Column for June 25, 2006

Our school board’s sorry for … everything

Geoff Cainen, the coordinator of education quality and accountability (whatever that may be) at the Halifax Regional School Board, clearly believes in inclusion. As he groveled to reporters last week: “If this question in any way has offended anyone with a Muslim background, or Canadian Forces, or anyone else who has read the question and has taken offence to it, the board is certainly apologizing.”

Phew… What could have inspired such an abject, one-size-fits-all wea culpa to anyone anywhere who might have been upset, or whose mother could be, or whose grandchildren might someday be, lo unto the seventh generation?

All the fuss, it turns out, concerned a take-home essay question Sir John A MacDonald High School teacher Kevin McNair assigned his Grade 12 global history students as a part of their final exam.

Students were asked to choose one of two put-yourself-in-the-shoes essay topics. The first focused on third world poverty and was not considered offensive, the poor, I guess, being generic and having always been with us. The second question, however, raised a does-this-mean-what-I-think flag for one student who complained to the Halifax Herald that the question made it seem like Islamic and terrorist somehow belonged together, like, well… graduation and prom dress.

“This will be the story of a modern-day terrorist from the Middle East,” McNair’s question began. “You must be Islamic…”

Essentially, McNair wanted his students to use their research skills, intelligence and imagination to visualize the world from the point of view of an Islamic youth, trying to understand how their personal history and environment might lead them to join a terrorist organization and carry out a mission, perhaps “against the Canadians in Afghanistan.”

From a pedagogical perspective, this is a challenging, educational and, I believe, entirely appropriate question.

It’s certainly not a unique idea. The New Yorker recently published a short story by British author Martin Amis in which he explored the motivations of the 9/11 hijackers by imagining the last day of Mohammad Atta’s life. And American novelist John Updike’s compelling current novel, Terrorist, tries to get inside the teenaged mind of a New Jersey Muslim boy who finds the certainties missing in his own life in religion and then is drawn, almost accidentally but inexorably, into transforming himself into a human bomb.

McNair’s was not an easy assignment.

In order to write an effective essay, students would have had to research any number of important-to-understand topics: the history of the Middle East; current events in Iraq and Iran; the ongoing, never-ending standoff between Israel and the Palestinians; relations between Muslim countries and the West; everyday life in Islamic countries that have spawned terrorists; the history of Islam generally and, more specifically, how some Islamic polemicists have shaped and bent its teachings to justify killings and suicide bombings; and on and on…

Students were then asked to take what they’d learned, put themselves inside the head of someone whose life they probably couldn’t otherwise comprehend, and then explain why they are who they are.

The real issue for the student who complained and for the school board official who caved faster than a bunker-busted, bombed-out building, seems to be that McNair shouldn’t have linked terrorism with Islam.

Forget for a moment 9/11, Madrid, the London subway bombings, the arrests of 17 Muslim men and boys in Toronto this month… Pretend that terrorism and Islam — or at least some people’s twisted idea of Islam — are unconnected.

Don’t offend.

Don’t learn.

But, you might argue, Islamic isn’t the only terrorist variant. What about the IRA, or the Tamil Tigers, or Timothy McVeigh and his American right-wing wing nuts or, lest we forget, Canada’s own home-grown terrorists, the FLQ, or…?

Unfortunately, switching to the IRA might — heaven forbid — upset the Irish among us.

Well, why not just a generic terrorist?… Uh oh, should we even call them “terrorists?”… I mean someone who considers himself a freedom fighter might take offence?… Er, well, OK, how about an individual… growing up… somewhere?

Or maybe we should just forget the whole thing and simply go back to testing students’ abilities to memorize textbook dates and battles. Who could be offended by that?

And if anyone is?

Well, I’m sure Mr. Cainen would be happy to apologize to them too.

  1. hey stephen,why not research the truth about things such as 9/11,7/7 etc. everybody should google video alex jones’ new film “terror storm”. It will help get u caught up on the truth


  2. Hey Stephen: It’s not often I agree with you-ordinarily you let your biases run away with your objectivity, and that’s not good for a guy who is teaching balanced journalism.Nevertheless, you were bang-on in this one!I taught History,Modern World Problems,and Political Science at the High School level, at Pictou Academy,and one of the things I always told my students was that(especiaslly in History), you must immerse yourself in the period being studied in order to truly understand it. It is wrong to judge the events of the past,using modern day standards. If, for example, it was the French Revolution, I told the students that if they were living in France during the revolution, they would be in the crowd cheering while the royal head was held aloft after the guillotine. The teacher was using a very legitimate question to put the responder into the shoes of the Muslims who were displaced after the creation of the state of Israel,after the Jews had dispersed from the area almost 2000 years ago,and then, decided to come back as if they had never left. God knows, it’s hard enough to get a balanced view in our media regarding the Palestinian-Israeli question.You know, sometimes I think the Halifax School board,along with our Chignecto- Central,are the only insane asylums in the Province that are run by their own inmates!!!. Regards: Elwin Hemphill, Town of Pictou.


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