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September 11: What Our Children Need to Know
Thomas B. Fordham Foundation ^ | September 2002 | Charles E. Finn Jr.

Posted on 09/04/2002 8:53:38 AM PDT by Credo


September 11: What Our Children Need to Know

September 2002


***This is a partial HTML rendering of a PDF report that is available in full at .



For many years to come, Americans will debate the causes and implications of the attacks on New York City and Washington on September 11, 2001, as well as the aborted attack that led to the Pennsylvania crash of United Airlines flight 93. These comprised far too traumatic an event to set aside immediately after it happened, like the latest automobile pile-up on the Interstate. We will chew on it, agonize about it, argue with each other, write, paint, compose—all the things that a nation and its people do to digest, understand and in some sense recover from a cataclysm.

As we do all those things, we are also fighting a global war against the perpetrators and their allies. Hurrah for President Bush and his stalwart team for instantly recognizing both the act of war that was visited upon us that bright September morning and the nature of our foe. But of course that war, in its many stages and manifestations, also gives us still more to reflect upon and to debate.

This cycle of action and reflection will continue for some time. We have no way of knowing how long, as events continue to unfold and the war on terrorism may continue for years to come. No one today can possibly anticipate what lies ahead for us, our allies or our adversaries.

Meanwhile, however, we have children to raise and to teach and it is necessary and right that we teach them quite a lot about September 11th. It is necessary because it's on their minds, they see it on television and they hear grownups discussing it. They are curious about it, many are upset and some were directly and painfully affected. Adults who care for children have an obligation to offer all the explanation and comfort that they can.

It's also right to teach about September 11th because it was one of the defining events of our age, of our nation's history and of these children's lives. Educators have an obligation in any such circumstance to provide the information, the analysis, the conclusions and the lessons that they believe their pupils need. What happened? Why did it happen? How should we think about it? What are we doing about it? What should we do about it? How can we keep it from happening again? And so forth.

Ah, but what exactly to teach? What are the major lessons of September 11th that teachers should introduce to their young charges?

Why this report?

In this report, with the help of 23 distinguished authors, we seek to provide answers to those questions and to suggest what U.S. schools and educators should teach their students so that they will better understand this event, its precursors and its aftermath and so that they will be better able to function as young citizens of a nation that has endured a wicked attack and is now engaged in a serious and protracted war.

Why is such advice needed? The short, unpleasant answer is because so much nonsense is circulating in the education world that we felt obliged to offer some sort of alternative, an objective rendering from the perspective of first-rate thinkers, scholars, analysts and educators who share our discomfort with what is fast becoming the conventional wisdom in education-land.

That discomfort began to build soon after September 11, 2001, as we observed the curricular and pedagogical advice that many of the profession's countless organizations were supplying to their members. Simply stated, that advice was long on multiculturalism, feelings, relativism and tolerance but short on history, civics and patriotism. This, regrettably, is also true of subsequent ruminations from some high-status educators and academics. And it's surging once again as the painful "anniversary" date, 9/11/02, approaches.

What should teachers teach on that day and the days surrounding it? It's an important question. Some educators need no advice whatsoever. They're knowledgeable, savvy, creative, caring and—may I say it?—patriotic, as many fine teachers have always been. By patriotic, I mean that they love our country and the ideals for which it stands.

Others, though, are uncertain. They depend on textbooks, supplementary materials and lesson plans prepared by others. That's a problem worth rectifying in its own right as part of fundamental education reform in America, but today it's a reality.

Moreover, even the best of instructors may have second thoughts about what to teach concerning September 11th when they encounter contrary advice from their peers, associations, professors, journals and favorite web sites. They may find their resolve shaken, their ideas challenged, their lesson plans disputed.

Challenging conventional wisdom

We seek, in this report, to buttress the civic values and enlarge the knowledge base of teachers and other educators—and to redress the balance between those who would have the schools forge citizens and those who would have them focus on students' own feelings and on doubts about America.

What, exactly, is the conventional wisdom that we seek to combat? View it in three stages.

First, the advice given to educators in the immediate aftermath of 9/11/01. The worst-lesson-of-all prize probably belongs to a Maryland teacher, one of whose pupils offered this account to The Washington Post: "Why do some people hate America? Why did they do it? They wanted to bomb our symbols. That's what my mom said. Because we're bossy. That's what my teacher said. She said it's because we have all the weapons and we think we can boss other countries around. They're jealous of us."

America, in this rendering, has itself to blame for the other guy's aggression inflicted upon us. It recalls the frostier days of the Cold War when the unilateral-disarmers produced "nuclear winter" curricula for U.S. classrooms that said, in effect, that America is responsible for the world's parlous state and if we would only renounce our militaristic ways everyone would be a lot safer. (History, of course, shows just the opposite to be the truth.)

But not all the dubious instructional advice that flooded the airwaves and Internet in autumn 2001 took the form of "blaming America." Much more widespread was simple disregard for patriotism and democratic institutions, non-judgmentalism toward those who would destroy them, and failure to teach about the heroism and courage of those who defend them. Plus reams of guidance about how to help children deal with their own feelings.

Article after article and web site after web site counseled teachers to promote tolerance, peace, understanding, empathy, diversity and multiculturalism. Here, for example, are excerpts from a broadside by the National Association of School Psychologists:

A natural reaction to horrific acts of violence like the recent terrorist attacks on the United States is the desire to lash out and punish the perpetrators…. While anger is a normal response felt by many, we must ensure that we do not compound an already great tragedy…. Most importantly, adults must model tolerance and compassion in their words and behavior. They should also encourage children to explore their feelings about prejudice and hate…. Violence and hate are never solutions to anger…. All people deserve to be treated with fairness, respect and dignity.... Vengeance and justice are not necessarily the same…. We need to work for peace in our communities and around the world. The best way that we can stand up for our country at this point is to unite behind the principals [sic] that make us strong…. Tolerance is a lifelong endeavor…. Avoid stereotyping people or countries that might be home to the terrorists…. Address the issue of blame factually…. Do not suggest any group is responsible. Do not repeat the speculations of others, including newscasters…. Discuss how it would feel to be blamed unfairly by association…. Emphasize positive, familiar images of diverse ethnic groups…. Read books with your children that address prejudice, tolerance, and hate.

Some of that is needed, but nowhere in this or many kindred efforts was it suggested that teachers should also read books with their pupils that address patriotism, freedom and democracy, that deal in a realistic way with the presence of evil, danger and anti-Americanism in the world, or that hail the heroism of those who have defended our land against foreign aggressors—including those who perished on 9/11/01.

In an article in The Washington Post on October 1, several educators stated that the attacks showed that we must become even more focused on multiculturalism than we have been in the recent past, suggesting that our indifference to other cultures somehow made us culpable for the terrorists' actions. We were at fault. The victim should be blamed for the act of victimization.

The president of Teachers College, Arthur Levine, often a level-headed fellow, said in the same article that "Our notion of great books can't be Western anymore or wholly Western anymore. Is 'Middlemarch' [a 19th-century English novel by George Eliot] more important than the Koran in terms of the curriculum?" Levine did not explain why the Koran should become a major component of the American curriculum, nor whether he would insist that teachers also introduce studies in the Old and New Testaments and, perhaps, the Bhagavad-Gita and the Book of Mormon.

Dubious guidance

The second chapter in this unhappy story was written by education experts who have opined in scholarly journals about the "educational meanings of September 11th." The good news is that few firing-line educators read such journals. The bad news is that the people who write in them are also, characteristically, the men and women who prepare future teachers in our colleges of education.

Consider an essay in Teachers College Record by the Marxist education historian (at the University of Wisconsin), Michael Apple. What he sought with his college-level students, he wrote, was "to use this as a time to show the effects of U.S. global economic, political, and cultural policies." But it wouldn't do simply to "impose" his views on his students. Not only would that be its own form of imperialism and arrogance; it might also "push people into rightist positions." And he wanted them to end up in leftist positions. So he had to be strategic. His strategy included helping his students examine the Madison school board's squalid response to a state law mandating the Pledge of Allegiance or the singing of The Star Spangled Banner, which Apple terms "a strikingly militaristic song." But you don't really need to know more about his agonized pedagogical strategy. What you need to know about Apple is that he believes that "social criticism is the ultimate act of patriotism." (Where but on a university campus….?) And that he is teaching tomorrow's instructors of eight and ten and fourteen year olds.

Closer to the practitioner level, in May 2002 the National Council for the Social Studies recycled on its web site a short story, "My Name is Osama," that had first been published in a middle-school teachers' supplement called Middle Level Learning. Written by Sharifa Alkhateeb, president of the Muslim Education Council and director of the "Peaceful Families Project" (supported in part by the U.S. Justice Department), it is a brief and rather touching story of how an Iraqi immigrant boy with the unfortunate name of Osama is gratuitously teased, heckled, even bullied, in an American school because of his name and national origin.

Such a story can be a worthwhile part of a comprehensive effort to ensure that young Americans' responses to September 11th do not include bias toward their Arab and Muslim classmates. What one wants to know, however, is whether the rest of the comprehensive effort is also there, the patriotism part, the civics part, the history part, the harsher lessons about how difficult it is to safeguard American values from those who despise them in an increasingly menacing world. Why had Osama and his family migrated to U.S. shores? What is it that they came for? Why was it important to them? Where is that part of the lesson?

The popular education lecturer, Alfie Kohn, best known for his animus toward standards and testing, joined the fray in a publication called Rethinking Schools. His main point: "The United States has no problem with terrorism as long as its victims don't live here or look like most of us." It's the "so's your old man" response to a playground scuffle, here magnified to the scale of an attack on the nation itself. Kohn devoted most of his essay to itemizing instances of what he views as American-sponsored terrorism in other lands. Not a word about patriotism there, either.

Which brings us to the latest phase of this somber saga: the advice being given to educators regarding the "anniversary" of September 11th. In a word, it's rotten advice, relativistic, non-judgmental (except about the United States), pacifist and anything but patriotic. It takes perfectly sound American values, such as tolerance and multiculturalism, and carries them to extremes. Most important is what it leaves out: the crucial lessons from history and civics that our children most need to learn and that this painful episode in our recent past creates a powerful opportunity to teach our daughters and sons about heroes and villains, about freedom and repression, about hatred and nobility, about democracy and theocracy, about civic virtue and vice.

The NEA's contribution

The biggest, richest and politically strongest of our education organizations is the National Education Association (NEA), the larger of the two national teachers unions. The NEA has created a special web site called "Remember September 11." Though vast—more than a hundred lesson plans—it contains little academic content of the traditional sort. As one browses its recommended lessons and background guidance for teachers, the dominant impression is one of psychotherapy via the Internet. The NEA and its allies in this venture (most prominently the American Red Cross) have psychologized the entire topic into a preoccupation with children's feelings and anxieties. Its web site closely resembles that of the National Association of School Psychologists, which—in its extensive list of "do's and don'ts" for schools engaging in "memorial activities"—urges that schools "develop living memorials (e.g., tolerance programs) that address the problems that lead to the crisis event [sic]" and warns against "allow[ing] the memorial to be a forum for expressions of hatred or anger toward the perpetrators of crises." In other words, look to root causes only and never get angry with those who hijacked and crashed our airliners or those who directed their actions from afar.

Political agendas also wriggle through the pop psychology and self esteem. A perceptive journalist who spent some time on the NEA web site found, for example, the union urging teachers not to "suggest any group is responsible" for the attacks of 9/11/01. Though one lesson cautions against "blaming," another presses educators to "discuss historical instances of American intolerance" in order that the U.S. can avoid "repeating terrible mistakes." (The usual examples are cited: internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor and anti-Arab sentiments during and after the Gulf War.) Not surprisingly, the NEA's advice in these matters has been applauded by the Council on American Islamic Relations. Says that organization's spokeswoman, Hodan Hassan, "The NEA's [material] provides teachers with a well-balanced, wide range of resources teachers can use to help teach students how to appreciate diversity."

But it's only "well-balanced" if "diversity" is the exclusive objective of education on 9/11/02. It's not balanced at all if history, civics and patriotism are also meant to be taught and learned. Neither is the special "teachable moments" web site maintained by the National Council for the Social Studies. As that organization's president, Adrian Davis, explains on its home page, its goal is to help "social studies educators… to reinforce the ideals of tolerance, equity, and social justice against a backlash of antidemocratic sentiments and hostile divisions." Nothing there about accurate history of the U.S., the Middle East, Islam or the world.

Nothing there about democratic values and their protection. Certainly nothing about patriotism. Everything is either about tolerance or about mental health.

Offering an alternative

We at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation set out to fill part of a huge void. We knew we could not possibly fill it all—though the supplemental readings that we and our authors suggest can help. We simply asked several dozen educators, scholars and analysts to write brief essays that answered this straightforward question: "What civic lessons are the most imperative for U.S. K-12 teachers to teach their pupils, as the 'anniversary' of the September 11th attacks draws near, about the United States and what it means to be an American?" Though we gave them only a short time in which to do so, most responded affirmatively, eagerly, sometimes gratefully. Their 23 contributions follow, along with suggested additional readings.

The authors, as you will see, range from such prominent figures as Lynne Cheney and William Bennett, through an array of scholars, authors and critics, to education practitioners whose names are far from household words. Some are Democrats, some Republicans. Some have a national perspective, some a state purview, some a local focus. We sought a range of perspectives but we did not seek people who would repeat the conventional wisdom of the education profession—there's already plenty of that for anyone who wants it. Nor did we seek people who would psychologize the topic or whose reverence for tolerance dwarfs their appreciation of other compelling civic values. Above all, we sought people who take history and civics seriously, people who take America seriously. You will judge their contributions for yourself.

Fortunately for our children, many of today's front-line educators also have sound instincts in these matters. They are serious about accurate history and essential civic lessons. They know their stuff. They don't get distracted by the fads and enthusiasms that sweep through their profession. May their numbers multiply. May there be more like James McGrath Morris, who teaches social studies to high school seniors and who recently told a Washington Times reporter that his lesson plan for 9/11/02 "will try to explain why America was attacked by tracing the rivalry among the three Western religions with the most adherents—Islam, Judaism and Christianity—and noting that the terrorists were Muslim. 'These are all aspects of the facts,' Mr. Morris said. 'My lesson plans will not skirt the issues.' "

This is one of the many times when I miss the late Albert Shanker, long-time head of the other big national teachers' union, the American Federation of Teachers, who epitomized and revered the teaching of essential information and civic values to young Americans. Al and I had plenty of policy differences but we disagreed not one whit about on what children need to learn. Diane Ravitch has recalled what Shanker said at an international meeting (on education for democracy) in Prague two years before his death: "He warned the participants in a civic education dialogue from across Western and Eastern Europe to avoid multiculturalism and diversity, which fan the flames of ethnocentrism, and instead to pursue democracy. I found Al very persuasive, as always, then and now." So do I. He never flinched from asserting that the job of the schools is to teach the common culture, the history of democracy and the centrality of freedom and its defense against aggressors. As we commemorate the heinous attacks of September 11th, as American educators decide which side of this pedagogical divide they and their schools will take, I choose Al Shanker's side—and that of the Arkansas superintendent who recently told his students that "It's OK to love your country and love your flag."

My thanks to that superintendent and to the late Mr. Shanker for helping us stay focused on what's important. My thanks to the 23 essayists who responded with alacrity and good cheer to this sudden assignment and whose excellent suggestions adorn the following pages. Thanks, too, to Diane Ravitch for suggesting this report and helping it take shape; to Fordham research associate Kelly Scott, who did nearly all the heavy lifting; to staff assistant Katie Somerville for her quiet, thorough help; and to Emilia Ryan, who designed and laid out this "virtual publication." (It is not copyrighted, by the way, and we'd be pleased if readers share copies with others who may find it interesting or helpful.)

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation is a private foundation that supports research, publications and action projects in elementary/secondary education reform at the national level and in the Dayton area. Further information can be obtained at our web site ( or by writing us at 1627 K Street, NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20006. (We can also be e-mailed at This report is available in full on the foundation's web site. The foundation is neither connected with nor sponsored by Fordham University.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., President
Washington, DC
September 2002



Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Lessons of the Preamble
John Agresto

Seizing This Teachable Moment
William J. Bennett

Protecting Our Precious Liberty
Lynne Cheney

Teaching Students to Count Their Blessings
William Damon

The Civic Lessons of September 11
Lucien Ellington

Hard Lessons
William Galston

Preserving America, Man's Greatest Hope
Victor Davis Hanson

Celebrating American Freedom
Kay Hymowitz

American Tolerance
Craig Kennedy

Teaching Young People to Be Patriots
Katherine Kersten

Civics, Schools and September 11
Mary Beth Klee

An Attack Upon the World
Erich Martel

Forging Heroes
Walter Russell Mead

Defending Democracy
Jeffrey Mirel

Terrorism: The "ism" du Jour
Mitchell Pearlstein

Seeing the Patterns
Theodore Rabb

America: Always Vulnerable, Never Inevitable
Richard Rodriguez

An Attack on Who We Are
Andrew J. Rotherham

Defining the American Identity
Gloria Sesso and John Pyne

Alleviating Our Historical Ignorance
Sheldon M. Stern

Heroes and Victims
Sandra Stotsky

Fighting Complacency
Kenneth R. Weinstein

What Students Should Know About War
James Q. Wilson

Recommended Resources for Teachers


To read the entire report in PDF format, please visit

(To view PDF documents, you must use the Adobe Acrobat Reader. This program is free and can be downloaded at .)



TOPICS: Culture/Society; Editorial; Government; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: children; education; nea; sept11; teaching
We do not need to discover the "inner terrorist".
1 posted on 09/04/2002 8:53:38 AM PDT by Credo
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To: Sister Rose
2 posted on 09/04/2002 8:54:38 AM PDT by Credo
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

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