Reflections on 9/11

On this day of reflection we're reminded of the importance of educating American students about their great country and the threats to it. In 2003, Fordham published Terrorists, Despots, and Democracy: What Our Children Need to Know. Its relevance is undiminished five years later. Below are excerpts from five of the 29 thoughtful essays contained in that publication.

America: Always Vulnerable, Never Inevitable
Richard Rodriguez

When I was in school, U.S. history classes seemed happily fated. There were past calamities, to be sure--slavery, the massacre of Indians, the mistreatments suffered by the poor--but these were mere obstacles to the present, obstacles overcome by battles or treaties or acts of Congress, or by the lucky coincidence of heroic lives and national need. As a boy, I loved American history, precisely for its lack of tragedy. I loved Ben Franklin and the stories of the Underground Railroad and the New Deal, because everything led happily to me, living at 935 39th Street in Sacramento, California.

The man awoke, years later, to see jet airliners (the symbol of our mobility) turned against us by terrorists; to see the collapse of the World Trade Center (the symbol of our global capitalism); to see a wall of the Pentagon (the assurance of our self-defense) in flames. What I realized that Tuesday morning is that America is vulnerable to foreign attack.

But I wonder now if we understand that our civilization has always been vulnerable. Our American values and laws emerged over time, after false starts and despite many near-reversals. For example, our tradition of religious tolerance and secularism, that today makes America home to every religion in the world, was not born easily or quickly. Mormons, Jews, Catholics--a variety of persons have in the past suffered religious persecution at the hands of their American neighbors. Today, to their and our shame, there are some in America who attack Muslims.

Lacking a sense of the tragic in U.S. history books, our children never are taught that America finally was formed against and despite the mistakes and reversals we committed against our own civilization. Now, our children glance up to wonder at the low-flying plane on the approaching horizon. They need, also, to look back in time, to see America ever-invented, forged through difficult decades into a civilization. That civilization was always at risk. Always vulnerable. Never inevitable. Not just because of threats from without. But from our own ignorance of all we possessed.

Richard Rodriguez is the author of a trilogy on American public life and his own life: Hunger of Memory, Days of Obligation, and Brown.

Seizing This Teachable Moment
William J. Bennett

War and violence are always regrettable but sometimes necessary. There is no honor in remaining idle, or simply watching, as a family member, or indeed as any human being, has violence done to him. We did not allow King George to continue to reign over us; we declared our independence and took up arms based on the self-evident truths that all humans are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights. In World War II, of the three Axis powers we took arms against, only Japan had first struck at our homeland. But it is beyond debate that our taking up arms to defeat all three enemies of liberty made those countries better. Japan, Germany, and Italy are all now thriving democracies. Their people are better off, we are better off, and the world is better off--not because of their leaders in World War II, but because of ours.

After being attacked two years ago by terrorists who were financed and harbored by terrorist-supporting states, we are engaged in military efforts to end the regimes of those states--and, in the process, ending terror, securing our nation, and improving the conditions of life for those in those states. As we did to the Axis in World War II, we will do to the evil, terror-sponsoring states in this war. And the blessings of liberty will spread.

Children born in America are so accustomed to those blessings that they may not recognize them. The same lessons of democracy that we seek to export for the good of all people must be explicitly taught to American students at home. To fail to do so is to cheat our children, and the immigrants who come to live here, of their birthright.

William J. Bennett was U.S. Secretary of Education from 1985 to 1988.

What Is "Education for Democracy"?
Katherine Kersten

In the end . . . teaching young people to be good citizens requires more than conveying knowledge. It also requires encouraging the cultivation of certain traits of character. In a word, it requires what the ancient Greeks called a paragon, or character ideal.

Many students today have difficulty distinguishing between a celebrity and a hero. We can help them to discern that all-important difference by acquainting them with champions of democracy and inspiring them to say, "I want to be like that."

To that end, our students need to hear the heroic stories of George Washington at Valley Forge and Nathan Hale's last words. They should also hear the voices of ordinary Americans, like Union soldier Sullivan Ballou, who wrote movingly to his wife before the Battle of Bull Run about his love of country. Novels and stories are another powerful vehicle for conveying the virtues of the citizen and patriot. My own children have thrilled to Johnny Tremain, and I still remember how moved I was at reading Edward Everett Hale's "The Man Without a Country" in ninth grade.

Our task as educators is to help young people see that America is worthy of their love and to help them become worthy of their heritage as American citizens.

Katherine Kersten is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love American Exceptionalism
Sheldon M. Stern

Sadly, in the rush to "understand" the 9/11 attacks, the social studies establishment has bungled a stunning opportunity to teach the history and importance of American constitutionalism. "It was not self-evident in 1776," historian Lance Banning wrote in 1987,

that all men are created equal, that governments derive their just authority from popular consent, or that good governments exist in order to protect God-given rights. These concepts are not undeniable in any age. [Including today!] From the point of view of 18th century Europeans, they contradicted common sense. The notions that a sound society could operate without natural subordination, where men were either commoners or nobles, or that a stable government could be based on elections, seemed both frightening and ridiculously at odds with the obvious lessons of the past.

Why did James Madison grasp in 1788 a reality that social studies "experts," post-modernists, and Marxists fail to understand two centuries later? "If men were angels," he wrote, "no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. . . . You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself." Why did Americans develop such beliefs at a time when no other country lived by them? The question itself is dead on arrival in the world of multicultural social studies education because it suggests American exceptionalism. . . .

To paraphrase the 1983 commission on excellence in education, we must recognize that, if the enemies of open, democratic societies had used force to impose historical and civic ignorance on our children, we would have considered it an act of war. Instead, we have done this to ourselves.

Sheldon M. Stern served as historian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston from 1977 to 1999.

Six Truths About America
William Galston

There is such a thing as civic virtue, and whether or not citizens possess it can be a matter of life and death. The memory of police, firefighters, and random civilians doing their duty (and more) in the face of overwhelming danger is as indelible as are the images of the collapsing World Trade Center and the maimed Pentagon. The stunning live pictures of our troops fighting in Iraq showed us how much rests on the discipline and dedication of our armed forces, many of whom are barely out of high school.

Because civic virtue is not innate but must be learned, we must pay careful attention to the processes--institutional and informal--through which it is cultivated. Public schools have an important role to play in encouraging thoughtful citizenship, not only in civics classes but also through student government and extra-curricular activities that teach young people how to organize groups and work together toward shared goals.

We must ask ourselves whether civic virtue is something that can be delegated to others, so that some act while the rest of us watch, or whether it requires engagement from everyone. We cannot all fight fires, or foreign foes. But we can all pay attention to public affairs, vote, serve on juries, and discharge the modest obligations our country asks of us in return for the blessings of American citizenship.

William Galston is a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

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