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Jewish World Review Jan. 21, 2002/ 8 Shevat, 5762

Suzanne Fields

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The old-time religion at the schoolhouse -- PICTURE this: Tiffany, Melanie and Samantha, ages 11, 11 and 12, all dressed up in burqas. You can't see the blonde hair or blue eyes that suggest Valley Girl good looks, but you can see high-top sneakers or wedgie boots beneath the hemlines, giving them away as trendy subteens.

Then picture Brian, Justin and Kevin. They're dressed in flowing Muslim robes, looking more like miniatures of T.E. Lawrence out of the movie "Lawrence of Arabia,'' than the fanatic Islamists we've seen on the front pages of the newspapers.

This is not a ritual in a mosque, nor a rehearsal for a play set in Kandahar, but a "learning experience'' for seventh graders at certain public schools in California. The teachers insist they're only complying with standards for social studies classes called "World History and Geography: Medieval and Early Modern Times.'' Each teacher can choose the strategy he or she thinks works.

At one school, a teacher asks her students to "pretend'' to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. At another, seventh graders are warriors fighting for their faith. They take Islamic names (Moussaoui? Mohammed? Abu?), quote from the Koran and learn how to write phrases in Arabic. So far as we know, they aren't being taught to fly a Boeing 767. "From the beginning, you and your classmates will become Muslims,'' according to a course description sent home with the children. "Dressing as a Muslim and trying to be involved will increase your learning and enjoyment.''

Parents are outraged, as they should be. In addition to the issues of fanaticism that are called into play by such an exercise, the scheme is insulting to Islam and invites ludicrous demands for equal time from Catholics, Baptists, Jews, Presbyterians, Buddhists, Methodists and maybe even Hottentots.

Can anyone imagine asking children to wear black curls in front of their ears, black suits and hats and assume Chassidic Jewish names? Could a class pretend to be crusaders setting out to the Middle East to kill Islamic infidels? What about a pretend revival meeting? Could a teacher take her students down to the lake for mock baptism by immersion? Or assign the boys to sit bare legged with white cloths covering their loins, humming a Buddhist mantra? And if not, why not?

Halloween can be banned in schools because of its religious origins, but Wicca could lobby for kids to dress up as witches with broomsticks as an educational tool: "So wither and so wild in their attire.''

How a child studies history, including the history of religion and "facts'' of faith, is as important as the information imparted. This is elementary. We could dismiss these California examples as mere California aberrations if that's what they really were, but they grow out of fashionable educational theories that resist challenging children to outgrow the Sesame Street Syndrome -- offering anything to "make learning fun.'' The more gimmicky, the more fashionable. Schools become theme parks. Be a Muslim or a Methodist (or Mickey Mouse) for a day.

Such methods emphasize empathy over information, feelings over intelligence, performance over achievement. One day not so long ago, before Phil Donahue felt Oprah breathing down his neck, he introduced a male guest with an artificial belly, a 25-pound appliance for men to wear when their wives were pregnant. This enabled them to share the "burden'' of pregnancy. Naturally Uncle Phil thought this was neat, and everybody laughed. This is the simple-mindedness that distorts learning.

"Values Clarification'' courses were once the rage. Young children got to exercise their moral judgment by imagining an atomic war when there weren't enough bomb shelters to protect the neighborhood. They debated who should be saved, and who should be left outside to die. Was an engineer more valuable than a cook? Should a pregnant woman be sacrificed for a strong man?

Simulation became more important than information.

Parents of children in the controversial middle schools in California complain that the school administrators award more time to teaching Islam than to studying other religions. A school superintendent denies that. "We are not teaching religion,'' says Peggy Green, in charge of the Byron Union School District near Oakland. Her defense, however, makes the offense worse:

"Dressing up in costume, role-playing and simulation games are all used to stimulate class discussion and are common teaching practices used in other subjects as well. There's nothing to be upset about.''

Says who?

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS