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Education: Tongue-Tied in Arabic

The U.S. government has identified Arabic as one of the "critical languages" for those entering the workforce in the next few decades. Yet, how Arabic should be studied remains controversial, as the overwhelming criticism of Brooklyn's Khalil Gibran International Academy shows.

Critics of the new school, which opened on Tuesday, range from Stop the Madrassa founder Pamela Hall to Middle East scholar and commentator Daniel Pipes, who believe it has strong potential to indoctrinate its students with radical Islamism and Arab nationalism. Supporters of the academy, including New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and school chancellor Joel Klein, have stressed that separation of church and state prohibits the school's curriculum from focusing on religious ideology.

The critics of the Khalil Gibran International Academy aren't against the Arabic language being taught in public schools. Knowing the language fluently has become a big advantage for job-seekers, especially in positions with the federal government. The CIA, for instance, awards bonuses of up to $35,000 for Arabic speakers. In tertiary education, Arabic instructors often net a higher pay than instructors of more commonly taught languages like Spanish. And President Bush's National Security Language Initiative, announced last year, puts $114 million toward the demand for Arabic and other critical languages.

The dispute arises over how the language is taught, especially when the culture and tongue are addressed. Separating language and culture would prove difficult and disadvantageous. Those fighting the war on terror need as much cultural knowledge as linguistic ability to gain the cooperation of potential informants. Business partnerships depend upon these cultural cues as well. Where the line falls between gaining familiarity with Arabic culture and becoming indoctrinated with it, however, is hard to determine.

Of course, no textbook on history or culture is unbiased, and in the case of Arabic, the scholarship is particularly polarized between ardent supporters of the region's culture — most of whom originate from it — and those, like Daniel Pipes, who find severe fault with it. The only way to alleviate this polarization is to produce more scholars of Arabic language and culture, which, in a catch-22, requires tutelage under the existing biased group of scholars.

But most likely, the real objection to the Khalil Gibran International Academy is that it is a separate school for Arabic studies. As the name of Pamela Hall's organization indicates, critics liken this separation to the creation of a religious school, or madrassa, because of the close link between Arabic and Islam. That's why groups like the Catholic League and the Thomas More Law Center claim a double standard regarding Islam and Christianity in public schools and have backed Stop the Madrassa's efforts. In contrast, immersion schools for languages like Spanish and Chinese, another "critical language," have not met such resistance. Despite issues like illegal immigration and human rights abuses, the cultures behind these languages haven't inspired such fear.

Schools emphasizing international studies have gained increased commitment as new generations enter a world that is more connected than ever before. The business world has long had relations with the Middle East, and with the ongoing war on terror, America's foreign policy is especially preoccupied with the region. Right now, Arabic instruction just may serve the combination of business, political, and security interests more forcefully than any of the other critical languages. With the FBI and CIA still struggling to find Arabic speakers, the focus will no doubt be on getting more people to learn the language — regardless of how it's taught.