorite author and most beloved book.

In the United States, we all too often take our freedoms for granted. So smug have we become that some school districts no longer teach the historical evolution of our political rights and freedoms. Some teach no world history at all, while others allot the history of Western Europe no more time in the curriculum than that of Asia, Africa, India, Eastern Europe, or Latin America.

Our children need to know the history, principles, and institutions of the Western society in which they will be citizens. Just as we want our students to esteem themselves, we should also want them to value their nation--not from the perspective of blind patriotism but in a spirit that will encourage them to improve their country.

Of course, they must learn about racism and religious bigotry, the Holocaust and slavery. These wrongs are part of Western history, too, and they must be taught honestly so that students understand that the rights we hold dear grew out of battles against injustice.

Some global educators shy away from endorsing democratic values--for fear that they might appear pro-Western. But this position is mistaken. It is true that standards of beauty and taste vary from culture to culture, and that we must learn to appreciate other cultures through their own eyes. But we cannot apply that outlook to the realm of political rights and civil liberties.

The condition of rights and liberties varies drasti cally from one country to another, and students should know that. Unfortunately, as the Ayatollah’s pronouncements now remind us, many nations do not respect freedom of speech and expression. Some routinely ban books for political and religious reasons. In others, writers languish in jail for making the mistake of speaking their minds too plainly.

In many countries, people suffer discrimination because of their race or gender or class or sexual orientation. Some nations do not permit free elections or free assembly; some do not tolerate freedom of religion; some do not allow free trade unions; some do not permit criticism of the government or freedom of the press.

All of these are basic human rights that ought to be protected, not abused, by government. They should be seen as universal standards by which to judge the actions of others as well as ourselves.

It would be the height of ethnocentrism to believe that only Westerners care about human rights. Every protest against apartheid in South Africa, for example, is founded on the assumption that these rights are for everyone, not just for residents of the Western world.

But the democratic movement began in the West long ago, and it has since provided the vocabulary and ideology for freedom-seeking people in every country. To understand contemporary struggles for justice, equality, and liberty throughout the world, we should be familiar with such landmarks in the pursuit of freedom as the Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, the American Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man.

The battle is far from ended. It continues with the work and ideas of men and women like Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Mohandas Gandhi, Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walesa, Elie Wiesel, Fang Lizhi, and Wei Jingsheng. Our students should learn about them; their voices represent not a series of disparate, single-issue campaigns but rather the basic principles that command governments to respect the rights of their citizens.

We should teach the history of freedom as a worldwide struggle, one shared by peoples of all societies. We should not teach children to suspend judgment on barbaric practices in other countries--like torture or infanticide or wife-burning or suppression of dissent. Fundamental human rights are not everywhere respected, but--as dissidents around the world keep reminding us--they are everywhere the same.

If we do not teach the history of civil liberties and human rights that we hold precious, then our children will not have the knowledge or interest to be outraged when they are violated, nor the will to defend and preserve them.

A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 1989 edition of Education Week