Headmaster’s Thoughts – October 2008

I had already written my “thoughts” for this month when, on September 15, the New York Post ran a column by Andrea Peyser attacking Christina Schlesinger, a history teacher at York. So I have changed my piece to discuss this because, although the incident itself has begun to fade into history, I think it is still worth reviewing.

Christina Schlesinger has taught for over 20 years, graduated from Harvard “cum laude,” and received a Masters degree from Rutgers (though her qualifications are hardly the point). She teaches early world history to our ninth graders and does an outstanding job. During the first week of her class on world cultures and the Crusades, she taught how Muslims believe that the Koran is written by God. In future classes, when discussing Christianity, she will teach that Christian crusaders believed that the Bible was written by God. Nothing particularly controversial about that.

So she was somewhat surprised when, several days later, she received an angry e-mail from the uncle of a student who accused her of teaching that the Koran was written by God. Big difference! Christina called the student to explain and made sure that her class understood that she was referring to Muslim beliefs only. The e-mail even accused her of anti-semitism, which is ironic to say the least, considering that her father was the great Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger. Still, Christina is too much of a professional to be phased by this sort of misunderstanding.

She then received a call from Ms. Peyser, and Christina once again explained that she was enumerating the beliefs of Muslims. I got a similar call, and Ms. Peyser got a similar answer. So we were disappointed when we saw an article in The Post in which she described the school as “Jihad Prep.” This would suggest that all Muslims are Jihadists (raw prejudice), and that Christina is preaching Jihad.

Even more troubling was a quote from the article. It starts with Christina’s reply and then adds the editorial comment of Ms. Peyser:

“I’m teaching that we should all get along,” Schlesinger said. “History is about trying to understand and live in the world.” I thought history was about learning facts. Silly me. 

Here is where I think Ms. Peyser really misses the point when she states that history is ONLY about learning facts. Perhaps Ms. Peyser’s history teacher did not teach her the most valuable lesson of all – namely that history is about mankind’s past, including people’s motivations and the concepts they believed, not just dry facts. If we do not understand why people did what they did, then the facts cannot be put into context. Christina understands that; Ms. Peyser…maybe not.

As one who teaches philosophy to a number of classes at York, including the eighth grade scholars’ class, I only teach concepts, and stress there are no automatic right or wrong answers to many questions. If American education is only teaching facts to 9th graders in history, we are surely in trouble.

Further, as a school that aims for diversity in faculty and student body, it is appropriate to our mission to teach respect and knowledge about different world cultures.

But the bigger issue is this: Our goal is to partner with you in the education of your child. You entrust your children to us. And you are entitled (indeed welcome) to debate our curriculum, hopefully, not in the press. We really try and make ourselves as available as possible to you. If you have a question about anything at school, talk to us. Let us have a dialogue. There is no secret curriculum here. That is why we have a curriculum day. I always enjoy discussions with parents and, hopefully, the feeling is mutual.

Christina thinks this is all quite interesting. She told me that her father would have been greatly amused by the incident and might have asked Ms. Peyser to enroll in his daughter’s class.

On a final note, I am grateful to the many parents who wrote promptly in strong support of Ms. Schlesinger. Not one said a word against her. I am almost grateful to Ms. Peyser (I said “almost”; let us not go too far) for giving me the opportunity to praise one of our faculty. In sum, let us encourage our students to create their own successful history and steer clear of such “journalistic history.”

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org 

“Headmaster’s Thoughts” for previous months are archived in the section In the News . You may access additional months by clicking Headmaster’s Thoughts Archives on the same page.