Tuesday, September 11

Student Thought: Khalil Gibran and the purpose of public education

Today, on the sixth anniversary of 9/11, it is fitting that I offer a student perspective on a story relating to the relationship between American and Arab culture. Coincidentally, that story has also been the biggest education issue of the summer.

The Khalil Gibran controversy has gone from a local story to one with full on international press coverage. Outlets from CNN to BBC to Al-Jazeera have all covered the story. As a student, I believe this story has gained importance because of its depiction of the relationship between Arab and mainstream American culture and its implications for the meaning and purpose of public education in America.

The word "Madrassa" has been thrown around a lot in the media over the past year. At first it was mainly used in articles about a school that Sen. Barack Obama attended when he lived in Indonesia as a child. Although it turned out the school was actually a public school serving students of diverse cultures and religions and the teachers even dressed in Western clothing, the mainstream media still questioned whether the American people could trust a president who went to kindergarten at a school in an Muslim country.

When a similar, public, non-religious school with a focus on Arabic and Arab culture was set to open up in Park Slope, it raised just as much controversy. Even though the school was named after a Christian, led by a woman who was a strong interfaith leader and located in a very liberal neighborhood with a visible Arab community, it was attacked by a parent group, the Stop the Madrassa Coalition.

Over the summer the story has shifted to the attack on its original leader and Principal Debbie Almontaser. The New York Post began to attack Ms. Almontaser on a nearly daily basis and she was eventually forced to resign under the pressure. This is a woman who has tons of experience in public education as a teacher, is an influential leader of her community, had a son who served in the National Guard and four nephews and cousins who fought in Iraq, and even gave the Rosh HaShana Sermon at the Brooklyn Synagogue Kolot Chayeinu a few years ago! To say that this woman is a separatist extremist is a blatant lie.

In response to all this controversy, one must ask: "Why create such a school?" For that answer I must turn to my own experience as a Park Slope elementary school student at PS 321. From kindergarten through 5th Grade, I cannot recall having a class without any Muslim students. Many of them came to school wearing traditional Muslim clothing. Many of them were my friends. We would play basketball in the playground behind the school during lunch and recess. In fifth grade when we were applying to middle schools, my Muslim friends were going through an entirely different process. While I was applying to MS 51, a Park Slope middle school, the majority of them were sending off applications to Muslim private schools like Al-Noor and Medina. I have since lost contact with most of my friends who went that route.

With KGIA, it appears that Ms. Almontaser was trying to create an environment in which the large population of students like my friends could go to a public school with a normal curriculum but could obtain a deeper understanding of their culture while doing so. It would be a school attractive to students and especially their parents.

In middle school I watched an old School House Rock video: "The Great American Melting Pot." My teacher then told us about how that view was outdated, we were now supposed to look at America as a tossed salad, full of many different cultures that retained their individuality but were a still a part of the whole. KGIA is an integral part of the salad. It is bringing students from a community that is not fully integrated into mainstream American culture, and judging from the media and community controversies, is often maligned and feared in America, into a closer relationship with (you guessed it) America, without completely giving up their culture.

In a school system as diverse as New York City's, isn't a large part of its mission to add ingredients to this "tossed salad"? From the controversy over KGIA and Barack Obama's education, we see that America is not comfortable with the Muslim and Arab communities of our country or the world. Through the creation of a small Brooklyn school, which now has only 60 students, the New York City school system is helping to ease this discomfort in the same way that it did previously for America's Jewish, Russian, Latino, West Indian, African, and Asian communities. If the mass local, national and international press coverage that this story has attracted tells us anything, it is that it's important to our city, our nation, and from the looks of it, our world that Khalil Gibran International Academy succeeds. Let's hope it does. I leave you with the words of educator Maria Montessori:

Preventing conflicts is the work of politics; establishing peace is the work of education.
Cross-posted at NYC Students Blog

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