Research Digest: The War on Terror and the School Experiences of Arab-American Youth
Abu El-Haj, T. R. (2010). “The beauty of America”: Nationalism, education, and the War of Terror. Harvard Educational Review, 80(2), 242-274.
Given the focus of my proposed Teaching and Learning Network mini-course (Political Climate and the American Curriculum), as well as recent news stories such as the NYC mosque controversy
and France's attempts
to ban women from wearing burqas, I was drawn to this recent HER
piece, which shared results from Abu El-Haj's ethnography of 40 students' (all members of a small Palestinian Muslim trans-national immigrant community) post-9/11 school experiences in a large American high school.
Both fascinating and compelling, the article painstakingly deconstructed how the “normative assumptions of national identity” (p. 267) embedded in the curriculum (such as individual freedom, tolerance, and political liberty) may inadvertently cut both ways for students identified as “others” (and particularly Arab “others”) by their teachers. For example, despite the symbolic emphasis on tolerance and diversity in the curriculum, Abu El-Haj reported limits on what constituted “acceptable” diversity in the school she visited. While less threatening markers of personal identity — like food and dance — were welcomed and encouraged, more controversial political or religious ideas were hushed or discouraged — or even resulted in disciplinary action. Similarly, teachers evinced an unwavering faith that the American school experience would help Arab students “assimilate” in terms of language, values and norms. Many girls, teachers thought, would benefit from the liberating freedom of American culture, and many boys, conversely, would learn to mitigate the “violence” and “anger” of their perceived temperaments. While, of course, these beliefs were grounded in assumptions and stereotypes more than actual experiences, their illumination was all the more frightening given their unconscious display and unexamined roots. Ultimately, the article pushes us to ask a number of truly important questions when it comes to education: In times of conflict and war, how well do our espoused ideals and commitments really hold up? How might patriotism influence and even compromise the learning experiences of students?
In the end, Abu El-Haj makes a strong case for more closely considering how our political context unwittingly shapes the work of teaching and learning — and like any troubling situation, things cannot improve until we are willing and able to look carefully at the problem.