Commentary | Education

Lessons—The other war, against intolerance

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


The other war, against intolerance

By  Richard Rothstein

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The day after the attacks, an Amtrak train was detained here, and police officers seized a bearded man wearing a turban, suspecting him of complicity. The authorities cordoned off downtown, disrupting commuters’ and students’ travel home. The city’s Muslim minority feared hostility and repression.

The next morning Zozan Haji, 15, one of six children in a family of Kurdish refugees from Iraq, removed the Muslim head scarf she had always worn. But her quest to blend in was unsuccessful. As Zozan walked into Feinstein High School, three African-American boys threatened to attack her.

What happened next may not be typical. But as the nation debates how to balance security with civil liberties, how much emphasis to give to defense, to retribution, to prevention, the focus of many schools in the last two decades on multiculturalism and conflict resolution may make it less likely for rash views to prevail.

After Zozan reported the threats, Nancy Owen, the principal, spoke with her, and with the boys and their parents. She summoned district psychologists to lead schoolwide assemblies the next morning, followed by small group discussions.

In these groups, some boys — many of them African-American, though not all — told how angered they were at being singled out themselves, profiled by the police. Some of these boys had empathy for Zozan. But not all of them did. More often, the greatest insistence that profiling Muslims is wrong came from African-American girls, though their experience with police hostility is less direct.

In each group, teachers reminded students about their studies of the many cultures that make up this nation. Literacy instruction in elementary schools, for example, now often uses readings from the works of not only white authors but also ethnic minorities — African-Americans, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanics — to help pupils identify with characters from each.

The district’s high school history textbook, “American Voices,” calls racial, ethnic and religious diversity the nation’s most compelling theme, saying this is sometimes a strength, sometimes a challenge. “The United States,” the text states, “has struggled with contradictory ideals concerning immigrants: the wish to promote cultural diversity and the desire to Americanize each new wave.”

Nationwide, instruction that underscores the country’s ethnic variety has been controversial. Critics note that students are more likely to know about Japanese-American internment during World War II than about lend-lease or Yalta. A decade ago, as schools furthered an emphasis on the nation’s many ethnicities, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote a rebuke, saying such teaching would prevent children from gaining “the unifying vision of individuals from all nations melted into a new race.”

At least from events at Feinstein in the last two weeks, that fear seems overblown. Even if teaching sometimes tilts too far to a focus on Americans’ diverse origins, students who are most proud of their own ancestry have not become those who are least tolerant of others. Rather, those rushing most strongly to Zozan’s defense were students who correlated her experiences with those of their own families and ancestors. These fiercely American students insist that respect for due process, individual rights and cultural difference is the unifying vision.

Other teaching has also had an effect. Many adolescents have had some instruction in conflict resolution. Again, it is African-American girls who seem to take it most seriously at Feinstein. One of them, Christine Gomes, urges military restraint. “In class,” she argued, “they keep on saying that the bigger person is the one who walks away from a fight, the one who wants peace. How many people do we have to kill to make Americans feel better? Some of these politicians who want war are acting younger than we are.”

Of course, such views are not universal here, and this school may not be typical. Adolescent absolutism, opposed to all ethnic profiling or a war of retaliation, cannot solve the complex problems facing American leaders. The man taken off the train in Providence was singled out for his appearance and had no association with terrorists. But young Arab men are more likely than others to be part of Osama bin Laden’s network. With lives at stake, do we really want to tell the police that they cannot take this into account?

Confronting difficult decisions, the nation may be stronger because many educators have cleansed curriculums of jingoism and infused them with tolerance. As young people with such schooling participate in democratic debate, they too will find it hard to come up with answers to our national plight. But answers they develop stand an increased chance of being good ones.

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