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Posted at 11:07 AM ET, 12/14/2009

School drops assignment for students to argue for and against The Taliban

By Valerie Strauss

A Virginia middle school assigned to some eighth graders the task of arguing in support of Afghanistan's Taliban in a United Nations Debate. But the assignment was dropped this morning because students and parents were uncomfortable with the exercise, school officials said.

The assignment was to be completed in a world geography class at Swanson Middle School in Arlington as part of a project that called for students to research different topics and then take opposing sides and debate the merits.

But some families became angry when they learned that some students would be arguing in support of the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban, which harbored Osama bin Laden when it was control of Afghanistan’s government before being overthrown in a U.S. invasion after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

The Taliban is now fighting U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and some of the students at Swanson are members of military families.

“There is a sensitivity that 8th grade kids don’t have the maturity level to do this at this point,” said Linda Erdos, spokeswoman for the Arlington Public Schools. “... While we want kids to learn and to look at all sides, we don’t want them in that process to be put in a situation that their families are uncomfortable with, because then learning doesn’t hapen. That’s where we came to it.”

Though I’m sure some of you think it is preposterous for students to take the side of The Taliban, I think the assignment was an intriguing and legitimate exercise. Obviously nobody at Swanson was endorsing or excusing the Taliban but rather asking students to think about what motivates this country’s enemies.

Read below the message the school sent this morning to parents after I inquired about the assignment, and then tell me what you think, in the comments or at theanswersheet@washpost.com.

Here is the message from Swanson Middle School:

Swanson United Nations Debates

Dear Eighth Grade Parents: Every year, eighth graders at Swanson Middle School participate in a multidisciplinary project in their English and world geography classes. Students work in collaborative groups to research an international conflict of their choosing and write persuasive speeches to argue before the "United Nations."

Unfortunately, one of the eight debate topics this year - the Taliban - has understandably distressed some of our students and families. Needless to say, because of the tragic events that have occurred in the world during the last decade as a result of this conflict, this was clearly a bad choice for a debate topic for students, and we apologize to the Swanson families and students for any distress this has caused. Our intent was never to endorse the cause of the Taliban, and we regret the distress this choice may have caused.

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.

Students involved in this particular topic will be choosing new topics to study today in class. We will be giving support in class and modifying some of the requirements in order to provide students with appropriate time to prepare for the U.N. Debates.

Please accept our sincere apologies. We genuinely regret the alarm and concern this situation has caused, and we will be discussing any changes that need to be made in this instructional unit to avoid a similar situation from occurring in the future.

Sincerely,
Chrystal Forrester, Principal
Eric Tarquinio, 8 th Grade Social Studies Teacher
Christine Joy, 8 th Grade Social Studies Teacher

Background: The United Nations Debates at Swanson
Every year, students in eighth grade debate one another in front of guests who role play as U.N. judges. Typically, students address eight to ten unique world conflicts. Students work in small groups to prepare their position on one of the conflicts. After extensive research, students debate world geography students from the other eighth-grade team.
In preparation for the debates, students get a brief introduction to all the conflicts.

The roles (opening, first and second rebuttals and the closing) are assigned within the group, so each student knows what his or her job will be during the debate. The group then begins researching their particular conflict and sharing information as they prepare their position outlines. Students receive a checklist for the speech requirements from their world geography teachers along with a basic outline of what is expected for each of the group roles. Each group member writes his or her part of the presentation in advance with the understanding that those students constructing rebuttals will have to do some thinking on their feet.

In addition to learning about world regions and major world conflicts, students learn a lot about persuasive writing which is an important part of the eighth-grade English Language Arts curriculum.

The English and geography teachers work closely to develop the directions for the speech and to ensure that we use the same terminology in all of our classes. In addition, English teachers are working to enhance the persuasive techniques, technical writing, grammar, and proofreading, while the world geography teachers work to provide an authentic experience that makes persuasive writing relevant and motivates students to excel.

Students are provided with materials to scaffold instruction in this very challenging project. In reading classes, teachers will further support students in persuasive writing techniques, oral fluency, and use of voice. Students will also have extra practice to deliver their positions

Judges, for the most part, are members of the community from outside Swanson. They decide on a "winner" in each debate based upon the team who had the strongest support for an argument. This event provides students a unique opportunity to work cooperatively in groups while also being responsible for individual preparation. The event combines research, writing, and public speaking.


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By Valerie Strauss  | December 14, 2009; 11:07 AM ET
Categories:  History  | Tags:  history assignment  
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Comments

The Taliban has no argument for it's existence and any discussion of it in that context in the USA is not warrented and stupid. I realize this was suppose to be an excersize or an assignment but really come on now ,argue for the existece of a hate filled, killer,intolerant, terrorist organization.Lets just decide if Hitler was a positive for our lives. This is just stupid.

Posted by: lildg54 | December 14, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse

The exercise strikes me as akin to debating the Nazi cause. As a thought-experiment, imagine children in WWII tasked with weighing the pros and cons of Hitler's enterprise.

These are religious zealots, who while regime was in control kept the population, especially females, virtually imprisoned. The regime provided sanctuary, material support and recruits for Al Qaeda prior to 9/11 - cause and methods are common: enmity for the west and use of terrorist tactics. In terms of relationship to the US and the west, the Taliban and Al Qaeda are aligned.

Debate format to promote analysis of conflict is blinkered and misbegotten.

To "think about the Taliban's motivation," in service of defending their position for the kids on Team Taliban will necessarily involve apology, as it suggests legitimacy for despots. Underequipped emotionally and conceptually for such an ivory-tower exercise, the tacit message kids of this age will receive is that the tyrannical perspective of enemies now committed to killing US servicemen and women deserves a fair and equal hearing.

Families with members now serving are rightfully disturbed. Good for the district for pulling the debate.

Posted by: yekyua | December 14, 2009 2:17 PM | Report abuse

The Taliban is the only legitimate governance in Afghanistan. Contrary to popular legend, they condemned the 9/11 attacks and offered to try Bin Laden in a third neutral country. Of course, the US answer was to invade Afghanistan and kill tens of thousands of civilians, while backing rapists and murderers in a fraudulent election process. By continuing to back these warlords with tens of thousands more troops, the US is guaranteeing further terrorist activity and ensuring the ruin of many more American families who are going to lose their loved ones in a useless war.

Posted by: shukris | December 14, 2009 3:07 PM | Report abuse

I think it is a legitimate debate topic, but one that senior Oxford scholars and debators would struggle with.

7th and 8th grade level in the USA should not be getting close to this one. Neither the participants nor the audience has the requisite tools to begin to approach the topic.

You might as well put the question:

Resolved: The United States of America was a mistake. Discuss.

Posted by: DrVelocity | December 14, 2009 3:10 PM | Report abuse

I participated in Debate in high school. Many topics were difficult and represented opinions I did not hold. However I learned to respect other people's opinions, understand why I disagreed and felt much more secure in my own opinions. We are at war against the Taliban if we do not understand why we are at war and that means understanding their perspective it is hard to be an informed citizen. Yes middle schoolers will struggle with this assignment, but given how black and white kids are of this age, cancelling the debate was a lost opportunity. But maybe the real problem was that Swanson Middle School was expecting a level of thought and introspection we rarely expect from our elected leaders and voting members of society.

Posted by: Brooklander | December 14, 2009 4:11 PM | Report abuse


why are americans surprised by the brilliant heroes parade in pakistan given to the stupid "al queda in virginia" jihad cowards?

Posted by: therapy | December 14, 2009 4:35 PM | Report abuse

I thought we had some unworkable subjects put up for discussion when I was in school (most of which would mercifully knock one out from boredom) but this is really the icing on the crapcake. Another triumph for American education.

Posted by: beowulf3 | December 14, 2009 4:42 PM | Report abuse

I have had the opportunity to travel the world. The ideas expressed outside of the U.S. greatly conflict with views held within our borders. Our media controls what is printed by determining what will increase revenue and share holder price.

With that said, our society is insulated from true debate because the news we read and see on tv is filtered. As such, we are not provided a global view of how our policies are perceived or received worldwide.

I disagree that this is a worthless exercise. Only by looking at how our friends and enemies perceive us can we truly find constructive (or destructive) ways to achieve the goals of our country.

For parents to be outraged over the subject because we are currently fighting this war is akin to the Iranians, Chinese, Taliban or Nazis suppressing opposition because it is not the view of the “Party”. All these parties are horrendous because each suppresses opposing views through force, intimidation, and economics. By understanding your opponent, one can possibly change your opponents view through a multitude of different ways. Some ways may take force, other ways may mean throwing money at the problem, and other ways may mean you can persuade. But without proper discussion and debate, you loose a dimension to understand your opponent. The military is doing this exercise now, in both Afghanistan and Iraq; looking at the different ways that the opponent can be defeated through projects (throwing money at the problem), taking lives (war), and debate (persuading).

So for those who oppose free speech I ask this one question: Why do we have our troops overseas advocating free speech and the delivery of ideas (both good and bad) when we as a community look to thwart this concept because someone is offended or may be offended? Are these same parents going to throw a fit if someone has to advocate in a debate the views of the KKK as it relates to Catholics, Jews, and African-Americans? Does this mean we cannot have our students take the position of Israeli apartheid or South African apartheid? Does this mean that our students cannot debate Rwandan genocide or the Yugoslavian “ethnic cleansing” of the 1990’s because it is just like Hitler’s genocide of the Jewish population? What makes the Rwandan genocide any different? Why can’t our students debate a subject that our leaders have problems debating? Is it because some of the students must pretend they are supporting the Taliban? Debating a position does not mean endorsement. This is a learning tool that is essential in today’s global environment. I say, do not suppress differing ideas because by doing so, we become just like the societies already mentioned.

Posted by: tsd4Debate | December 14, 2009 5:27 PM | Report abuse

While it is of course admirable to begin with the principle that "there are two sides to every argument," it is also necessary to progress to be able to conclude that there are NOT always two equally VALID sides. If we are to learn from history,then, we have to be able to conclude that some arguments and some principles are wrong. We need to be able to defend the standards by which we come to that judgment. I find myself agreeing with Yekuya's post. It is one thing to understand an opponent's position and quite another to be asked to support it. What bothers me is that the exercise seems to have been framed to suggest two potentially equally valid positions.

Posted by: JillNB | December 14, 2009 5:34 PM | Report abuse

I to agree that two sides are not always equal. But that is the very nature of why civilized societies practice the art of debate. In a global conflict (whether verbal or physical), each side is purporting to be correct. This takes place everyday at the United Nations, hence the reason for the exercise.

Yekuya’s discussion centers on thought control and suppression of free speech, both which I abhor. I understand the point, I just don’t agree. We sent our army overseas to fight for the fundamental right to express differing views. To paraphrase a quote from the ex-prez: either you are for free speech or you are not.

Our view is that we are right and the Taliban is morally and physically wrong. This is a fundamental view I hold along with millions of Americans. The Taliban, on the other side of the coin, believe we invaded their country and that we are morally corrupt, hence the reason they are not giving up. So yes, as such, there are two sides. Americans take the side that we believe in free speech and the right to choose. The Taliban believe in the right to control a person's life through fundamentalist religious concepts totally alien to our way of thinking.

The world tends to agree obliquely that we are correct in our reasoning to invade and replace the Taliban regime with a regime more compatible to the western world’s way of thinking. Given that view, we as a nation feel more compelled and vindicated that our reasoning is just, which is why we are still able to fight in Afghanistan despite rising public opinion.

But now the opinion is wavering that maybe we should just let them (Taliban vs. corrupt Afghani government) fight it out. It is my opinion that we have a moral duty to finish what we started. So this brings us full circle to the very element of debate now in progress: to debate or not to debate? Without bringing forth the discussion of your opponent, there is no debate to resolve. It is suppressed.

Posted by: tsd4Debate | December 14, 2009 6:13 PM | Report abuse

How silly. This is a common tactic for teaching analytical thinking and debate skills.

I remember in 7th grade, in my church confirmation classes, we had debates on issues like abortion and sex where we were assigned sides and had to argue them. Learning to defend a side that you fervently oppose teaches you to be a highly-skilled debater who can anticipate her opponents arguments. Accordingly, arguing "for" the taliban in a class teaches you how to better argue against it in a "real" situation.

Posted by: chrisny2 | December 14, 2009 6:26 PM | Report abuse

5 years ago, I was in the same geography class at Swanson and was taught by the same teacher. My mom also works there now as an 8th grade teacher. That class is what introduced me to politics. It also introduced me to the fact that most American kids can't locate their own country on a map, hence why the class drills you on every single country's location on Earth. I also did a debate in the class but I can't remember what I was arguing for/against, but I digress.

You have to look at both sides of an argument, and in this case, know why there is hate and hostility towards the US, to get a real opinion. Teaching this to kids ensures that our future generation can learn from their mistakes. No matter how much you hate to admit it, the US is not always innocent. I am not condoning the actions of the Taliban nor do I support any radical hate against the US. Hell, given the chance, I would gladly fight against it on the front line. So please, send your death threats and hate-mail elsewhere.

To me, this controversy is the product of typical American nationalistic attitudes. The attitude of "America is the only force of good in the world!" and "Anyone who doesn't like America even the slightest is traitor!". This kind of thinking is what builds the foundation of hate and is what starts wars. This kind of thinking brings us back to the 1950's where if anyone were to show signs of being or admiring a communist, they would get an angry mob with torches and pitchforks at their door. Never in history has nationalism brought anything good.

What if this was a debate between India and Pakistan. One and/or the other has committed atrocities against each other. Would a bunch of parents be horrified and run to the nearest phone to inform the Washington Post? Not likely. Why? Because America isn't part of it.

To the Washington Post, please don't take this story any farther than this online article. Please don't put it in the newspaper and let it spread to a national level. This whole thing is stupid and I would hate for a great teacher to be scrutinized by the entire world.

Posted by: D_gcn | December 14, 2009 8:39 PM | Report abuse

What is going on in this country???

Perhaps the students should have debated whether chocolate or vanilla ice cream tastes the best?

This topics seems like it would have been a great mental exercise for the students...too bad the school caved once again to the jingoistic crowd.

When we wonder why other countries blow the doors off of us in education, this will be example #1.

Posted by: hoos3014 | December 14, 2009 8:42 PM | Report abuse

This assignment is inappropriate for middle school students.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | December 14, 2009 9:37 PM | Report abuse

Both teachers should be fired for downright stupidity.

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | December 14, 2009 10:16 PM | Report abuse

From the school"s letter...
"Needless to say, because of the tragic events that have occurred in the world during the last decade as a result of this conflict..."
Can they not call a war a war. Al qaeda and the Taliban, by way of it's support of Al qaeda, declared war on the US years ago. When will people wake up and realize we are in a battle for our survival and what is happening is not just a series of "tragic events".

Posted by: zalkessler | December 15, 2009 9:44 AM | Report abuse

I accept that 8th graders may be too young for this exercise (never mind that we regularly flood them with adult images through advertising and media).

That apart, objecting to this debate is a huge statement on the intellectual bankruptcy and nationalistic myopia that is America today. Objecting because the Taliban is “wrong” operates on the same logic wavelength that makes every country regard every enemy as wrong, and itself as right. It’s a convenient, self-justifying and almost entirely unconscious logic. No wonder we have so many wars.

Until people accept the premise that another group of people have a perspective – however difficult it is to accept or agree with that – we are stuck in pointless, intractable conflict.

It takes a more advanced and sophisticated consciousness to learn to see differences beyond automatic, crude categories of wrong or bad. Most people, including those objecting to this debate, are stuck there. This country is in a lot of trouble vis a vis the world until they get unstuck. To those people: Have you ever wondered why so much of the world hates us? How do you explain that? Most importantly, have you ever spent a significant amount of time outside the country (and I don’t mean a long vacation). Go get educated about the world outside the narrow, parochial U.S. Then you can make a better decision about the debate.

Posted by: Mleheney | December 15, 2009 10:20 AM | Report abuse

While I strongly believe in democracy and the need to debate most social and political issues, certain facts of life should not be debated. There's no reason to debate that it's wrong to kill, that all people are created equal, etc. If we debate them, it means that the alternatives have a potential right to exist. If they do, we can potentially slip back into the dark ages. These are innate truths that schools and parents should be teaching their children from day 1. No debate here.

Posted by: boelson | December 15, 2009 11:17 AM | Report abuse

Here is what I wrote as a comment to the article on this cancellation:

"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."
___________________

I question why she would be on pro-Taliban sites as well. Does no one read books any more? There are several by western authors give a good view into Taliban thought without asking for "conversion" into a Taliban.

When I was 13 I asked to represent the Russian communist point of view in a similar debate. I took a great deal of ribbing on being "Miss Communism" (it was 8th grade--you take a great deal of ribbing on everything). However, I grew up knowing I didn't want the US to be communist and I had a well read background in what that meant--not just some undefendable belief (and I also grew up to have a career in military intelligence...).

I don't think being able to expound on an idea is the same thing as being converted to it. And to Mr. Wilson--my Dad never once thought that my listening to short wave broadcasts from the Soviet Union and asking for a subscription to "young communist" (which I used as a prop for our debate) was ever going to turn me communist or that it was a "...violation of my free speech..." (and this was the 1960s!).

Thanks Dad for not being Mr. Wilson.

Posted by: mil1 | December 15, 2009 2:15 PM | Report abuse

I am in 8th grade in the social studies class at Swanson working on the mock UN debates. (I'm using my mom's account to respond). I don't think the debate should have been cancelled because it would have provided an opportunity to develop an understanding of the reasoning behind the Taliban's views. (I am obviously not in support of the Taliban, but I think we all need to understand the war in Afghanistan as much as possible).
My topic in the UN debate is Colombia vs. the FARC. I chose the Colombian issue because I was interested in it and could see possible arguments for both sides. I ended up representing the FARC not because I was stuck with it, but because it seemed like a challenge and I can obviously debate it without endorsing their (FARC's) actions. It's another very controversial debate topic and there are kids at school who've been just as affected by the situation in Colombia as the families who requested that the Taliban debate be eliminated. I think that ALL of the topics have controversial aspects, and that's part of the reason that we are debating them (In spite of the fact that there is a possibility that any of these issues have affected Swanson families).
I think that plenty of 8th graders at Swanson are capable of debating these issues well. It annoys me to see people argue that middle-schoolers aren't able to understand these issues to a great enough extent to be able to debate them and learn from the experience. I'm excited for these mock UN debates and I know that some kids on the US/Taliban conflict were very disappointed to have to discontinue their research. We were able to choose our conflict topics, and to some extent the side we would be representing, so if kids were uncomfortable with the idea of possibly representing the Taliban, they should have chosen another topic (duh).
I'm disappointed that the kids working on the US/Taliban conflict don't get to continue. I look forward to my debate.

Posted by: bluegreengardener | December 15, 2009 7:13 PM | Report abuse

If holding the debate was unwise, it was because of the age group involved. Arguably middle schoolers are not sophisticated enough to handle the emotion-laden Taliban side of the exchange with appropriate academic thoroughness and debate composure. (For a parent opposed to the debate to say that "The assignment 'seemed like . . . an abuse of the academic freedom that we cherish'", is a masterpiece of contradiction.) In my eleven-year high school teaching career, I was "called into the principal's office" once - for having my US History students hold a debate on the slavery issue. While it may be uncomfortable to have students recite the rationales of those we have come to hold in our culture as scoundrels, one can truly understand an issue only when he/she tries to get into the heads of the "bad guys", who often really believe that their cause is as right as that of the official "good guys".

Posted by: krausman369 | December 16, 2009 8:38 AM | Report abuse

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