When she immigrated to the United States from Iran as a child, Elika Dadsetan-Foley says she was taunted “at school … for being a terrorist and heard terms … that have to do with having a lot of sand where I came from. I asked my parents, ‘Is there even sand in Iran? What does this mean? Do they know something about my heritage that I don’t know?’”
Eventually, Ms. Dadsetan-Foley converted to Catholicism. “I wanted to shed one more layer of difference,” she says. “I thought to myself, I can try to assimilate this way.”
Currently CEO/executive director of VISIONS Inc., a nonprofit training and consulting organization specializing in diversity and inclusion, Ms. Dadsetan-Foley taught civics at High Tech High School in San Diego in the late 2000s. She says she seriously considered how she taught about other cultures and values. “When I think about values, I think, Are we teaching them through a white, monocultural lens?”
“Our public school system’s historic role was to provide a common set of values,” says Michael Kirst, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University and former president of the California State Board of Education. “[Public schools] exist in particular to socialize and provide a values perspective for immigrants.”
But that begs the question of what values should be taught and how. Whenever teachers stand at the head of a classroom, they convey foundational principles – often through the simple ways they relate to their students. “It’s not a question of whether we should teach values; it’s happening [regardless],” Ms. Dadsetan-Foley says.
Introduction or indoctrination?
Debates about values education have gone on for decades – often with considerable tension. Recently, much of the conflict has centered around how educators teach their students about Islam and Islamic values.
Students in Chatham Middle School in New Jersey undertake a World Cultures and Geography class in the seventh grade, including a unit on the Islamic faith in the context of the Middle East and North Africa. In January 2017, Libby Hilsenrath was reviewing her son’s schoolwork when she learned about the Islam-related unit.
Ms. Hilsenrath complained to the school district and appeared on Fox News to discuss her concerns. Following her television appearance, viewers threatened school officials and Board members. “The threats were serious enough to have police at the middle school and the district administration building,” says Melissa Cavallo, whose children attend Chatham Middle School.
A year after her initial complaint, Ms. Hilsenrath filed a law suit against several Chatham school officials, the board of education, and the school district. The Thomas More Law Center represented her pro bono, as part of their mission to defend and promote “America’s Judeo-Christian heritage and moral values.” One of their key goals is “confronting the threat of radical Islam,” which, they say, has already “infiltrated” many sectors of society, including the schools.
The suit alleged that the school was promoting the Islamic faith. At the center of the complaint was a five-minute video introduction to Islam that included statements like “Allah is the one God,” The Quran is a “Perfect guide for Humanity,” and “May God help us all find the true faith, Islam.”
Ms. Hilsenrath argued that the school proselytized on behalf of Islam by exposing middle school students to a video that “seeks to convert viewers to Islam and is filled with the religious teachings of Islam.” The suit also complained about a worksheet with a link to a webpage that explains “the ease with which they could convert to become Muslim.”
In November 2020, Ms. Hilsenrath’s case was dismissed with prejudice. “There is, to be sure, a line to be drawn between teaching about religion and teaching religion,” Judge Kevin McNulty wrote in the decision. “On this record, I must conclude that the school did not cross that line.”
Who loses in these clashes?
Conflict over teaching about Islam is not limited to Chatham. Similar complaints have arisen from coast to coast. These conflicts are not victimless.
On the one hand, when education about different belief systems is stunted, students lack an adequate understanding of other cultures. For those living in homogenous areas, this may be their only opportunity for a different perspective.
“I remember there not being any religious diversity in the town to speak of,” says Guy Citron, an alumnus of Chatham Middle School. “I was one of only a few Jewish kids.” In this case, he says, “The school district was legitimately trying to raise awareness about what other people in other countries have as far as religious tradition goes ... because they weren’t going to learn about Islam from their fellow students.”
Mr. Kirst also notes that there is “some evidence that ethnic studies help students understand others of different ethnic backgrounds or heritage” – and that this understanding may help students “do better in other subjects.”
On the other hand, if teachers hold that “belief in Judeo-Christian principles is foundational to being an American” – as Richard Thompson, chief counsel and president of the Thomas More Law Center, advocates – Muslim children could find it difficult to feel a sense of belonging in the classroom.
“I think the conflict itself, may have reaffirmed several things to … Muslim students in the school system,” Mr. Citron says, “certainly that Chatham has closemindedness issues.”
Those affirmations can have impacts on children, Mr. Kirst says. “This is also about student self-esteem.”