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A Liberal Perspective on Brooklyn’s Arabic Academy Brouhaha

By Daniel Treiman

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Conservative media outlets like the New York Post have led the charge against a controversial Arabic-themed public school planned for Brooklyn, the Khalil Gibran International Academy. But, Richard Kahlenberg argues in a compelling New York Times Op-Ed, there’s reason for liberals to be wary as well:

The late Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, once famously said that the rationale for public schools was to teach children what it means to be an American.

At their core, in free democratic societies, schools are meant to develop children who will grow up with critical minds to be productive employees and tolerant, independent-thinking citizens. But in America, given our diversity, Shanker believed that public schools should provide a common education to children from all backgrounds that teaches not only skills but also American history, culture and democracy. Public schools, to him, were critical in this process of Americanization.

Keeping Shanker’s point in mind, there are principled reasons to be concerned about the Gibran school that are not simply bigoted. Jonathan Zimmerman, who teaches history and education at New York University, has likened opposition to the school with anti-German hysteria during World War I, when state legislatures passed measures barring or restricting German language classes. But there is a significant difference between teaching Arabic in a public school — something all Americans should support — and creating a school dedicated primarily to the study of Arabic language, history and culture.

Kahlenberg says that this need to foster a common American identity is the same reason that liberals oppose government vouchers for private schools.

Indeed, the right-wing New York Sun used the controversy to promote one of its favorite hobbyhorses: vouchers. The Sun editorialized:

A taxpayer-funded Arabic school would only underscore the injustice of allowing one group of parents to educate their own children in a school that elevates their language, civilization, and religion at taxpayer expense, while depriving other parents of the same choices. Our test for whether all of the parties to this controversy are standing on principle will be their position on vouchers.

To reiterate: As articulated by Kahlenberg (channeling Shanker), the liberal position is that our school system “should provide a common education to children from all backgrounds that teaches not only skills but also American history, culture and democracy.” The conservative position, as articulated by the Sun, is that we should subsidize parents who want “to educate their own children in a school that elevates their language, civilization, and religion at taxpayer expense.” In other words, we have a clear choice between E Pluribus Unum and E Pluribus Pluribus.

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Yehuda Thu. Aug 23, 2007

Americanization generally means the loss of one's own heritage. Surely, this is the story of the Jewish community. The Yiddish language and culture disappeared within two generations. It's so common to find a Jewish "intellectual" whose intellectualism might include a whole wide variety of interests - but not anything from Jewish culture (you wouldn't be surprised if he couldn't recognize his own name in Hebrew script). Now, if your point of view is the American world, then this is how things are supposed to be. However, if you are focused on a continuity that is a reflection of an ancient civilization - well, the public school system has been a terrible blow to Jewishness. Today, most US states allow for a charter school - state funded private schools (in which religion is NOT taught). The Chinese have grabbed the opportunity to restore their language through a school that emphasizes their language and culture. There are similar French speaking schools, and now the Arabs are interested in preserving their rich heritage as well. I hope the Jews will exploit the chance and establish Hebrew speaking schools, and graduate a bi-lingual new generation of American Jews. The process of Americanization has already occurred. The Jews are English speaking Americans who feel at home in the American cultural reality - they generally do NOT feel at home in the Jewish cultural treasures. The time has come to invest efforts in restoring some particularism - primarily Jewish traditional bilingualism.

Bonnie Hansen Tue. Sep 4, 2007

If taxpayers are paying for an arabic speaking school, then a Spanish, Chinese, Italian, Danish, German, etc. ect. etc. should also be allowed and paid for by the taxpayer. Home schooling should be paid for as well as vouchers allowed for private schools. Pay it all or pay none. Everyone of these private, language-other-than English speaking groups and homeschoolers should sue for funding. When in USA, be an American. If you don't like being an American, leave.

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