Professional Development

Middle East Centers Accused of Bias In Teaching

By Sean Cavanagh — August 06, 2003 8 min read

Each year, hundreds of the nation’s teachers enroll in college seminars on the Middle East, workshops that serve as primers on a volatile and often misunderstood region.

In recent months, those free, taxpayer-supported programs, officially known as National Resource Centers, have come under attack. Critics say the classes, financed through Title VI of the Higher Education Act, have foisted anti- Israel, anti-United States, and decidedly left-leaning biases on audiences of mostly middle school and high school teachers.

Accusations of liberal orthodoxy in academia are nothing new. But as both the programs’ detractors and defenders acknowledge, the recent controversy touches a subset of students— K-12 teachers themselves—with the potential to shape the younger generation’s perceptions of Islam, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Iraq, and other roiling topics.

“Many K-12 teachers don’t know very much about the Middle East, and will be unduly swayed by this bias,” said Stanley Kurtz, a Washington-based research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, a conservative-leaning think tank. “The purpose of these programs is to take these very plugged-in teachers and give them deeper knowledge. They may not be brainwashed [by those views], but what will they have gained?”

Others, however, say such criticisms undersell the contributions of the area-studies programs, which also probe many world cultures outside the Middle East.

The U.S. Department of Education, which reviews applications for the program—sometimes called area-studies and foreign- language centers—awarded 120 grants to colleges and universities for fiscal 2003, which ends Sept. 30.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Capitol Hill lawmakers have shown a hunger for Middle Eastern education programs, for both government workers and average citizens. Three years ago, funding for area studies stood at roughly $21.3 million; by 2003, it had risen to $30 million.

Of the 120 National Resource Centers, 17 specialize in the Middle East, according to the Education Department; Russia and Eastern Europe, South Asia, and Africa are among the other targeted regions. The resource centers make up roughly one-third of the $93.2 million in the Title VI international studies and language programs, the agency says.

New money has brought new scrutiny. On June 18, a select panel of the House Education and the Workforce Committee heard testimony on the allegations of bias. Some Title VI programs, Mr. Kurtz told the lawmakers, had benefited from federal interest in Middle Eastern study, only to betray that mission by offering one-sided views of the region.

Critics of U.S. policy, such as the influential academic theorist Edward Said, should be heard, Mr. Kurtz said in an interview, as long as they are balanced with opposing opinions.

Some teachers sign up for Title VI sessions to add depth to their teaching of world history and geography; others enroll out of a simple curiosity about a region. Then there are those like Stephen C. Boyce, an 11th and 12th grade teacher at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Mich., who see the classes as research for brand-new courses on the Middle East.

In preparing to launch an Islamic- studies class this fall, Mr. Boyce relied partly on workshops he attended at the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, a Title VI program at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. One session focused on Afghanistan’s culture and history; another explored the Iraq war, that country’s history, and U.S. perceptions of that nation.

“I didn’t see any rabble-rousing, or significant political agendas, in anything I’ve done with the university,” said Mr. Boyce, 50, a U.S. Army veteran. “It really gave me a depth of understanding I couldn’t have got anywhere else.”

Accusations of Bias

Like many other teachers, Mr. Boyce bemoans the paucity of knowledge among his students about the Middle East and Central Asia. Social studies instructors, he says, crave ideas on ways to get students enthusiastic about those regions.

“It’s a challenge to give students an accurate, nuanced viewpoint without simplifying it down to the level of the stereotype,” he said.

Yet there is little nuance, contend Mr. Kurtz and others, in the political views offered at workshops staged at places like Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. Mr. Kurtz, along with Martin Kramer, the editor of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Quarterly, was especially critical of a one-day, April 9 workshop at the Washington campus, titled “Crisis with Iraq.”

On his Web site, www.martinkramer.org, Mr. Kramer said the speakers at the workshop—which he noted was held on the same day a statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in central Baghdad—offered views exclusively opposed to the U.S. policy in Iraq, or the American-led war in that country.

But the outreach coordinator for the center, Zeina Azzam Seikaly, said Mr. Kramer’s critique took quotes and opinions from the speakers written or uttered in previous contexts. Little of the seminar touched on American policy in Iraq, she said. While there was strong criticism of the United States, there was also open debate, she said, much of it coming from the 140 or so teachers who attended.

“Those speakers ... represented different views at the workshop,” said Ms. Seikaly, sitting in a ground-floor conference room, looking out onto brick buildings and a small campus courtyard. “They didn’t necessarily agree with each other.”

“We ought to give teachers a little more credit,” Ms. Seikaly argued. Simply hearing criticism of U.S. policy, she said, does not mean they’ll end up with “a distorted view of the world.”

An employee of the American Jewish Congress, a New York City-based civic and political organization that supports stricter review of the resource centers, voiced dissatisfaction with another, weeklong workshop at Georgetown held July 7-11. A few weeks earlier, the organization had asked for closer oversight of Title VI programs in a meeting with Sally Stroup, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for postsecondary education.

Scott H. Mellon, an executive assistant at the AJC, described the speakers as knowledgeable, and experts in their field. But he said the sessions, which he attended, devoted far too little attention to Israel.

In one seminar, where politics, U.S. policy, and the Palestinian- Israeli conflict were discussed, the presenter “placed most of the blame squarely on the shoulders of Israel,” said Mr. Mellon, a former teacher at a Jewish school in Falls Church, Va. “I have no problem with [the speaker] saying that. [But] you’re presenting this side, and there’s nobody presenting the other side.”

Khalil Jahshan, a Washington consultant on the Middle East who led that session, disputed Mr. Mellon’s account and described his own presentation as evenhanded. He remembered encouraging teachers to avoid playing “the blame game” in describing why past peace negotiations in the region had failed.

Mr. Jahshan also said he offered a balanced analysis of the current, U.S.-backed “road map” for a truce by pointing out both the strengths and shortcomings of the proposal. He described his students as a freethinking lot: During and after the session, he said, several of them openly disagreed with his opinions.

“I welcome challenges. That’s the purpose of these things,” said Mr. Jahshan, a former president of the National Association of Arab Americans, a Washington lobbying organization. “I went out of my way to present both sides.”

Georgetown University recently completed a three-year, $624,349 National Resource Center grant, which supported not only the program in contemporary Arab studies, but other language and area- studies efforts, too. Another three-year grant, totaling $794,000 and also covering several programs, begins this month, Ms. Seikaly said.

Federal Response Unclear

Mr. Kurtz suggested creating a board composed of officials from different federal agencies, think tank experts, and others, to set expectations for unbiased Title VI programs.

The willingness of federal officials to pursue such changes is unclear. So far, no major proposals have emerged from Congress to rework the program, which federal lawmakers will have to reauthorize over the coming year during their rewrite of the Higher Education Act.

Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., who chaired the June hearing on Title VI, said that while lawmakers had a duty to guard against bias in Title VI, there was not yet a “preponderance of evidence” that such prejudice was rampant.

“We want freedom of speech,” Rep. Gingrey said. “We want good dialogue. We don’t want to just look though rose-colored glasses.”

The controversy has disappointed officials at programs like the University of Michigan’s Middle Eastern program. In recent years, its staff has sought to travel to schools and tailor Middle East instruction to specific, district-by- district needs, said Michael Fahy, the center’s program associate.

Michigan’s Oakland Schools district, an intermediate regional system of 228,000 students outside Detroit, is a recipient of the center’s counsel. Teachers in the system are eager to bolster lessons on the Middle East, and find classroom materials that are digestible for middle school students, said Amy Bloom, the social studies consultant for the district.

The district’s staff also faces state standards for student learning in world history, geography, and other areas, Ms. Bloom said. Michigan’s center was offering guidance with state mandates in mind, she said.

“You can’t just take a whole big stack of books on the Middle East to teachers and say, ‘Here it is,’” Mr. Fahy said. “We tried to figure out what teachers need, and how it fit with all the [academic] benchmarks.”

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

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