I'm not one of those people who pretends I caught something on TV because I happened to be flipping through the channels. I love TV. I love bad TV in particular. In fact, one of my girlfriends and I frequently skip going out to stay in and watch "bad TV." This ranges from old sitcoms to public access shows to overly earnest movies from the 1980s.
But the other night I really did happen to watch something I wouldn't normally. I was at the gym on the treadmill and the other four television sets had programming in which I wasn't interested. So I watched one of those wife-swap shows. A wife and mother from one family goes and lives with the husband and kids of another wife. And vice versa.
The show totally exceeded my expectations and managed to avoid the typical Hollywood attacks. The super-cool mom who didn't let her kids change her lifestyle too much swapped places with a homeschooling mom of a gazillion kids somewhere in the South. Or something. I was running and didn't catch everything.
The bottom line is that the script for the show ended up making the Christian homeschooling family seem very together, intact and healthy. And the other mom ended up learning a bit from them. The Christian marriage was portrayed very tenderly, while the other couple had a bit to work on. I was kind of shocked because I knew how easy it would have been to show clips that reversed the perceived situation. Such is the power of media.
I thought of that show as I was reading a Michael Luo piece in The New York Times about Muslim schools for New York. There, the students memorize the Koran in two to three years instead of studying subjects like math and science. Once they've memorized the Koran, they earn the title of hafiz. They also believe they are guaranteed entrance to heaven, along with ten other people. Here's how the piece covers the lack of regularly required studies (emphasis mine):
Because the task is so difficult, most of the children at the Muslim Center study only the Koran while they are enrolled in the class. Some parents try to tutor their children in other subjects on the side. But for the most part, it is after the children finish that they work to catch up in other subjects in preparation for going back to regular school.
By not offering instruction in other subjects, the school may be inadvertently running afoul of state law, according to city and state education officials. Private religious schools like the Muslim Center's program are required to provide "substantially equivalent" instruction to that offered in public schools, they said. But tracking every school-age child who leaves the public school system can be difficult.
Several parents said they were not worried about their children falling behind because they are smart enough to make up the academic work. Some students from the class have, in fact, gone on to the city's best high schools, parents and school officials said.
Nevertheless, next year, the school plans to introduce two hours of instruction in math, science, English and social studies, said Mohammad Tariq Sherwani, director of the Muslim Center.
I'm a graduate of a parochial school. And personally speaking, I'm completely laissez-faire about education. But I just couldn't help but think that a story about Christians in Alabama denying elementary-aged children education in science and math would not be spun the same way by the Times. What about the fact that only boys are enrolled? We see a violation of state law explained in the nicest way possible. Is that normal for most papers?
The story goes on to explain the recitation process. It says that because translation of the Koran from Arabic is frowned upon, the students mostly don't know what they're saying when they recite it. It then describes a few of the kids as being completely assimilated, more or less. One loves Grand Theft Auto. Another begged his parents to be in the school.
I just kept wondering if the reporter was looking for ways to decrease anxiety about a religious school, how it would have looked if he were looking to denigrate the school, and what the proper balance would be:
One of the younger boys in the school is Thaha Sherwani, a precocious, preternaturally responsible 10-year-old whose bedroom is festooned with Yankee paraphernalia. Thaha has been memorizing for two years and will probably need another year to finish memorizing. "But it is worth it," he said.
. . . When asked what he wants to do when he grows up, Thaha said he was unsure. But then he had an idea: "I'll be the first hafiz Muslim baseball player."
Again, I'm sure Thaha is a very good and preternaturally responsible kid. But I wonder if the reporter weren't trying a bit too hard to do a fuzzy human interest story. The piece doesn't quote anybody who raises objections to this style of education.
Photo from Ferdinand Reus via Flickr.