What we have to learn about cultural education

Posted: Apr 28, 2003 12:00 AM

George Bush the father always said he wanted to be known as the "Education President." George Bush the son has an education plan that, if it ever comes off, would make him the "Education Wizard."

That plan is helping Iraqis build a secular education system. Such a system is a vital part of any American strategy to promote Western-style democracy, and not Islamic theocracy, in liberated Iraq (or Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and anywhere else in the Islamic world). "The most radical aspects of Islam are in places with no education at all but the Koran," a U.S. official recently told the Washington Post.

"There is no math, no culture. You counter that (fundamentalism) by doing something with the education system."

But what? For starters, "something" that inculcates respect for the rule of law, wards off tyranny of the majority, and safeguards freedom of worship and equal rights before the law. Any country decimated by dictatorship also needs to rediscover its culture, its history, and its significance in the sweep of civilization. Such serious and seriously rigorous requirements, however, make me wonder whether 21st-century America, decades into its own cultural eradication program of applied political correctness, is really well-equipped to lead the way.

This bout of doubt came over me while reading a Vogue magazine article about married foreign correspondents -- at one point "he" was Beijing bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal and "she" was Beijing bureau chief for Newsweek -- and how they raised their three young sons to be "citizens of the world," not the United States. According to author Dorinda Elliott, she and her husband very successfully expanded their children's multicultural horizons, but never, ever grounded them in fundamental American values -- a failure that shocked them on their post 9/11 return to the States.

Why the shock? The piece is a clear explanation of how privileged Americans schooled their children to disdain American privileges. Ms. Elliott prides herself on having actively imparted to her children a "healthy skepticism"; raised them to realize the world is "rarely black-and-white"; and strived to bring "current affairs into our living room."

But she's out to lunch when it comes to figuring out where her eldest son picked up his rancorous attitudes. Somehow, it seems, the boy accepted Chinese propaganda on the failures of America's "so-called democracy."

Somehow, it seems, he never learned of the near-sacred regard with which the Chinese hold the freedom to travel. Somehow, it seems, he had a "one-dimensional view of America as a land of random violence." Living in "expat bubbles," he never even discovered that "cheese and chocolate and other luxuries" were unavailable in China.

But how could he? What with all the healthy skepticism going around, Mom and Dad never seemed to get around to mentioning such things -- or at least not until Junior hit adolescence and it was too late. Small wonder the little darling came home to Connecticut, and, upon being asked not to wear "his favorite homemade T-shirt" ("FREEDOM IS A LIBERTY/BURN THE AMERICAN FLAG!"), the boy sulked, built an illicit fire on the backyard barbecue and grilled up the Stars and Stripes.

At this, Elliott, who wore Mao suits back when her Harvard profs "somehow left me with the impression that the Cultural Revolution was one of the great social experiments," fell into a retrospective vertigo. "Six month before, when we were still living in Hong Kong, I might have been more laid back," she writes. "But with stories about John Walker Lindh, the confused young American who had ended up fighting for the Taliban, swirling in the press, I knew I had to do everything I could to understand what Oliver was going through."

Looking back at the Vogue portrait of the family posed before the mantelpiece (adorned with a giant poster of Chairman Mao), you realize Elliott never quite nails exactly why "confused" Oliver "ended up" burning the flag. But maybe it doesn't matter. The boy is now happy at Brooklyn's St. Ann's school, "a bastion of ultraliberal thinking and creativity." (The Web site features a gallery of third-graders' painting of "Comrade Lenin.") Ms. Elliott may have plumbed the depths of denial to distance herself from her own possible influence on Oliver's jaundiced views, but she really didn't have to. The same multicultural horizons her family focused on across the globe, much to the detriment of the children's American roots, are the same multiculti principles taught within sight of the nation's capital -- much to the detriment of all our children's American roots.

Which is one reason I wonder how it is that we hope to be successful at passing on our democratic traditions to others, when we're not too good at passing them on to ourselves.