Today, the materials I was given to teach included the topics of "terrorism", "healthy eating" and "climate change". Well, if you're a long-time reader here, you'll know immediately that my hackles went up. The articles and lesson plans were obviously unabashed propaganda with a strong US federalist bent. The problem was, how to present this material in an "English" class without becoming part of the problem.
This is a difficult choice. Obviously, the producers of the textbook are some arm of the US propaganda machine, and they are seeking to manipulate young, open minds with a particular point of view. In the case of the "Terrorism" article, it was plainly trying to justify America's bombing the snot out of every Muslim country it can find. And here I live in a predominantly Muslim country. Doesn't take much to conclude that we are potential targets of American imperialism here.
An additional problem was that the students would be tested on the materials I was presenting. Therefore, I had to make sure I didn't hinder their ability to regurgitate on command, while at the same time ensuring that they weren't victims of vicious and cynical forces trying to manipulate them. Furthermore, I had to achieve these goals while keeping the class interesting and not preaching or lecturing.
The 9th grade drew the "terrorism" material. OK, so I passed around the papers and opened the discussion with, "What is the definition of terrorism?" A few nervous looks. Some thumbed through the pages looking for the answer. One student piped up, "It's when a group of fanatics attack a nation to scare people." Obviously a victim of mind control, but not too late.
"That's partially correct," I said. "Someone surf over to the Merriam-Webster dictionary site." The laptops and Blackberries flew into action. Students love when they can use their toys in class. The first student there began reading aloud:
"..Although usually thought of as a means of destabilizing or overthrowing existing political institutions, terror also has been employed by governments against their own people to suppress dissent; examples include the reigns of certain Roman emperors, the French Revolution (see Reign of Terror), Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union under Stalin, and Argentina during the “dirty war” of the 1970s. Terrorism's impact has been magnified by the deadliness and technological sophistication of modern-day weapons and the capability of the media to disseminate news of such attacks instantaneously throughout the world."
"What can we conclude from that definition?," I asked.
"That terrorism is usually used by governments against their own people," said a bright bulb.
"And how long has that been going on?", I prompted.
"Since Roman times," came a growing chorus, as they started to get the point.
"Good! Under the old definition of terrorism, only governments could be terrorists, because the groups of people fighting against government were revolutionaries. Whether revolutionaries are terrorists is only a matter of whether they win or lose, right? But government terrorism is always terrorism."
Heads bobbed up and down as they pondered this new way of looking at things. I pressed on.
"Does anyone here believe that Osama bin Laden, sitting in a cave in Afghanistan, caused the 9/11 attacks?"
There was a pause and they looked around to see who would raise a hand. They had learned over time that I never let someone get away with a blanket statement without a challenge. A hand timidly raised in the back.
"Yes? Why do you think that?", I inquired.
"Because the evidence proved he was guilty," came the reply.
"What evidence is that?", I pressed.
"Well, they had evidence that bin Laden had been planning the attack for a long time," the voice quivered a bit.
"Can you display the evidence for us?" There was silence. So I put them to work again. "OK, go to Google and search for evidence that bin Laden masterminded the 9/11 attacks."
There was a swell of happy clicking as they scoured the internet for evidence. At one point, there was a kind of lull that fell over the class. Every teacher knows this moment. It's when minds get opened and students take just the tiniest moment to consider that all they believed just two minutes ago might not be true. I call it the "eureka" moment.
"How many results did you get?"
"Fifteen million five hundred thousand," came the reply.
"Now, click through a few pages and scan the headlines. Do they seem like they are promoting the idea that bin Laden was behind the attacks?"
"Most of them are questions," came one bright voice.
"Of the links that appear to support the idea, what are the sources?", I continued.
"Some are Wikipedia and some are media websites."
"Click on the Wikipedia article and look for the section that talks about evidence of bin Laden's guilt. What are the sources for that information?"
There was a pause as they poked around and read the articles. Then a couple of voices rang out in unison:
"The sources are government agencies and media," they chimed.
"Given what we know about the definition of terrorism from the dictionary, do you believe government sources when it comes to evidence for a terror suspect?", I asked.
There was a moment of silence as they cogitated on this new way of thinking. I could see in the eyes of several of the students that they were making the connections. Then one of the bright bulbs spoke up:
"If governments throughout history have used terrorism as a way to control people, then we should be careful with government evidence about terror attacks?" A teacher can always tell when they get the idea, but are afraid to declare it out of fear of ridicule.
"Exactly!", I said. "So, when we read today's article, what should we do?"
Another pause. "Be critical of the information in it?" Still unsure.
"Yes!" I felt exhilarated. I love when minds start working. "Now, with the things we have talked about, what do you think is the difference between 'information' and 'knowledge'?"
Even longer silence. Then, one of the faces lit up. I knew she got it.
"Information is not right or wrong," she mused.
"Go on," I prompted.
"But knowledge can be false?"
"Exactly!," I cried. "Information doesn't have a context, but knowledge does. If I say that 'leaves are green', is that always true?"
"No, because some die and turn a different color."
"Right!," I was getting excited. "So 'leaves are green' is information, but it is not 'knowledge', because we know that leaves change colors when they die. The information now has a context and we know it is not always true."
One of the class critics spoke up. "So, are you saying that Osama bin Laden didn't do 9/11?"
"No, what I am saying is that you must apply history, culture and all the other contexts you know to any new information. If the new information does not fit what you already know, then you must analyze it more closely. If the information does not stand up to analysis, then what should you do?"
"Throw it away?"
"Either that, or..."
"Find a context to fit the information?"
"Exactly. And if the context you find does not fit what you know to be true?"
"Throw it away?"
"Now you're thinking!"
With that, we started reading the material at hand.