Teaching About the Wars

Dear friend of Rethinking Schools:

This week Rethinking Schools is releasing a collection of our best writing about U.S military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, Teaching About the Wars, edited by Rethinking Schools managing editor Jody Sokolower. From the introduction, "Breaking the Silence on War," through articles on the historical roots of the current wars and on to resistance, Teaching About the Wars encourages students to question premises, read between the lines, and grasp the enormity of war. An expanded and revised version of our earlier Whose Wars? Teaching About the Iraq War and the War on Terror, the book is filled with role plays, imaginative writing exercises, and critical reading and writing activities. These tools help students probe the roots and consequences of U.S. involvement in the region and stand in stark contrast to the propagandistic cheerleading in our textbooks.

How Not to Teach About the Wars

Now, as we commemorate the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, our wars in the Middle East have moved from the front pages of our newspapers to the insides of our textbooks. The huge corporations that produce those texts have no interest in nurturing the kind of critical thought that might generate questions about today's vast inequalities of wealth and power—or, for that matter, about the interventionist policies of our government.

Exhibit A is Holt McDougal's Modern World History on the U.S. war with Iraq, which might as well have been written by Pentagon propagandists. Maybe it was. In an imitation of Fox News, the very first sentence of the Iraq war section mentions the 9/11 attacks and Saddam Hussein side by side. The book presents the march to invasion as reasonable and inevitable, while acknowledging: "Some countries, France and Germany, called for letting the inspectors continue searching for weapons." That's the only hint of any opposition to war, despite the fact that there was enormous popular opposition to the war, culminating on February 15, 2003, the date which saw millions of people around the world demand that the United States not invade Iraq—if you're keeping track, this was the largest protest in human history, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. This, of course, is a pattern in corporate textbooks: Conflate governments with the people; ignore social movements.

After a quick and bloodless description of the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, the textbook's final section is headlined "The Struggle Continues." It begins: "Despite the coalition victory, much work remained in Iraq." The only thing missing from this rah-rah section is the confetti: "With the help of U.S. officials, Iraqis began rebuilding their nation." Oh, is that how it happened?

Significantly, there is no Iraqi quoted in the entire section—itself one of the most powerful lessons here. It's a primer in legitimating imperialism: the violent and squabbling Third World others get no say; we will decide what's good for them.

In a mockery of the term "critical," the chapter closes with four "Critical Thinking & Writing" exercises. Here is the sole "critical writing" activity: "Imagine you are a speechwriter for President Bush. Write the introductory paragraph of a speech to coalition forces after their victory in Iraq."

This is why we need to create and distribute materials that help teachers not only "teach outside the textbook," but teach against the textbook. Let's not allow the Holt McDougals of the world to decide what our students will learn about war and peace.

Please have a look at our newest collection, Teaching About the Wars, and help us spread the word.

Thanks for your support of Rethinking Schools.

Bill Bigelow
Curriculum Editor
Rethinking Schools


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