Unraveling the lessons of the Mideast Teachers confront rapid-fire change

The Persian Gulf war has had one benevolent side effect: American schoolchildren are learning more about the Middle East than ever before.

Unfortunately, some of what they're learning is wrong, say educators and Mideast scholars.


The reason: Teachers who have little or no familiarity with the Middle East have been thrust into discussing it -- usually without training or materials.

"The opportunity to provide students with information that they are eager to learn about is being wasted because teachers aren't prepared and the resources aren't there," acknowledged C. Frederick Risinger, president of the National Council for the Social Studies. "And by the time we crank them out, all of a sudden the crisis may be in Bangladesh."


A visit to four schools in Maryland showed that students are indeed learning more about the Middle East. The region has been a constant topic of discussion in many social studies classes since the gulf crisis started. Some have continued discussing it since the end of the war.

But because there is no unified curriculum, students' knowledge varies drastically from class to class. Often, their heads are filled with misconceptions. In some classes, these misconceptions went uncorrected by teachers who seemed unsure of their facts.

A discussion among a lively bunch of fifth-graders at Northfield Elementary in Ellicott City last week started with such misconceptions. Students weren't quite sure what the main religion was in the Middle East and thought all women there wore veils.

But they ended up with some real information by bombarding their student teacher with questions. The teacher, Adeebe Cogar, is half-Lebanese and spent 10 years in Kuwait City.

They learned that people in Kuwait City don't have camels; that women there can choose not to wear veils, though in Saudi Arabia veils are mandatory; that there are shopping malls in Kuwait; that children attend school every day but Friday and that Islam has much in common with Christianity.

"I always thought that the Middle East was like this big desert," said 10-year-old Matthew Sniscak. "I didn't know that Kuwait was there. There are deserts but there are cities."

In Dianne L. Marsch's classes at Our Lady of Victory Catholic school in Baltimore, she told her seventh- and eighth-graders one day last month: "This will be in the history books one day, and I want you to be aware not just of the past, but right now."

Her students knew the holy cities of Mecca, Medina, Karbala and Najaf. They knew which countries voted in the United Nations against the use of force and which abstained.


"We used to think the Middle East is just the Middle East," said Stephanie McLaughlin, 13. "Now you see so many different cultures and people. You could see someone in Iraq saying 'Down with Bush' and someone somewhere else saying 'Help us.'

In contrast, John Vargo, an 11th-grader at Catonsville High School in Baltimore County, was convinced that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein could weld all Arabs together by invoking holy war.

"This is like a religious thing, and Saddam Hussein is sort of like god for all Arabs," John said -- although his teacher, Ross Kelbaugh, reminded him that Arab countries fought Iraq.

And two of John's classmates insisted that they had heard that King Hussein of Jordan is related to Saddam Hussein. Mr. Kelbaugh said he didn't think so, but promised to check.

"This is the pulse beat of America here, your basic man on the street, for better or worse," Mr. Kelbaugh said later. "There are some kids who are better informed.

"I don't profess to be an expert, but I know more than the average American," he said. "The average American doesn't know a lot."


In Robert A. Rudolph's U.S. history class at C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air, the veteran teacher tried to depict the complexity of the war's aftermath by discussing Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and the United States. He mentioned the rebellions of Shiites and Kurds in Iraq, and pointed out that diversity exists within Iraq just as it does in the United States.

But he did not mention that Iraq is ruled by Sunnis and has a majority Shiite population -- a conflict that is central to the rebellion there.

After class, 17-year-old Jennifer Schumann explained that Shiites are "a religious faction." It was something she would not have known before the war.

But she drew a blank on Sunnis.

These are the kinds of facts that scholars and educators hope youngsters will learn.

High school students should know the history of European colonization in the region, the beginnings of Israel and its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the interactions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, the economics of the region as linked to the world and the schism between Shiites and Sunnis, said Mr. Risinger of the social studies council.


But he said teachers struggle to balance required curriculum with world events.

"In social studies there is new information every day, and how can these teachers expect to keep up?" he said. "They can't."

Mr. Rudolph of C. Milton Wright High said he believes his students get the basics. "It's not my role to go back over the past 50 years of Middle East history," he said. "It is to a point, but there are so many other things to cover, too."

Mr. Risinger said it is up to school administrators and Mideast scholars to help teachers cope with the challenge thrust upon them.

But because most school systems take a long time adjusting curriculum, teachers are left to their own resources. Although Middle East outreach groups have sponsored workshops for teachers nationally, such contacts are limited.

Meanwhile, most teachers draw their lessons from newspapers, magazines and television -- leading to an emphasis on events and the military aspects of war rather than on history.


"[Students] are eager to learn, all right, but are you teaching them wrong things, or things that are half-true or inaccurate?" said William O. Beeman, a Brown University professor of Middle East anthropology who has worked with Rhode Island teachers since the war began.

"I've been a little sad about the level of knowledge of some of the teachers, who are very well-meaning [and] who are trying to give the students some good background but unwittingly are really misleading them into concepts that are incorrect."

The problem is aggravated because the Mideast is only a brief component of U.S. youngsters' education -- and their teachers' education, Dr. Beeman and others say. Students in the nation and in Maryland generally learn about the Middle East as part of elementary school geography and again as a unit of world history in middle school or 10th grade.

"It all comes down to what the teacher's area of expertise is," said Terry Levering, who teaches social studies at Loyola High School, a Roman Catholic school in Towson. "And there just aren't that many of us who know that much about the Middle East."

In Baltimore, deputy superintendent J. Edward Andrews Jr., decided teachers needed help taking advantage of what he calls "a perfect teaching moment." Instead of waiting for curriculum to catch up with events, he told school staff to develop a Mideast supplement.

The result, a five-page supplement distributed in February, doesn't quite meet that goal, lacking concrete information for teachers. Instead it lists proposed discussion questions, suggests vocabulary ranging from "aggression" to "Yitzhak Shamir" and activities such as having students research the major countries in the Middle East.


"It makes an attempt," Dr. Andrews said.

But most educators agree that what youngsters have learned in the past few months is a start.

"Usually, I think a little learning is a dangerous thing," said fifth-grade teacher Emily Vissers at Northfield Elementary. "In this case I think it's a good thing. It makes them curious."

Mideast expertise

These are resource centers suggested by the Middle East Outreach Council for teachers and others looking for accurate information on the Middle East.

*Amideast, 1100 17th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036. Telephone: (202) 785-0022. Contact Leslie Shmida Nucho.


*AWAIR -- Arab World and Islamic Resources and School Services -- 1400 Shattuck Ave., Suite 9, Berkeley, Calif. 94709. Telephone: (415) 704-0517. Contact Audrey Shabbas. Resources include the Arab World Notebook For The Secondary School Level, as well as books including Arabic and Persian works of fiction for children and adults.

*Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University. 1737 Cambridge St., Cambridge, Mass. 02138. Telephone: (617) 496-1002. Contact Carol Shedd, librarian for the Teaching Resource Center, Mondays-Thursdays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Materials include slides, cassettes, music and print information.

*Community Resource Center for the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University. Room 501, ICC, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., 20057. Telephone: (202) 687-5793. Contact Nina Dodge, coordinator.