The Politics of Remembering September 11

The Politics of Remembering September 11The National Education Association represents 2.7 million educators of diverse perspectives. For all the diversity in ideology, the organization brings people together around education issues, and was doing its job when it constructed the “Remember September 11” Web site <www.nea.org>, a site with links to a number of Web resources along with lesson plans for K-12 students about Sept. 11. But no good deed goes unpunished and no sooner had the Web site been posted than conservative arrows started slinging.
Too “touchy-feely” some said. Not focused enough, said others. The usual suspects — William Bennett and Lynne Cheney, lined up to suggest that the NEA forwarded “the dangerous idea of moral equivalence” and “the usual pap about diversity.” According to the New York Times, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation suggested that students learn “history and civics” and “President Bush’s exemplary conduct” instead of learning history in context. Yet if we really taught history, folks like Bennett and Cheney would cringe. After all, there are aspects of our history that we really can’t be but so proud of.
Sept. 11, 2001, was not the first time in our nation’s history that 3,000 people died. What with the carnage our country perpetuated against American Indian people, there has to have been another day when 3,000 people lost their lives. According to some historians, 3,000 people may have died during the government’s action against Tulsa, Okla.’s African American population in 1921, when planes dropped bombs on a community already under siege. If we teach “history and civics,” are we prepared to teach the good, the bad and the ugly?
I, frankly, don’t see how anyone can complain about the rather bland and basic lessons the National Education Association offers. They have a “patriot pack” that shows “key documents upon which American freedom is based.” They have links to the Red Cross and several news organizations.
They show information on the memorial sites in Pennsylvania, near the Pentagon and at the World Trade Center, and talk about the plans people have for rebuilding the World Trade Center. They have the text of President Bush’s speech on compassion, freedom and education.
In addition, they have a set of tools that help young people talk about their feelings. And they have a set of tools that teach tolerance. There is a unit on media literacy, and one on stress and relating to others. They offer so many lesson plans that no teacher can present them all in the classroom. But every teacher, knowing the energy and character of her class, can offer something from the NEA lesson plans, or modify those plans to meet her classroom’s needs. Also, there are resources for parents and communities.
Again, I ask, what is the problem?
The likes of Bennett and Cheney are determined to wage a cultural war, even at the expense of one of our nation’s more significant tragedies. Says the NEA, “using this national tragedy to attempt to score political points is a new low,” but in some ways they are wrong. Those who act as if teaching tolerance is objectionable will always rush to the bottom with ill-founded criticism, attempting to make their own points at the expense of our nation’s children.
Thus, I appeared on a television panel with a woman who was prepared to cite low test scores as a reason that there should be no special teaching targeted for Sept. 11.  But teachers, students and parents know what Sept. 11 now represents in our culture, and they would be remiss to ignore the first anniversary of the attack on our nation. The attack must be put in context, to be sure, but it also must be addressed.
By the time this piece is printed, Sept. 11 will have come and gone, and  perhaps the controversy will have died down. Still, it is important to note that this is simply a skirmish in the culture wars. There are those who would cut and paste our history to make our nation look like favorable, moral victors on every occasion, ignoring the many atrocities we have perpetuated. Bennett and Cheney would pick up pompoms and go to the front of the crowd to cheerlead for America while others, with equal or greater patriotism, would instead insist that we honestly access and criticize our nation’s actions, some of which may have contributed to the animus that led to Sept. 11’s tragedies.
Bennett, a former education secretary, says that teachers need to be willing to embrace “moral absolutes.” But if we believe in the concept of shared status, if we believe that a life is a life is a life, then we ought to mourn all loss of life, not just the losses that occurred on Sept. 11. The absolute ought to be that terrorism, in all forms, is wrong. We can’t draw lines in the sand and then hop back and forth over them when it is convenient or economically fruitful.
After all of the editorializing, punditry and lesson plans, the fact is that Sept. 11 was a tragedy. No one should use it for political gain. The National Education Association is to be commended for its development of lesson plans to help students deal with tragedy, both academically and emotionally. Those who would turn this into a political and ideological issue ought to be ashamed of themselves. 



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