Until recently, New York City had been a pioneer in elementary and secondary public education in two ways - one good and one bad. It was among the first metropolitan school districts to modify the traditional split between academic and trade schools, and to introduce high schools intended to prepare students for high-earning professions in science and the arts, through focused curricula.
But in the 1960s, New York schools gained an undesirable notoriety. In the southern states, African American parents and white liberals protested against racial segregation. Yet in New York, where Black nationalism experienced a swell of support, confrontation erupted when schools in Black-majority neighborhoods gained a reputation for teaching anti-white propaganda. Black parents in Gotham, it appeared, wanted the opposite of their counterparts in the South - more, rather than less separation of racial communities.
In February 1968, controversy heated up when Intermediate School 201 in East Harlem held a memorial for the slain Black nationalist Malcolm X. The presentation at I.S. 201 was led by the poet Amiri Baraka. Herman Ferguson, an African American assistant school principal, used the I.S. 201 observance to call on Blacks to take up arms against whites and prepare for "hunting season." Ferguson had been suspended from his post at a Queens public school the previous summer on allegations that he plotted to murder moderate Black leaders. But he had become a paid adviser to the I.S. 201 governing board, under a grant from the Ford Foundation.
Then, in May 1968, the governing board of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville special school district in Brooklyn, which had an African American majority, ordered the dismissal of thirteen teachers and six staffers. The fired personnel refused to leave their jobs. One of them was Fred Nauman, a science instructor at Junior High School 271. The charge was soon made that Nauman and the others had only been dismissed because of their white race. Members of a combative union, the United Federation of Teachers, walked out in solidarity with the dismissed instructors, at eight other schools in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district. Demonstrations and strikes made 1968 a year of near-permanent turmoil in the New York schools. Many observers have argued that the fight over the schools changed New York City forever.
Demonstrations and other such expressions of discontent have returned to the New York City school system, in a context that may seem different from that in the battles of the 1960s, but which in many ways represents an extension of them. Early this year, the New York Department of Education announced that it would establish a new secondary school, the Khalil Gibran International Academy, named for the world-famous Lebanese Christian author and artist. DOE spokesman David Cantor described the school's curriculum as identical to that in the rest of the New York system, but it was clear that it would concentrate on "Middle East studies" - which might be the single most loaded term in the American intellectual and educational vocabulary. Just what Middle East studies would be taught, and how?
The Gibran school was perceived as a special facility for students of Arab or Muslim background, i.e. a revival of the divisive trend seen among African-Americans during the 1960s. The distinguished educational expert Diane Ravitch was among the first to warn against such an approach, commenting, "It is not the job of the public schools to teach each ethnic group about its history," she said. "Certainly the large high schools should teach Arabic along with other languages, and they should teach the history of the Middle East as they teach global history. But it is an abdication of the basic principle behind public education to set up separate schools to teach uncritically one history and one culture."
Debate over the Gibran school accelerated, as such things do in New York - and, to apply an old cliché, they produced more heat than light. Debbie Almontaser, the school's founder and presumed principal, resigned early in August after media revealed a connection between her and the sale of t-shirts promoting "Intifada." Although many other issues lurked in the background, this incident alone defined the risks in establishing a publicly-funded "Middle East studies" high school. Almontaser defended the t-shirts in a remarkably disingenuous way, commenting, "The word [intifada] basically means 'shaking off.' That is the root word if you look it up in Arabic. I understand it is developing a negative connotation due to the uprising in the Palestinian-Israeli areas. I don't believe the intention is to have any of that kind of [violence] in New York City. I think it's pretty much an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society . . . and shaking off oppression."
Such a convoluted approach to an issue most of the American public sees in much plainer and less benevolent terms does not advance the American debate over the Middle East; but it was unquestionable that an arcane definition of "intifada" would not play well in New York City. Almontaser was soon forced to back down, and then resigned from her Gibran school post. At first there was little reaction. The Gibran school had, regardless of the uproar over its "Middle East" orientation, reportedly signed up more African American students interested in Arabic than Arabs or other Mideastern children - even though some accounts suggested that the Gibran school could be a sanctuary for Muslim students subject to discrimination.
And now, demonstrations have begun demanding Almontaser's reinstatement. The New York Times of August 21 reported that a crowd of 200 had appeared before the office of the New York Department of Education shouting "Bring Debbie Back!" Meanwhile, the DOE remains committed to opening the school for the autumn session.
As a moderate Muslim, I find several things wrong with the approach of the New York City DOE in conceiving a special public high school for Mideast studies. Public education should unite rather than divide, and whether one looks to the Southern segregationist model before the 1950s or the Ocean Hill-Brownsville disturbances of the radical decade that followed, it is clear that young people are not served by ethnic polarization or politicization of basic education. Many questions come to the fore here: America needs proficient speakers of Arabic, Farsi, and other languages spoken among Muslims; but can such education be pursued without become entangled in Israeli-Arab or Iranian political issues? Can a special school that is, apparently, aimed at Arabic speakers, avoid involvement with Islamic principles - and the injection of religion into a secular space?
A minor but revealing detail in the Gibran school dispute involved Debbie Almontaser's request that the school cafeteria serve halal meals, conforming to Islamic dietary rules. Any moderate Muslim would ask why a school named for a Christian would include a halal menu for its students. Nobody knows what the fate of this ill-conceived project will be, but for a glimpse of a larger and more ambitious attempt at a similar plan, one may turn to the reportage here by Irfan al-Alawi, international director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism (CIP) and me, on a proposal by the Muslim Council of Britain for transformation of British state schools in the interest of "sensitivity" to Muslim students. The MCB plan called for non-Muslim as well as Muslim students to be summoned to observance of Islamic holidays, in an extraordinary inventory of "suggestions" that really amount to introduction of Islam as a pillar of UK state education. Much contention involves whether to deal with Islam is a religion, which should not be taught as such in American public schools, or a culture, which could, presumably, be studied in the same schools. Islam is both a religion and a culture but a religion first, and Muslims are religious believers, who should not be primarily defined as a quasi-ethnic minority requiring special facilities and protections in the West.
To emphasize, more experts, better trained in the languages, cultures, and religious customs of the Islamic world, are needed in the West. Indeed, educational quality also requires radical improvement in the Muslim lands. But first, in publicly-funded institutions teaching Middle East Studies (MES] in the U.S., instructional methods in such subjects as the Arabic language must be decoupled from Arab nationalism, radical Islam, Jew-baiting, anti-Americanism, and similar items that have become embedded in MES, including in language courses. This will not be an easy task. Ethnic and religious interests must not define the curricula of American public schools. On this count, genuinely moderate Muslims can make a significant contribution to America's well-being by helping develop better teaching materials.
Second, New York City should have learned in the 1960s how dangerous it is to "brainstorm" and otherwise improvise solutions to these problems. And finally, again to emphasize, young people should not become the victims of political demagogy or crossfire when they are simply trying to finish their basic education. These are commonsense matters on which well-intentioned people in all religions should be able to agree.