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Teaching Arabic is no cause for fear

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
  • School officials in Texas district backed away from plans for Arabic language studies
  • Ruben Navarrette says parents turned out to question the plan
  • He says people are upset, in part, because of fear of the unknown
  • Navarrette: Suspension of plan teaches unfortunate lesson about cultural isolation

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a contributor, a nationally syndicated columnist and an NPR commentator.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- What's Arabic for: "Spineless school administrators who teach all the wrong lessons by caving in to fear, hysteria and prejudice?"

The students at the Mansfield Independent School District, southeast of Fort Worth, may never be able to tell us now that officials there have put off plans to implement an Arabic language studies program. The decision came after almost 200 people showed up this week at a raucous parents meeting.

The crowd was upset for three reasons -- because parents weren't notified beforehand, because the district would have to pony up matching funds and because there was no public debate.

One parent was quoted as saying at the meeting, "I don't think we should spend all our time on one culture. I think we should spread it around and be fair."

She added, "Can we ever forget about 9/11? That's always in the back of our minds. We know that's the radicals. We don't want to discriminate against the entire Middle East, but it's hard to forget."

As someone who lived in Texas for five years, I could add a fourth reason why people are so upset: fear of the unknown.

And, of course, fear often walks hand in hand with misinformation. The media, particularly talk radio, has been abuzz with concern over these "mandatory Arabic classes."

District officials insist that's not quite accurate. Instead, they say, the Arabic language was to be integrated into the curriculum in the elementary and intermediate schools but not as a separate course, and Arabic would be offered as an elective in the middle and high schools.

Nevertheless, Superintendent Bob Morrison apologized for not communicating with parents about the Arabic program.

But really, is that so unusual? How much communication goes on with parents over other aspects of the curriculum? Do district officials usually invite parents to micromanage what gets taught in the classroom?

The language program was supposed to be funded by a federal five-year $1.3 million grant awarded the district by the Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP) of the Department of Education. District officials say they applied for the grant because the federal government lists Arabic as a critical language since there is a shortage of Arabic speakers and a demand for people who are proficient in it.

Other critical languages include Russian and Chinese and, yes, the district already offers courses in those.

Look at Chinese. As CBS News reported recently, across the United States, only 50,000 Americans are learning Chinese compared with 200 million students learning English in China.

In fact, most Americans are monolingual. Only 9% of Americans speak a foreign language, compared to 44% of Europeans.

Now, after the outcry over the Arabic courses, the Mansfield district might ultimately be forced to do something it doesn't want to do: give the grant money back.

For the time being, officials are simply "slowing the implementation process and will be seeking input from parents in a variety of ways." They also promise that parents will have "full access to the written curriculum and will have opportunities for input prior to the district moving forward with this program."

Now, that's what I call parental involvement. Why simply help your child with homework or volunteer in a classroom? Is it more fun to storm the school and throw your weight around until they let you help shape the curriculum?

I'm curious. Will there be the same "opportunities for input" as to how the district teaches math, science or social studies? What about other languages, such as Spanish? Will those lesson plans also be subjected to preclearance by parents?

On second thought, forget I mentioned Spanish. I don't want to give Texas any ideas. In a state that is nearly 40% Latino, there is already enough anxiety in some corners over changing demographics and what sociologists diplomatically call "cultural displacement." Spanish could be the next language to end up in the dustbin.

Anyway, here's a better question: Would there even have been a controversy in the first place if the district had been trying to teach some quaint but underused European language such as French, German or Italian? You know the answer.

And what are the students in the Mansfield Independent School District being taught by watching all this unfold?

Answer: Nothing good. They're learning that if you organize and apply enough pressure, you can pull up the drawbridge on your imagination and close off the rest of the world.

That's a comforting notion. Too bad it's not even a little bit true. Not in any language.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.