Teaching about 9/11 in 2011

This week, teachers across the land are greeting students, assigning seats, issuing textbooks, struggling to remember everyone's name?and doing their best to teach one of the most challenging lessons of the year: the events of September 11, 2001, why they happened, why they matter, and why we are commemorating them.

[pullquote]The United States didn't come with a warranty. It has always had to be defended against real threats and bona fide enemies.[/pullquote]

All sorts of organizations (including ours) are jockeying to ease teachers' burden?and influence their instruction?by offering texts, activities, guidance, even entire curricula. Some of these are fine: accurate, thorough, balanced yet patriotic. (See, for example, lessons prepared for high school students by the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.) Others, alas, are wimpy, biased, or apologetic and may well do teachers and pupils more harm than good.

The U.S. Department of Education unveiled its own dismaying contribution last week. Its ?9/11 Materials for Teachers? exemplifies the creeping tendency in educator-land?especially in the woeful field known as ?social studies??to obscure the true history of September 11 and focus instead on a slanted, garbled evaluation of what followed.

Teaching about 9/11 in 2011 click to readNo doubt Secretary Duncan's team wanted to be helpful to classroom instructors. Surely they felt an obligation to say something about 9/11. But what they ended up with illustrates both the deepening risk that the next generation of young Americans will be clueless about the true significance of that epochal date in history and the hazards of Uncle Sam tangling at all with the school curriculum.

The agency starts out with a whopping disclaimer, alerting readers that it ?does not control or guarantee the accuracy, relevance, timeliness, or completeness of these materials, nor does the inclusion of links to these materials represent an endorsement of these materials or organizations that created them.? Nice try. What follows, however, needs more than a disclaimer.

  • The first resource is an agency-compiled collection of stuff intended to build a ?positive school climate? devoid of ?bullying, harassment, and discrimination? because ?students of certain ethnic and religious minority communities may feel particularly vulnerable? on 9/11.
  • Then we encounter a ?9/11 and the Constitution? curriculum that purports to use the occasion as a bridge to civics lessons but mainly uses the attacks to suggest that government efforts to fight terrorism have violated civil liberties.
  • ?Good Citizens in a Time of Emergency? is one lesson featured on ED's 9/11 anniversary page?courtesy of a Chicago website devoted to examples of civil-rights abuses allegedly committed by the government in fighting terrorism.?Other lessons on the page include ?Habeas Corpus and ?Enemy Combatants,'? ?Using Torture on Suspected Terrorists,? and ?Press Freedom and Military Censorship.?
  • Another featured site, ?Voices for Peace,? suggests commemorating 9/11 by ?exploring alternatives to violence for promoting political change." Its lessons look at non-violent activism across the world and include quotes from Vietnam War protester Mary Beth Tinker (of Tinker v. Des Moines). The implicit condemnation of today's War on Terror is hard to escape.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="255" caption="Video: Checker Finn explains what teachers should be teaching about 9/11"]Click to play video on what teachers should be teaching about 9/11[/caption]

The federal website also links to myriad federal and outside sources that urge community service or tolerance?and some, to be fair, that are content-rich. The Library of Congress collection of primary source accounts and the National Archives records of the 9/11 Commission are powerful resources, but readers get little advice as to how to deploy them in the classroom.

Taken as a whole, the Education Department's main (if unstated) message is painfully clear: Teachers should strive to safeguard Muslim students from bullying, should encourage kids to investigate whether government efforts to fight terrorism have violated civil liberties, and should promote non-violence over military action.

Such lessons have their place but this presentation radically overstates their significance and misses what really matters.

So what should teachers help their students understand about 9/11?

  • It's real history. It really happened?and for a reason.?For adults, it is impossible to forget September 11. They take its importance for granted even if they may disagree as to its meaning. But kids don't have this internalized. No elementary- or middle-school student can remember September 2001, even though what happened on the eleventh day of that month profoundly altered the world in which they are growing up. Which is why teachers must not skip over the facts of the day in favor of themes supposedly drawn from it. (?Themes? is the besetting sin of social studies.)
  • Honor what was lost. Thousands of Americans died. Their loss is still being felt by friends, families, and the nation. Forget the politics and instead remember?and honor?them.
  • Teach students how fragile America can be?and how perilous the planet on which it perches. The point isn't to scare children. But the United States didn't come with a warranty. It has always had to be defended against real threats and bona fide enemies. Kids need the knowledge base to analyze and understand what came before 9/11 and what's happened since. That's a big topic, not a one-day lesson. A proper curriculum would include the modern history of the Middle East, world religions (including the beliefs of radical Islam), examples of American military force effectively ensuring national security, and the outpouring of patriotism that followed the attacks and the hundreds of thousands of Americans who volunteered for military service in Afghanistan and Iraq in the years that followed.

That's too much to expect from a federal agency, particularly in an administration that so often opts to ?lead from behind.? The Education Department would have been well-advised not even to try. And the nation's educators would be well-advised to draw their guidance from other sources.

?Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Tyson Eberhardt

This piece originally appeared in this week's Education Gadfly. To receive the Gadfly in your inbox each week, subscribe here.

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