In an op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times, our friend Rick Kahlenberg reflects on the controversy over the Kahlil Gibran International Academy [KGIA]. The task of public schools, he argues, is to teach what it means to be an American. Citing the authority of Al Shanker, he suggests that a dual language school such as KGIA, with a special curricular focus on a second language and its associated culture, would be more inclined to adopt an uncritical approach to that particular experience. Further, with its special focus on the particular culture, it would be more apt to neglect the teaching of what we Americans have in common.
We agree with Kahlenberg — and Shanker — that the preeminent purpose of public schools is the education of the next generation of American citizenry. But we do not believe that dual language schools have proven to be any more susceptible to failure at this task than other public schools with different curricular themes and foci, from enterpeneurship and math to social justice and core knowledge. Every public school faces the challenge of teaching students how to think critically, about their own particular history and culture, about the larger American cultural mosaic and its historical evolution, and about our place in world history and culture. Every public school has to figure out how to focus its teaching on our common national purpose — what we Americans hold in common that is the foundation of our collective well-being.
It is important to recall here just what this American common purpose is. The genius of American national identity has been that it was founded not on a particular ethnic culture, but on a democratic civic creed. To be an American is to embrace the precepts of the Declaration of Independence that all men and women are created equal, with inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that government exists to protect those rights and to promote the commonweal. While other nations base citizenship rights upon ethnic blood lines, American citizenship is open to an individual of any background who adopts our common civic creed. As a direct consequence of our common political faith in liberty, freedom of conscience and freedom of expression, cultural pluralism — the co-existence and mutual toleration of diverse communities of faith, language and ethnicity in a nation of immigrants — is an important part of the American civic creed. Properly conceived and organized around a culture of democratic teaching and learning, a dual language school is not only consistent with the American civic creed, but an notable expression of its cultural pluralism.
As part of the New Visions school approval process, the UFT had an opportunity to examine the design of and plans for KGIA: our representatives carefully studied an application of scores of pages, and participated in the panel interview of the school planning team. We found that the school’s mission was entirely consistent with the American civic creed, promoting values of non-violence, tolerance and cultural understanding. Based on these findings, we have supported KGIA at every stage in its development.
Our understanding of KGIA’s mission separates us both from the New York tabloid press and from some in the blogosphere who have rushed to criticize our public position on the ‘intifada’ issue. The mere fact that KGIA is a dual language Arabic school provides the tabloids with sufficient cause to label it a fundamentalist madrasa, and in a remarkable symmetry, our critics carelessly describe KGIA as a school dedicated to the promotion of “Islamic culture, history and language.” In fact, KGIA’s namesake Gibran was not even a Muslim. If KGIA was even remotely close to either fact-free description, it would never have received our support. We would not support a public school dedicated to the promotion of the beliefs of any faith community, be it Christian, Jewish, Islamic or another religious creed.
Our blog critics insist that support in such matters must be unconditional, and that the UFT was wrong to criticize the temporizing on the subject of ‘the intifada’ that unnecessarily brought the integrity of KGIA into question. From our vantage point, the very same civic principles which led us to support for KGIA demanded public censure on this question. The original statement did not provide, as has been implausibly claimed, a “historical context” for the term ‘the intifada’; to the contrary, it sought to strip the immediate historical context from the term through a discussion of its etymology. ‘The intifada’ is the name chosen by the authors of a lengthy campaign of violence that has repeatedly employed suicide bombers to describe their own work. It is a term which can not be separated by discussions of ‘root words’ from acts of terror which have targeted indiscriminately masses of civilians as they ate in restaurants and traveled to and from their homes in buses. Since ‘the intifada’ is so clearly and directly connected to suicide bombings, as educators we must separate ourselves from it, and condemn those acts of violence. As a union who understands itself to be in the non-violent social justice tradition of Martin Luther King, silence simply was not an option.
It is time for the work of creating KGIA, of fulfilling the vision of a school dedicated to global citizenship and civic values of non-violence, religious and ethnic tolerance and pluralism, to move ahead. As we have been from the school’s conception, long before this incident, the UFT remains fully committed to those ends. Our insistence upon the consistent application of democratic civic principle has given our support for KGIA a force that can not be easily discounted or dismissed.