Regardless of what state you live in, it would seem that all students progress through a similar track when learning history. I distinctly remember role-playing the American Revolution in the fifth grade, learning about the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the trenches of WWI, and then going into great detail on the Holocaust and struggles of WWII. In middle school, however, I remember feeling frustrated at the lack of teaching on why we were at war in the Middle East, who was involved, and what we were trying to achieve (other than the vague notion of “fighting terror”). Even during AP US history and government classes, I felt like we stopped learning about US history once we hit 1990.
Apart from a few basic facts about ancient Mesopotamia, K-12 students are not typically taught much about the Middle East. We do not educate ourselves on this area even though, since 2001, US wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan have cost American taxpayers $6.4 trillion, with more than 801,000 people dying as a direct result of the fighting . Even at the university level, teaching about the Middle East is sometimes discouraged. An example of this was seen just last year when the Department of Education threatened to pull $235,000 from a Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies .
History is taught so that new generations can learn from past mistakes and successes to make better decisions in the future. Learning about recent wars and what all sides believe is important to do just that. US military intervention has rippling effects, and we need to have a basic understanding of what those effects could be. Our involvement in the Persian Gulf wars and the Iraq war of 2003 caused many people in the Middle East to feel threatened and some radicalized to remove US military forces that remained after these conflicts. If we do not take the initiative to educate the general American population as a whole on these recent events of the Middle East, we can’t learn from our past experiences to evaluate what is best for the future.
Education on the history of the Middle East, like its battle with colonialism, lets us learn its intrinsic features and qualities which help explain why and how the Middle East acts the way it does today. A lack of understanding can lead to action that worsens a conflict or to unfulfilled US goals. An example of this is the Afghanistan war; Though American policy makers believed the war would end quickly, long-standing issues in the region severely complicated the war effort. Distinct ethnic, religious, political, and cultural conflicts, along with a cold war between Pakistan and India, all preceded US involvement . Even after 18 years, 2,401 American soldiers’ deaths, 43,000 civilian deaths, and over two trillion dollars, American military involvement continues .
Perhaps if Americans had learned about the failed British wars or the failure of the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan, there would have been more pressure on policy makers to act cautiously or take preliminary steps before applying military intervention. The Middle East is so far removed from our history it seems that we failed to notice parallels between the Afghanistan war and the Vietnam war. Many have surprisingly failed to know that a war is occurring at all: “In the lead up to the 2018 mid-term elections, 42 percent of [Americans] didn’t even know whether or not we were still at war in Afghanistan” . Hindsight is 20/20 and as we are now negotiating with the Taliban, we realize that a quick victory should have never been assumed in this particular conflict. But that is the point–we can educate ourselves on these 20/20 lessons learned from this conflict. If we are able to do this, we can make better decisions in the future.
Some people may argue that it is very challenging to teach and learn about the Middle East as the conflicts are so complex. Also, each country in the Middle East has a unique history that would take time to learn and students already have so many subjects to learn in a limited amount of time.
But perhaps learning about the Middle East seems so challenging because we are so far behind. If a student learned little by little about the region over their K-12 experience, it is very manageable. Right now we don’t even give students the option of learning about it, always offering an AP European History class which extends on topics learned since elementary school, but never an AP Middle Eastern History class. Arguably with how involved we are financially and militarily, learning about this region needs to take a certain priority for young (and old) American citizens. As of now, it is barely mentioned in schools.
Whether one believes in military action or intervention in the Middle East is not the problem. The problem is when those decisions are made and supported by an American people who know very little about the history of the Middle East. This lack of education ultimately leads to failed wars and unforeseen consequences. Even if the costs of recent wars in the Middle East have been worth it, my point is that we, as an American people at large, wouldn’t know the difference if it was or not because we are not educating ourselves as a whole on these topics. As the world is becoming more of a global community, and as we have continuing involvement in the Middle East, I believe we have a responsibility to educate ourselves about it.
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