A colleague sent me an article in the Guardian about the International Baccalaureate program in the US. It seems that in one particular school district in Pittsburgh, the members of the governing board threw out the IB diploma program because they saw it as anti-American and Marxist. And this was in a "prosperous" district, not one of those that are always starved of funds to repair toilets and provide textbooks. The division in the board was almost even - the vote went 5-4 against the IB.
Although I'm glad I'm associated with the IB in my school, and have learnt a good deal from the IB about curriculum matters, I firmly believe that good alternatives to the IB are possible. I have myself advocated that each country adapt the IB to its own needs. The reason why the IB is growing in the US the fastest among all countries is because the standards of public education are often (but not always) so low that the IB diploma is seen as a ready template to provide high standards. The catch - as this case illustrates - is that the IB promotes pluralism, tolerance, a respect for cultural and intellectual diversity, and rigorous and careful thinking. Although it has an optional course on World Religions and is taught in many religious schools throughout the world, the program is itself quite secular. The Theory of Knowledge program - the unique interstitial ingredient of the IB diploma that holds the entire structure of the curriculum together like the cement in a building - eschews (without forbidding it) any discussion of religion. Perhaps that is the appropriate attitude to take on something that is best expressed through silence. All this makes it seem a threat to many in the US who reject its embracing pluralism, particularly those who rightly see its open-mindedness and respect for diversity as encouraging criticism of their received certainties.
In this, though, the Americans are hardly unique - name me one country that doesn't have its proportion of blindly dogmatic people. The problem with reports like these is that they distort the very complex reality of educational politics in the US. It’s very easy and dangerous to generalize from alarming (but true) reports like these to general impressions about education in the US, and feel a sense of smug superiority that at least “we” aren’t like “them” !
A wider perception must include the fact that many people in the US support the IB for schools, to the extent that even George W Bush has thrown in about $300 million to promote IB and AP in the US, which is remarkable at a time when the US has what many people consider an unsustainable deficit. The US is one of the fastest-growing countries in the IB.
Yes, there is a frighteningly large segment of the US population that sees the IB as anti-American, anti-Christian, promoting “secular humanism” (a phrase that connotes horror in certain Christian circles), even Communist! But I don’t think they represent a majority by any means, even though they would like to think they do. The paradox is that Bush depends a great deal on these people too for his support, yet sees the IB as providing “standards” that public education in the US often lacks. There is, of course, a small risk that the IB itself may become more accommodating towards many of these tendencies as a result of this unexpected support, but I wouldn’t count on it. Right now, I'm rather worried that the IB might be hit by Friedmanitis: the new Director General, an American fresh from the global pharma giant Syngenta, appears to be an avid admirer of this flatulent flat-worlder.
The US is full of similar paradoxes because it’s full of diversity, and coming from a rather paradoxical and diverse country myself, I have learnt to become very cautious about reading too much into reports about the so-called “ignorance” of Americans. For every stupid and ignorant and cruel thing the Americans become notorious for, there are – thank goodness! - other Americans who are able to criticize themselves harshly for that, and who stand out as enlightened and wise lanterns in the darkening gloom. How many other nations do you know where this happens on such a scale? Let’s hope they are able to influence the majority of their own people enough to sway them in a saner direction.
[And just by the way: what does it mean that the person who was responsible for orchestrating the rejection of the IB received death threats later? With friends like these...!]