On August 10, 2012, the Jewish Advocate published an article on the simmering conflict in Newton over the use of inflammatory and unscholarly material to teach high school students about Islam and the Middle East. The article “Watchdogging Newton Schools” describes the efforts of a small group of concerned parents to bring some transparency to the process of how Newton selects material to teach its high school students about Islam and the Middle East.
To date, the Newton school system has not made a serious effort to address the concerns expressed by the group. Instead, the parents complain of being belittled by administrators and their requests to view the teaching materials have been stonewalled. This sort of bureaucratic non-responsiveness only increases the concern that the school system has something to hide.
The most disturbing element of the story is the fear expressed by parents, who choose to remain anonymous because they don’t want their children to face retribution from the teachers. What does that say about the intellectual environment of the Newton school system? Ironically, Newton has a large contingent of Russian Jews who emigrated from the Soviet Union. Some from the Russian Jewish community have remarked that the school’s curt dismissal of parental concerns and the fear parents express of retribution by teachers reminds them of the way things were in the old Soviet Union.
Predictably, the school’s defenders, like school board member Matt Hills, claim that “academic freedom is at stake.” Mr. Hills confuses academic freedom with the right of parents to know what their children are being taught and whether it has been properly vetted for factual content. Hills dismisses the concerns because only “a tiny, tiny number of people” are complaining about “some unidentified bias.” To the extent that the Hills feels the bias is unidentified, he should be concerned that the school system has refused to provide materials for public review. But he is mistaken in his assessment. The bias has been identified, he has simply chosen to ignore it and marginalize those who have attempted to bring it to his attention. As a school board member Hills’s foremost responsibility is to be an advocate for the public, not act as a flak for the school administration.
The Newton school system has utilized on several occasions, the services of anti-Israel agitator Paul Beran, director of the Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies Outreach Center. Beran is a visible participant in the movement to boycott, sanction and divest from Israel. He has used irresponsible language attacking those who support Israel and libelously accused an Israeli general of war crimes.
Hills defends Newton’s invitation to have Beran speak in front of 45-60 teachers about the Oslo Peace Accords. He claims Beran’s talk was “totally uncontroversial, non-ideological and well-received.” That does not address the question of why the school system thought it appropriate to invite an anti-Israel agitator who is not recognized as an expert to lecture its teachers about the Oslo Peace Accords. If their judgement was so deficient that they chose Beran out of all the available experts in the Boston area, can we trust Hills’s assessment of the content of Beran’s presentation?
The questions raised by the parent group PENS need to be considered by parents everywhere. These issues go beyond concerns about the injection of anti-Israel elements into teaching material. No well-defined process for vetting teaching materials on Islam and the Middle East exists within the Newton schools or in most school systems. A member of PENS was told by a curriculum director that teachers simply used material they had pulled off the internet. Are Newton parents, many of whom have benefitted from highly rigorous educations, comfortable with teachers pulling un-vetted material from the internet to teach their children?
Unfortunately, much of what exists for teaching about the Middle East has been funded by groups with ideological agendas. The Arab World Notebook that Newton used is an example. This is not an objective or scholarly text book. It has been roundly criticized for its numerous factual inaccuracies and proselytizing approach.
Ultimately, the question remains, are the parents of Newton students and are the students themselves, content to receive an incomplete, subpar education on Islam and the Middle East? Or will they demand something better?