Ed Dept. Threat to Middle Eastern Studies Program Deprives Educators, Students, Says Teacher

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By Félix Pérez
In what is being described as an “overly ideological” overreach that could stifle academic freedom, the U.S. Education Department has threatened to strip the funding of the Duke-University of North Carolina Consortium for Middle Eastern Studies.

Tinisha Shaw, a member of the first cohort of teachers to go through the yearlong program, says the criticism by Betsy DeVos’ department that the consortium didn’t present enough “positive aspects” of Christianity, Judaism and other religions reflects a lack of understanding of the program.

“Never in one conversation or in any of the sessions – because I am a Christian and my grandmother’s a preacher and my momma’s a preacher — never, not once, was there anything said against Christianity or Judaism,” says Shaw, a 13-year teacher granted a consortium fellowship during the 2016-17 school year along with 20 other teachers from North Carolina. “A lot of times there were even discussions about how Christianity and Judaism and Islam work together,” adds the Greensboro educator.

The department’s criticism has become a flashpoint among academics who worry about the chilling effect it could have on academic freedom and viewpoint diversity. Others say the dispute reflects the department’s “overly ideological tones under [Betsy] DeVos’ guidance.”
In a letter to the department, UNC’s research chief pushed back against accusations of bias, saying the program has been a longtime leader in Middle Eastern language studies.

For her part, Shaw warns of the loss to educators and students if programs such as the Duke-UNC consortium disappear or change their mission to appease federal officials.

“I think that that would limit the resources and the opportunities that enable teachers to grow and to be better at their craft and to expose our students to so many different things.”
Educators, adds Shaw, “need to have opportunities where we can reflect on our practices and reflect on different perspectives in the world. The thought that that is questioned instead of encouraged goes against what it means to be a teacher. Why would you challenge that?”

Asked what she took away from the program, Shaw says, “It really blew the door open for me as an educator, but more than that, just as a person thinking about how I take in certain narratives and perspectives.”

Educators “need to have opportunities where we can reflect on our practices and reflect on different perspectives in the world. The thought that that is questioned instead of encouraged goes against what it means to be a teacher. ”

– Tinisha Shaw

The consortium, she continues, not only introduced her to multiple facets of Islam, but it caused her to examine her approach as an educator, historical narratives and teaching practices. “First, I started thinking about the resources that I use in my class. Was I really bringing diversity and nuance to my students? And what was I asking them to do in my class? Am I asking students to really go into depth and have a deeper knowledge? Or am I just kind of guiding them through – ‘I am going to need you to know this date, this time and then we’re going to move on?’ ”

Shaw says educators need more, not fewer, programs that question their perceptions. “I had to say to myself, ‘If this is what has challenged me, then I need to think about a lot of things.’ And I think that’s powerful for teachers in particular because we have diverse students come into our classrooms. We need to have opportunities where we can reflect on our practices and reflect on all the different perspectives in the world and not be handed a single story just because we get it from a textbook.”

In an op-ed titled “DeVos should leave Duke-UNC program alone,” the Greensboro, NC, News & Record, argued, “Duke and UNC have better educational reputations than the Department of Education, which has taken on overly ideological tones under DeVos’ guidance. . . And, given the well-known antipathy toward Muslims of her champion, President Trump, we suspect her department is not exactly unbiased in its judgment.”

Editorial Note: The U.S. Education Department abruptly announced without explanation Oct. 10 that it will release funding for the Duke-UNC Consortium.

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