California Chronicle: Educators Reassess Teaching about the Arab World

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California Chronicle: Educators Reassess Teaching About the Arab World

As the century winds down, Los Angeles is preparing to restructure its curriculum for the 21st century according to Dr. Margaret Grater, curriculum consultant to the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

"We need to eliminate stereotypes--especially in Los Angeles where we have some 130 spoken languages," stated Dr. Grater at an Arab World conference which she co-chaired Feb. 6 with Ms. Jo Bonita Smith Perez. More than 250 educators attended the conference, the first to focus on the Arab world.

Dr. Grater explained that when she traveled for the first time to Egypt, Israel and occupied Palestine two years ago, "Most of what I learned was how little I knew and that what information I did know was very inaccurate. I feel this (Arab) culture is not only one of the most misunderstood, but also one of the most misrepresented in the media and in available school resources."

With the advent of the Gulf war in January 1991, Dr. Grater mustered experts to discuss the Middle East with educators. "The teachers were enthusiastic and wanted to know more, so we decided to offer an Arab symposium," she said.

When the once-postponed program finally opened Feb. 6, it was an impressive production in terms both of the scope of workshops offered, and the efforts of the Arab-American community to acquaint teachers with their culture.

What Dr. Grater wasn't prepared for were the objections to such a symposium taking place. "We have multicultural conferences every year.

We just had one on Armenians and the Koreans are upcoming," she explains.

"We can't talk about restructuring schools until we start working out our differences. If we insist on having only one viewpoint as correct, then we've missed the point. A variety of truths exist on any one issue."

Materials to be distributed at the symposium underwent severe screening to ascertain that they contained nothing political. Although she didn't see them personally, Dr. Grater was told of letters that called for monitors standing guard to make sure nothing of a political nature was distributed at the event.

"Many Jews are truthfully trying to find peace, but the behavior I've seen by some groups in the past three months is an insult to Jews who are working for peace," Dr. Grater said. "I would almost call it aberrant behavior. Certainly the Turks didn't protest or oppose the Armenian conference.

"No matter how qualified our presenters were, they weren't free to say all they wanted to. I don't think we do this at other conferences."

Educators came from throughout California for the daylong event featuring panels, workshops, and an art exhibit. An entryway featured a Bedouin tent made of carpets. More than 21 exhibitors staffed booths containing everything from Arabic cuisine to books, maps, and jewelry.

"Our presenters weren't free to say all they wanted to."

The sensitivity of non-specialists to teaching about the Muslim world was exemplified in the methods of Catherine Young of the Banning Unified School District, east of Los Angeles. …