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The Sept. 11 tragedy has left us searching for answers. While our leaders have the daunting task of dealing with the political aftermath, we, as parents and educators, share a responsibility as well. It is time we took a hard look at the shortcomings of our present education system. If the purpose of education is to inform, then our fragile society that erupted into racial mudslinging after the attack is proof of widespread ignorance and misinformation. We have the power to change the way the world perceives America and the way we perceive the world, by creating a more informed generation.
As an Indian immigrant, I owe a lot to America. This is where my horizons were broadened, where I learnt to appreciate the value of community service, parental involvement, and physical labor. America also empowered me to question, while it gave wing to my creativity. It is here that I rediscovered my true identity and this is also where my two children were born. But my western upbringing and catholic schooling could not prepare me for the bigotry that I was to face upon my arrival here two decades ago. Today, I feel immensely grateful to those enlightened Americans who reached out with their friendship and open minds to heal old wounds and encouraged me to strike roots here.
Time and again this land of freedom has been rocked by distrust and hatred toward immigrants—all due to ignorance. It happened after Pearl Harbor. It happened during the Gulf War and it is happening now after the attack on Sept. 11. A few weeks ago I would exult as I looked about me at the traffic lights and see the variety of faces from around the world. Never before have I known the heady feeling of being so connected with the entire planet just by living in this part of America. There is no feeling to beat that sense of oneness. Yet, after Sept. 11 that bubble burst and my sense of belonging were once again challenged. I was jolted out of my grief for the victims, by a chilling awareness of the violent reaction towards people who looked like me! It makes me angry but we shall overcome. Through education.
Americans have, for generations, been deprived of a comprehensive view of the world. Its own greatness has been propagated in schools as well as the media, through negative imaging of other nations and cultures. This has only served to put blinders on our society. Judging from the questions that I am often asked by “educated” Americans about India, many are oblivious to the existence of civilization beyond our shores. In the absence of a comprehensive and substantial world curriculum, children often get superficial exposure to Eastern culture through Walt Disney cartoons!
I am dismayed when immigrant children choose to abandon their wealth of cultural background for fear of being seen as unAmerican! What causes such intimidation? Schools need to play a major role in “universalizing” our curriculum. If there is more awareness there will be recognition and acceptance of life’s multifaceted perspectives. Only then shall we take our differences in our stride. I ask that a wider choice of music, languages, and art be offered within the school campuses so that they are better recognized. There is no dearth of teachers and there is no dearth of students willing to learn cross-cultural activity. What is lacking is a universal approach to education.
Our education needs to reflect the changing ethnic mix of this country. What the media endorses in its campaigns to unite our cultures must be reiterated by textbooks and teachers in the classrooms. America is the child of many civilizations—not the European civilizations alone. Indulging in multicultural song and dance at the elementary and middle school level is insufficient to impress upon high school Americans, the value of immigrants in our society. They need to be reminded that extraordinary people from around the world have forged today’s America. Those immigrants, who have contributed to progress in technology and scientific research, that we are so proud of, must be recognized in the curriculum as present day heroes. It is not enough that they are celebrated in business and trade magazines; our children need to be aware of them. This will help reinforce the role of new immigrants in this country. Our students need to be taught that American society has evolved since the Europeans came. That our art, literature, food, music, dress, and thought have changed and there is no going back.
The prevalent view in our textbooks and reference material only serves to further the notion that the Western civilization’s contribution has been more significant to this planet. The sprinkling of multicultural material that is included in the curriculum is superficial and sometimes downright inaccurate, to offer the same credibility that western culture has enjoyed until now.
We are all products of that millennium where books hype western literature and thought; encyclopedias contain oversized pictures of western musical instruments and personalities. European Art is projected as being synonymous with world art while others are shown as diminutive little also-ran objects! This needs to be seriously addressed. Therein lies the crux of the matter. Academicians bear the responsibility of influencing children’s publishers with accurate information. Schools must identify resourceful community members who can offer authentic information rather than depend on half-baked experts.
I question the value of the detailed study of Greek mythology when parallel perspectives can enrich children. Only when teachers discuss all religions across the board can their existence be validated in the minds of all students. Strangely enough, Greek Gods and Goddesses seem to prevail over their counterparts in world mythology! In an environment where western culture has been greatly asserted, schools need to reaffirm the identity of children from all communities. Today there is a grudging interest in Islam due to unpleasant circumstances. Yet the oldest religion, Hinduism, gets shortchanged in the curriculum, for lack of understanding or pressure. Why does America respond to desperate acts alone? I have been flabbergasted by comments that suggest Indian art as being religious or that Jesus is the real God, everything else is unreal!! These comments have come from a teacher and a child whose mother is a teacher! Only schools can counter the fanaticism that is bred in the privacy of some homes.
Our teachers are poorly equipped to deal with the new Americans. Without a specific lesson plan, teachers have the liberty to skim over countries and cultures that they are less familiar with. There is a fundamental danger here for they can invalidate the significance of some civilizations. Take my son’s sixth grade teacher who made the following comment in the presence of his students: “Roman and Greek civilizations absolutely dominate the rest!” This is no different than the ludicrous claims that many advertisers make of being the “world’s best whatever.” But a teacher’s word can make an impression of a lifetime—I dread to think of the little Euro centric believers that he has to his credit!
Americans are touched to the quick when their patriotism is challenged and yet, in its isolation America remains insensitive to foreign sentiment. Take the situation of the Native Americans being referred to as Indians in all our books and classrooms. A ridiculous mistake that was made 500 years ago has been perpetuated to this day! It is proof of America’s ignorance or its arrogance that no one has chosen to correct this confusion.
Our scholars and educators, who can influence this change, continue to disregard the identity of a burgeoning population of almost 2 million Indians in this country, leave alone 20 percent of the world’s population.
We could either use the present adversity to our advantage by making this a turning point in our education or find that ignorance may no longer be bliss.