After a school district in Texas announced plans to introduce Arabic culture and language classes into its schools, starting in elementary school, almost 200 parents showed up at a meeting with district officials, many of them angry.
The Mansfield School District's plans were part of a federally funded grant to teach critical languages, as designated by the federal government, including Chinese, Russian and Arabic. The U.S. has "a deficit in Arabic speakers and people who understand the Arabic culture," district spokesman Richie Escovedo told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The federal government has called Arabic the "language of the future."
For now, though, Mansfield students won't get to participate in the push for more Arabic speakers. After parents expressed concerns, especially about their children learning about Islam, the district has put the plans on hold, apologizing for not keeping parents more in the loop.
"We had people who were animatedly fearful of anything to do with Islam," Willie Wimbrey, assistant principal at one of the schools, told the Star-Telegram.
This is Arizona, so of course, we're no strangers to fearing what's different. Nor are we strangers to limiting access to education about other cultures, especially those we deem somehow un-American. The fight over ethnic studies has shown the dirty depths parents and politicians will go to in order to avoid having meaningful conversations with kids about different cultures and their relationship with America.
But keeping these kinds of programs, whether the Raza Studies in Tucson Unified School District or Arabic language in Texas schools, is vital if America is going to survive more and more globalization. The time when English was the only language a person needed to conduct business, engage in science and technology, or even just communicate on the streets of their hometown, is over. It's a rapidly shrinking world and a rapidly expanding global economy, and we absolutely have to get on board.
But beyond the practical reasons to teach diverse languages and cultures in schools — not just universities, but primary and secondary schools, when those lessons can really take hold — are the plain old human reasons.
There are two things parents and so-called "well-meaning" (I'm playing fast and loose with that term) adults need to remember about their kids' education. 1. Learning more about the world is almost never going to make your child a worse, less empathetic or less intelligent person. 2. Your kids are not stupid.
The first should be a given. Especially when kids are young, there's almost no bad knowledge you can give them, no truths you can teach that won't help shape a more complex, thoughtful worldview. There aren't good and bad parts of the world, either, or good and bad history. There are just lessons and the potential for broader and deeper understanding. The less we label some learning helpful and some harmful, the better. A little more learning never hurt anybody.
But also, and I can't stress this enough: Trust kids. They're paying attention. They're good, or want to be. Assuming that understanding the religion of Islam is going to make your child sympathize with terrorists, or learning about Native American and Mexican-American history is going to make them seditious lunatics is just plain not giving them enough credit. Parents, teachers, government officials, lobbyists, Daily Star online commenters — they all imagine young people's minds are squishy, ill-formed and impressionable. And the more they assume that, the truer it will become.
Schools, from elementary to university, need to give students the opportunity to know everything, or as close to everything as they possibly can, and choose for themselves. That's what education means, and when you limit it for any reason, all you're doing is robbing someone of the tools they need to understand, succeed in and love their world.
— Heather Price-Wright is the assistant arts editor for the Daily Wildcat. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.