The Political Uses of Education

The Political Uses of Education

It’s a familiar observation that history is written by the victors.

We must acknowledge that any account of any set of events will involve a perspective. Someone has to tell the story, and that someone’s vocabulary and understanding of events will play a powerful role in how the story is told. However honest we may wish to be, our honesty inherently is conditioned by what it is we think we know and how we can express it.

For careful observers of human events, including the best of scholars (but not just scholars), this acknowledgement fosters a degree of humility about our accounts, and considerable introspection about how we arrive at them.

For politically motivated operatives, it opens the way to powerful yet subtle influence over the minds and hearts of others.

A story in the New York Times a couple of months ago traced the work of such operatives in the unstable environment that is the Middle East. The story focused on a new textbook introduced by Hamas for use in the schools it controls. Eighth, ninth and tenth grade students are learning nothing about the Oslo Peace Accords (to which the Palestine Liberation Organization is a signatory), and much about the merits of armed resistance to what they are taught is an illegitimate entity (not a nation-state) called Israel. Tens of thousands of children are being taught that armed struggle is the only path to peace . . . which, at least to my mind, does not bode well for peace, or for those children.

But Hamas is not alone in this effort. The Palestinian Authority’s curriculum, from which Hamas’ schools are deviating, is less militant,

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but offers what must be understood as a decidedly pro-Palestinian perspective. The textbooks used in Israel, likewise, tell a story that reflects the concerns of their authors and their nation, at times in ways that Palestinians would not recognize as truthful.

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find controversies over textbook selections in Texas and elsewhere. Still closer to home, this past fall has seen intense conflict in Florida over the new Common Core standards in education. The Common Core establishes expectations for what students should learn at each level in each subject . . . an exercise almost guaranteed to foster controversy.

Perspective is unavoidable. People will disagree about what is important for students to learn, and how what is important should be presented. When it comes to public education, at least, politicians will be involved in some fashion or other in resolving these disagreements (even if they do so by giving that responsibility to a professional group and stay out of the details).

The real danger lies, not in choosing a perspective (since that is unavoidable), but in choosing, by excluding important ideas, to make our students ignorant. There are dominant perspectives in each discipline, and there are meaningful controversies. Our schools should be producing young women and men who can discuss intelligently the prevailing understanding in each field, understand the controversies, and be able to think critically for themselves. And our schools should be producing such young adults with an education that stands up to serious comparison with other states and other nations.

Anything less, and we have sacrificed our children’s future, in a global economy, for the sake of temporary political gain.