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Social justice in the classroom? That's crazy talk

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It's no secret that American education is in crisis.

So you'd think people would welcome any creative way to give our kids a break, as budgets get squeezed, teachers are laid off, class sizes grow and critical thinking skills give way to rote learning by textbook and standardized test. In fact, creativity is actually flourishing against the odds.

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has embraced the prestigious International Baccalaureate program in high schools as a way of expanding the educational horizons of the city's best and brightest. And rightly so: U.S. high schools offering the IB program often find themselves on lists of the best schools in the country.

Something else that's no secret, though, is that certain conservatives love a good culture war and rarely miss an opportunity to trumpet ignorance over learning -- on the basis, presumably, that being dumb as dirt is more authentically American than actually knowing anything.  And so, the Republican Party of Minnesota recently decided that it opposes any state or federal funding for IB. And in Idaho, the Coeur d’Alene School District has decided to pull the IB program altogether.

Why? A leading opponent, lawyer Duncan Koler, told the school board last week that the IB is full of “concepts that are politically charged, such as social justice, sustainability. These are code terms." Code for what? Social justice, that is some crazy talk.

What's really going on is a backlash against creativity in education. The International Baccalaureate, we are told, is some sinister UN-backed plot that promotes totalitarian concepts and seeks, in the words of one anti-IB activist, to “program our children’s minds with new loyalties.” Nicky Kram Rosen, the principal of PS 368 in Hamilton Heights in New York City who is putting Arabic on the curriculum next year, is -- according to one scathing local critic -- part of "a cesspool for panderers and anarchists with an international agenda".

The mindset here is so 2003, that miserable year when Arabs were all terrorists, the French -- originators of the Baccalaureate -- were surrender monkeys, and congressmen preferred freedom fries for their lunch. You could even say it's so 1856, when nativists and Know-Nothings fought against the immigrant melting pot in America's growing cities because they thought that foreigners had nothing to contribute but disease, corruption and suspect ideas. They were wrong then and they are wrong now.

The fact is, the IB program has won wide international recognition for its exacting standards and the breadth of knowledge and critical thinking it demands of its students. High-schoolers who participate are taught a second language -- really taught a second language. They are encouraged to engage in community service and develop understanding and respect for other cultures, not as an alternative to national identity, but as an essential part of life in the 21st century.

A recent University of Chicago study showed that students in the IB program were 40 percent more likely to go to college. Tell that to the New Hampshire legislature, which made a short-lived attempt earlier this year to introduce an anti-IB bill banning any public school curriculum "subject to the governance of a foreign body or organization". The bill passed the New Hampshire State House but died, thankfully, in the Senate.

To be against the International Baccalaureate is to be against learning itself, because that's the beginning and the end of what it offers. More than 1000 universities -- including the US Air Force Academy, the US Naval Academy, and institutions like Brown University, Columbia University, and Stanford University -- recognize the IB Diploma as a mark of academic excellence.

Last time I checked, these were pretty highly regarded national institutions. The Republican party, less so.

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