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Teaching intolerance

There’s been a fair amount of bloggage regarding this article in the WaPo about Islamic schools in America. I’m as alarmed as the next guy, but not because gasp we’ve suddenly discovered such things in our midst. No, my discomfort about these schools is the same as my discomfort about many religious schools. The problem I have with these schools is that they teach a distorted and frequently intolerant worldview. The fact that these specific schools are Islamic makes no real difference to me.

Here’s an example from the article:

[T]hey file into their Islamic studies class, where the textbooks tell them the Day of Judgment can’t come until Jesus Christ returns to Earth, breaks the cross and converts everyone to Islam, and until Muslims start attacking Jews.

It’s not the particulars that bother me as much as the us-versus-them underpinnings. I still remember a tale from my Catholic school days in which a “Moslem” king threatens to kill all Christians in the kingdom. At one point, he calls his staff into the throne room and demands that all Christians step forward. Fifteen people do so. “And do you wish to remain Christians?” he demands. “Yes” they say, at which point the king orders their executions. It was presented as a story of heroic martyrdom, where the best thing we little Catholics could do was die for our faith. The rather unflattering view of “Moslems” it gave us was left unspoken, but nonetheless it was pretty clear. Admittedly, we weren’t exhorted to become suicide bombers, but the bottom line message is the same: We’re right and they’re wrong, and you’re better off dying than becoming one of them.

I guess I see a lot of religious schools as being inherently isolationist, and I believe that isolated people are more likely to be xenophobic. Of course every parent should teach their children morals and values, and every parent should want to shield their children from inappropriate aspects of our popular culture, but at what point do you cross over into demonizing values and cultures that are not your own? At what point do you become like the people of a small town who can’t understand why some people don’t want to be forced to pray like the rest of them do.

I don’t want to make the same mistake that I’m accusing others of here and demonize all religious education. Religious education is generally a good and healthy thing, and even if I don’t much care for it, it’s as American as the First Amendment so I can take my dislike and stuff it. Besides, as I just pointed out in the links above, one doesn’t have to go to a private school to be isolated from Others. But I will always worry about people who grow up never knowing anyone who isn’t like them, for it will be easier for them to believe whatever they are told about those people.

You may be starting to suspect an ulterior motive on my part. You’re right – I mean this as a defense against that bane of right-wingers known as “multiculturalism”. The multi-cultis deserve a lot of the criticism they get, for their excessive relativism and their own peculiar brand of demonization, but the vision of multiculturalism is a good thing. It’s a reminder that there’s more than one valid viewpoint out there and that not everyone has your experiences and perspective. In short, The World Is A Big Place. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this was what the multi-cultis originally intended to teach us.

I had the good fortune to eventually get into an excellent public intermediate school (that’s “middle school” for some of you) and then into Stuyvesant High School, which was an incredible melting pot in addition to being a damn fine place to learn. Once I figured out that not everyone was Catholic – my first year in public school I gave Christmas cards to a fair number of Jewish kids because I didn’t know any better – I did fine. Going to college in Texas was further exposure to different perspectives and backgrounds.

I like to think that I’m a better person for the experience. I like to think that more people could benefit from similar experiences. That, in a nutshell, is the discomfort I have with sheltering children in overly controlled environments. The particulars of the environment don’t make much difference.

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