It took us a while to get the English version of Aspen Berlin institute Jeffrey Gedmin's article "America as a nightmare" in the German daily "Welt" ("Amerika als Alptraum"). Even though the piece was already published on March 1, 2006, my uninformed guess is that all of what Mr. Gedmin wrote is still true early April.
Don't you think so?
AMERICA AS A NIGHTMARE
What German High School Students Learn
By Jeffrey Gedmin
In a recent talk with high school students I was astounded what passion these young people have for the fate of Al Qaeda detainees in Guantanomo. I told them I would close the bloody thing. Still, they huffed and puffed. Der Spiegel froths at the mouth over this stuff (see last week’s cover story, "Amerikas Schande--Folter im Namen der Freiheit") (Link to Medienkritik's critique). With some 500 detainees, I figure the EU’s 25 member states could offer to take 20 Al Qaeda fighters a piece. I am not holding my breath. I recall a senior Schroeder official saying at a private dinner that his government was happy not to have to deal with the problem. Of course, even if we closed Guantanomo today, I doubt whether it would end the obsession with America’s faults, real and perceived. Let’s face it. Bad America news sells. I looked at headlines on U.S. stories in the Berlin Tagesspiegel over a recent three month period. Not a very scientific method, admittedly, but still I found a pretty good tilt: 38 negative headlines, 13 neutral and one positive one. I marvel each time I meet someone who has a balanced opinion of the United States.
I met another group of high schoolers, whose teacher asked whether the U.S. invaded Iraq so the Pentagon could test new weapons. A reader sent me the anti-American Hiroshima poem her young daughter was required to learn in school. A friend tells me of his dismay when he and his wife learned that their daughter’s English grammar lesson included sentences like, “America has many prisons.” It sounds like the Michael Moore version of life in America has taken hold in the German educational system.
I asked a school teacher friend whether he finds any of this exceptional. He hit me with a wave of additional examples. In reference to the 2000 elections, a 10th grade Berlin text book asks, how can a “developed nation like the United States fail to hold an election with a fair, democratic result?” Students get no explanation of America’s Electoral College system; or the fact that the Florida vote was later certified as fair by independent organizations. Berlin 10th graders also play a game called “the New American Dream Career.” No matter how you play, you lose. Join a rock band and you get hooked on drugs. Struggle with alcoholism, you end up with a Mcjob. Get sick, you end up bankrupt. Is the game “just meant to make people laugh,” the authors ask, “or does it have a message? Are career chances for young people in Germany similar or totally different?”
In Lower Saxony students who take advanced English are required to read “The Tortilla Curtain” by T.C. Boyle. In Boyle’s story, an illegal immigrant couple is injured, robbed and raped. They live the American nightmare. Here the text book authors ask students to discuss the difference “between slaves and illegal immigrants” in the United States today. You thought America was a melting pot? Another text book enlightens students that “the land of unlimited opportunities began to limit itself” long ago.
It would be wrong to suggest that nothing positive about the U.S. turns up in these texts. My teacher friend sends me one text, which notes that Americans “value independence, self-reliance and persistence.” Lo and behold, these are the same virtues, students learn, that lead to Americans’ “lack of cooperation, poor social development, selfishness and violence.” I hope to hear this week from anybody who can assure me that these are just silly, unfortunate exceptions. (emphasis added)