Hamas, Textbooks, and a Real Educational Culture War

What does a real educational culture war look like?  A recent story in the New York Times describes the way the Hamas government in Palestine’s Gaza Strip has pushed its all-out war against Israel into its textbooks.

The militant Hamas government has produced new histories that glorify the role of Hamas, that denigrate Israeli land claims, and that teach a self-consciously heroic history to youngsters in the Gaza Strip.

Will these textbooks change the way the next generation understands the Palestinian/Israeli conflict?

The director of the research study about the Hamas textbooks thinks so.

As quoted in the NYT story, Daniel Bar-Tal, a professor at Tel Aviv University, explained,

When a leader says something, not everyone is listening. But when we talk about textbooks, all the children, all of a particular peer group, will be exposed to a particular material. . . . This is the strongest card.

Fair enough.  Textbooks matter.  As Professor Bar-Tal carefully put it, textbooks “expose” children to a certain perspective.   As we’ve seen in the American context, every conservative group from the American Legion to Accelerated Christian Education has attempted to introduce patriotic or religious textbooks that will transform schooling and culture.

But “exposing” children to a certain worldview is not the same as imposing that worldview on them.  Textbooks make up only one part of education.  As we’ve seen with evolution/creation battles in the USA, the way teachers use textbooks is significantly more important.  As political scientists Eric Plutzer and Michael Berkman argued, teachers function as “street-level bureaucrats,” making important decisions about what to teach and how to teach it (pg. 149, see also pps. 160-169, 219).

As the NYT article argues, Hamas certainly seems to understand this.  The education policies of Hamas have ranged far beyond altering textbooks.  Hamas sends morality police to patrol school campuses for proper behavior between boys and girls.  They have also made important structural changes in schools in the Gaza Strip.

Most of all, we see in this case the central importance of schooling and education in culture-war battles far beyond the shores of the United States.  It seems whenever two groups come into drawn-out conflict, schools become an important battleground.


Hamas and a Real Educational Culture War

Creation/Evolution, racial segregation, school prayer, sex ed . . . we talk about these things as America’s educational “culture wars.”

We get a reminder this morning that in some parts of the world, schools are central battlefields in more vicious culture wars.

The New York Times reports on Hamas’ education reforms in the Gaza Strip.

Starting in September, boys and girls above age nine will be separated more strictly in school.  Gaza schools will teach more aggressively that Palestine belongs wholly to the Palestinians.  Successful students in this new education regime will be “committed to the Palestinian, Arab and Islamic culture,” according to the Times.

The new rules are not intended mainly for existing public schools, which usually already observe these rules and teach these ideologies, but rather for about twelve private and Christian schools.

As we’ve noted before, it is important to remember how central schools can be to the bloodier sorts of culture wars that have only rarely infected American culture.  It is a sobering reminder of the dangers of excessive rhetoric and over-zealous culture-war combat.  In places like the Gaza Strip, as in Nigeria and elsewhere, education policy is often just an extension of military combat.

Lest we get too complacent, let’s remember that America is similarly prone to culture-war violence, from abortion-clinic shootings to the murder of homosexuals.  When we argue about what culture our schools should teach, let’s remember we all want to keep the peace.