Va. middle school cancels mock U.N. debate on Taliban

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A principal in Arlington County announced Monday that she will call off an assignment that asked students to represent the views of the Taliban during a mock United Nations after some parents called it inappropriate.

An e-mail sent to parents of eighth-graders at Swanson Middle School from Principal Chrystal Forrester and two teachers said the assignment was "clearly a bad choice for a debate topic."

"Recognizing the pain that has touched many of our families and neighbors due to the terrorist attacks on the United States and acknowledging the sensitive nature of the conflict in Afghanistan involving many of our dedicated members of the U.S. armed forces, we have eliminated this topic as part of the U.N. unit of study effective immediately," the e-mail said.

Forrester said in an interview that she did not want controversy to undermine an opportunity for students to learn critical skills, such as how to build a persuasive argument, support it with solid research and present it in a public forum.

Chris Wilson, parent of an eighth-grader at Swanson, said he was pleased with the decision. His daughter was one of the students asked to represent the Taliban's views and pose solutions to the conflict in Afghanistan, where the Islamic fundamentalist group is trying to reassert its authority and oust U.S. troops.

The assignment "seemed like . . . an abuse of the academic freedom that we cherish," Wilson said. He found it morally questionable to ask students to represent the Taliban's views about the United States and was uncomfortable about the idea of his 14-year-old daughter trolling the Web for pro-Taliban sites and information.

The Afghanistan conflict is one of nine in the world that eighth-grade students were asked to research before presenting and defending solutions during an annual session of a mock Security Council.

Other conflicts on the list included: China and Taiwan; India and Pakistan; North Korea vs. Western powers; Russia and Chechnya; and Colombia vs. the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Some on the list are not U.N. members.

Social studies teachers often walk a fine line in instruction about controversial world events. They want to build cultural understanding, critical thinking skills and a more nuanced knowledge of world events, but they also must navigate differing political views and sensitivities.

Julie Stradling, a Swanson parent and Fairfax County educator, said she was disappointed by the decision to remove Afghanistan from the debate. She said students would miss out on a chance to understand more than one side of a crucial world conflict that affects them.

"It seems that you could not defend their actions but understand their motivations," she said.

Her daughter, Anna Mendelson, has been assigned to represent FARC, an insurgent group responsible for kidnappings and drug trafficking in Colombia. "These conflicts are inherently distressing," she said. "That is precisely why they should be debated and discussed."

Jeremy D. Stoddard, an assistant professor of history and social studies education at the College of William and Mary, agreed that it is important to present multiple perspectives. But he cautioned against putting students in the position of representing groups with marked human rights abuses, including the Nazis or perhaps the Taliban, because it can be uncomfortable for them.

"It would be hard to do that without lending yourself some trouble," he said.

Read the Answer Sheet blog on the Taliban debate.

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