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Betsy DeVos wants North Carolina students to know what a friend they don't have in Allah. Duke and the objectively superior University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill jointly run a Middle East studies program. The Education Department under DeVos's crackpot leadership contends that the program offers students as "biased curriculum" and has ordered Duke and UNC to remake the program (and reality while they're at it) to present more "positive" images of Christianity and Judaism in the region. If they don't, they risk losing their funding.

This federal intervention into college course content is both rare and fucked up. The Education Department argues the Middle East studies program "violated the standards of a federal program that awards funding to international studies and foreign language programs." We doubt DeVos knows what those standards are or would understand them if you told her. But the fundamentalist Christian won't stand for any perceived anti-Israel bias in higher education.

Leading the charge is Kenneth L. Marcus. He's Donald Trump's assistant secretary for civil rights in the Education Department, so you know you're getting screwed. The position traditionally confronts racial bias and sexual violence. Marcus has as much use for that as Ben Shapiro does for an item on the top shelf. Marcus is obsessed with what he sees as a rising tide of anti-Semitism on the "campus left." He conflates Jews and Israel, which we personally think is itself anti-Semitic. But so it goes. When working in the George W. Bush administration, Marcus did reinforce protections for Muslims and Sikhs who were discriminated against during that brief period of love and harmony everyone claims happened after 9/11. He's over that phase now. He currently seeks to "delegitimize and defund" Middle East studies programs with "an anti-Israel bias." He probably defines "bias" as recognizing that Israel is populated with human beings who aren't perfect and occasionally make Netanyahu-shaped mistakes.


What passes for our Education department argues that the North Carolina program's outreach to elementary and secondary school students places "considerable" emphasis on "understanding the positive aspects of Islam." But wait, the course gets even more diabolical: "There is an absolute absence on any similar focus on the positive aspects of Christianity, Judaism or any other religion or belief system in the Middle East."

media.giphy.com

Look, we don't waste time teaching students crap they already know. That's why there's no Advanced Placement Crayon Drawing in high school. Duke and Chapel Hill don't need to expose students to the "positive aspects of Christianity." They get an independent study each year when they go home for winter break. It's Christmas around the clock. There's Santa, Rudolph, and Baby Jesus. It's the holiday trinity.

There is a disturbing rise in anti-Semitic violence since Trump was elected but it's not because North Carolina students are taught that Muslims exist and are people. It's possible that the average North Carolinian has personally met as many Muslims as they have Jews but they're somewhat less likely to believe all Jews are terrorists. The president meanwhile raises lynch mobs against Muslim congresswomen and paints them as threats to the nation.

The Education Department describes Christianity as a "religious minority" in the Middle East, which is technically true, but it claims the North Carolina program doesn't focus enough on the "historic and current" discrimination Christians face there. The last thing we need is more Christians demanding their gold medals from the Oppression Olympics. They're already pissed that the Gap plays "Happy Holidays" more than "We Wish You A Merry Christmas."

Miriam Elman, an associate professor at Syracuse University, claims the department's move is a "wake-up call" to universities.

ELMAN: What they're saying is, "If you want to be biased and show an unbalanced view of the Middle East, you can do that, but you're not going to get federal and taxpayer money."

The Education Department -- especially one led by Betsy DeVos -- has no business determining whether academic content is "biased or unbalanced." Reality is also not always "fair." We shouldn't try to teach a "balanced" account of World War II. There were very clear bad actors there.

Conservatives insist that college campuses are socialist training camps that indoctrinate students. They're also apparently echo chambers that are hostile to different perspectives. If conservatives truly believed this, they'd denounce the Education Department's actions. But they don't consider this an "academic freedom" issue. The humanity of trans people is a subject fit for rigorous classroom debate. But they think offering students a view of the Middle East that might contradict conservative dogma is nothing less than academic malpractice.

[ New York Times]

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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He recently fled Seattle, where he did theatre work for Book-It Rep and Cafe Nordo.

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