I always swore I would never home-school my children. I know many people do, and do it quite successfully, but I’m awfully fond of the quiet that descends on my house after they’ve tromped off to school. If that tromping were only happening from the bedroom to, say, the kitchen table, I think I might simply lock myself in the bathroom and never come out.
But as so often happens, my vow has collided with reality and I have found myself, in recent weeks, trolling home-schooling websites in search of teaching resources. My kids are now 9 (nine and a half, he would say indignantly) and 13; they go to a British school here in Abu Dhabi. That means they’ve spent a lot of time learning various English kings and queens, although they can’t recite them all in order. They study “maths,” and do prep rather than homework; they study English history and geography; they read mostly English writers in their literature classes. In addition to all those Anglo studies, they take Arabic language classes four days a week and once-weekly class called “Islamic Studies.” The Arabic classes are mandated by ADEC (Abu Dhabi Education Council) and I have to say, I’m much more interested in my kids learning Arabic than I am in their ability to name all the English kings and queens.
Having the boys be in an English system has been a learning curve for all of us. We’re learning two languages, actually, Arabic and, well, English: the boys now live in a world where things are “grey,” luggage goes in the “boot,” and we put garbage in the “bin.”
I’m not considering a dabble in the home-schooling system in order to beef up my boys’ appreciation of the Queen’s English, however. My kids, like every schoolchild in the country, have a curriculum that is at least in part determined by the UAE government, and that means there are things that aren’t supposed to be taught. I live in a place where censorship happens and where, unlike the States, the policies cannot be overtly challenged in the courts. So, for instance, in the States if you live in a town where they want to ban the Harry Potter books, you can take the school district to court. Not here.
We had to sign a permission slip so that our older son could get the science textbook that included the chapter on reproduction (with pictures of, you know, the embarrassing bits); his Latin class translates vinum as … grape, not wine. These are relatively small annoyances, although of course they are far from ideal.
There are, however, more serious concerns in terms of what shouldn’t be included in history courses and literature courses, and that’s where I find myself trolling the home-schooling sites for resources. The Holocaust can’t be taught here; Israel and Judaism are not supposed to be mentioned here; communism isn’t supposed to be discussed; evolution isn’t supposed to be taught; and the list goes on. Sometimes it feels as if we’re living in some kind of Bible-thumping town in the rural U.S and I realize, yet again, that fundamentalism can be seen as a global phenomenon that differs only in the nature of its prohibitions: the fear that motivates the prohibitions stays constant.
Before you leap to any conclusions, please know that the Muslim families I know are as frustrated by these government-issued edicts as are the non-Muslim families and many of us have talked together about what we can do to help our children gain a full picture of the world, regardless of what the government says. So it is that what in some contexts (living in Manhattan, for instance) would be a purely theoretical discussion has become in our household, a very pragmatic series of conversations.
Think about it: how would you talk to your kids about censorship? Is censorship always bad? Think about your children, if you have them, and the internet: are there sites you say they can’t see, or have you put a filter or something on your computer to prevent certain kinds of access? Do we agree that there is such a thing as “good” censorship? (Because of that whole teenage-boy-surfing-the-internet thing, I see a (slight) upside to living in a “nanny state.” I am fairly sure that if he wanted to look, my son wouldn’t be able to find basic porn–not to say that if he really wanted to dig around he couldn’t elude the censors, but at this point, I think his porn-directed vocabulary is still too limited to get around the government blocks. I guess we file that under “thank goodness for small favors,” right? )
My husband and I are both professors, and so we are able to bolster and supplement what isn’t happening in school, but we are also having a lot of conversations with our kids about censorship, politics, and the necessity of thinking about things in ways that are different from how we might think about them. We point out that the UAE isn’t Saudi Arabia; there is no Taliban here; the country is not governed by a theocracy of any sort. We know Jewish families who live here; I know gay couples who live here; a Mormon family lives next door to us. I see people on the beach in the scantiest of scanty bathing suits.
Living here means coming to term with nuance, with ambiguity, with living in a world that is organized around “both/and,” rather than “either/or.” The country is progressive and conservative; censorship is a problem that has a context; learning happens as much from what is not there as it does from what is there. It’s complicated and let’s be honest — no nine year old, no thirteen year old—and very few adults—really likes ambiguity. After all, if there is no “in-between” answer, life becomes much easier, doesn’t it?
No, of course I’m not happy that my kids have a biology textbook with the word “pig” marked out. Of course, I’m also not pleased that the Anglo-centric curriculum also neglects things like the US Civil War, other than in the most general sense. But I will say that I think it is, and will continue to be, a powerful learning experience for my children (and us) to have to confront and think about what it means to live in a place where the government attempts to exert such extensive control. I like to think that, paradoxically, these attempts at censorship will make my children more open-minded adults.
Have you ever been confronted with censorship? How have you dealt with it?
It was most interesting for me to hear your comment about what other muslim families want. Gosh, wish things would change.
It would be nice if things would change, wouldn’t it? I think the fact that younger generations are able to ask questions (fueled in part by internet & information access) might help…(fingers crossed!)
I’ve lived in South Africa since I was 8 years old. When I was a child I didn’t realise that we were living in a country with extremely high censorship. My family in Italy would phone us and tell us about violent uprisings in S.A. that we were blissfully unaware of!! ALL media was government run. The Internet did not exist. Now I know that there was a huge amount of Propaganda being disseminated by the government, but back then it all seemed perfectly “right” and “normal”.
I think you and your children are lucky because you KNOW there’s censorship and you still have access to other information. It’s a LOT harder growing up believing the Propaganda, and then having to “unlearn” what you thought was “truth” and learn something completely different! Maybe because of my family overseas who sowed seeds of doubt, I was able to accept the “new” reality fairly easily. Unfortunately many others were not, and it has been a real struggle for them.
My experience taught me to question the “status quo”, and it has allowed me to raise children who ask difficult questions, and make up their own minds about issues. I’m proud of that!
What a fascinating insight you have, given your growing-up experiences. Would love to hear/read more about that. THe process of “unlearning,” as I’ve seen in my classrooms over the last years, can be a really painful one, absolutely. I compare it to “plate tectonics,” which causes earthquakes, right? When the foundations that have seemed stable start to shift….Can be scary but can also create amazing new landscapes…
Wow. Important post. Shunning children from history and from science and evolution? How can it possibly be the way forward for 21st century thought?
Thank you for writing this, Deborah!
It’s true…and when people in the States point fingers this way and talk about how “closed” the curriculums are and etc., I ask them to turn those fingers back around and look all over the US, where precisely the same sorts of battles are being fought. In a way it scares me more to see this sort of thing happen in the US because our foundational documents would seem to preclude the possibility of censorship. Alas…no.
I have found it to be inconsistent censorship, more with a view to not offend Islamic sensibilities more than to try to be inaccurate. Pigs are offensive, truly offensive to many Muslims, whereas breastfeeding is cool…but it depends who has the black felt tip that day.
I believe British curriculum children do cover the holocaust in year 10 and beyond (every year to year 13). I have never heard that this is not allowed to be taught, and have never heard of any official policy of holocaust denial.
The British curriculum would not cover the American civil war so much, because it wasn’t such a big deal to them, they were doing their own colonizing and enslaving themselves. And I do think Gandhi is covered well as is the separation of India and Pakistan, among other things.
This year I purchased the DK Guide, Evolution Revolution -from Darwin to DNA, and I purchased Usborne’s Growing Up for Girls, at Magrudys (it has accurate diagrams of all the bits, male and female). I don’t know if it ‘slipped by’ someone, but there was a whole smallish section of books on evolution and ‘the facts of life’.
These are topics that, though it is great to have a book, I want to speak with my child myself. I want her to read, respect and understand all about evolution, but I also want her to respect Islam (and other peoples views.
Thank you for writing this, I find it incredibly interesting. I am just beginning to read Edward Said, and I wish he were here to weigh in on this topic.
Tracy, you’re right — I think there are inconsistencies here, which is both good and bad. Makes everything seem whimsical rather than principled. But according to ADEC there is to be no mention of Israel or anything having to do with Judaism, so I wonder how those older kids are getting that curriculum (I’m delighted that they are, of course). When the younger kids have done WWII, it’s been with a focus on…types of bomb shelters and stuff. Nothing about anything else (which okay, they’re young, but still…) I do think that part of what’s happening as a result of our discussions (or at least I *hope* it’s happening) is that my kids are learning about different attitudes and that it’s not religion that’s the problem, or faith, but the ways in which people choose to interpret the tenets of their religion. Important but complicated lessons to learn…
Thanks for the thoughtful comment.