Sept. 11 Goes to School

Patriotism and psychobabble in the civics classroom.

Illustration by William L. Brown

There was a moment when thoughtful people thought that the 9/11 attacks would lead to a new seriousness in politics—that in the aftermath of this attack, we might be able to transcend the petty culture wars that occupied so much space in our public life in the late 1990s.

If you hadn’t noticed, that moment has passed. Over the weekend, the New York Times described a debate that has erupted between groups roughly of the left (the major teachers’ union and several mental health groups), which want a psychobabbly, America-is-to-blame-because-of-its-own-racism approach to teaching 9/11, and conservatives like William Bennett and Lynne Cheney, who demand a moralizing, absolutist approach that emphasizes America’s virtue above all else.

There’s a certain unreality to this depiction. After all, many schools will be marking the anniversary of the attacks without falling into either caricature. They’ll opt for low-key commemorations, some counseling, and in some cases just business as usual. But the two competing approaches to teaching 9/11, seemingly polar opposites, turn out to have one important thing in common: the widely accepted notion that schools exist to teach kids what to think. And that notion happens to be dead wrong.

Schools should teach kids not what to think but how to be:how to conduct themselves in social roles, how to make decisions in a political context, how to ask questions when precedent and analogy fail us, as they did on 9/11. If all we want from schools is to transmit facts, there are fine encyclopedias on the market. If all we want them to do is pass down ideology, teachers should assign students The O’Reilly Factor for homework.

People who, in response to 9/11, offer mainly homilies of cultural sensitivity or blasts of American jingoism, who want to fill their students’ heads with empathy for boys named Osama or pride in Ronald Reagan’s greatest speeches—both examples from the Times piece—are people who, at a certain level, don’t trust kids. They take an empty-vessel, blank-slate view of what a student’s mind is. Indeed, they are motivated by fear of what that mind might become if the wrong kind of content should color it first.

We ought to take a different view of today’s students, one that regards them as moral beings in progress, apprentices in public life, people capable of seeing themselves grow (or shrink). This generation turns out to be pretty savvy about marketing and propaganda. They know that we know that they know that little is authentic in an age of entertainment, and they’ll more willingly revisit their assumptions when they’re tested in action rather than sermon.

That means taking a different view of what teaching is for. Sept. 11, though it diminishes the day to call it this, is a teachable moment. But how we teach about 9/11 matters perhaps more than what we teach. Instead of prescriptive lesson plans of either the self-hating or self-loving sort, and instead of mere explorations of how kids are feeling—likely the dominant classroom theme next week—what we should encourage are more simulations and enactments of current dilemmas, more Socratic questioning and fewer prepared answers, more creation and less indoctrination.

Let students calibrate their own scales of justice when one of them has to play the attorney general and another a major journalist and another an unnamed detainee in a “Model U.S.” exercise. Let them imagine how our reaction to 9/11 would have differed had it happened before the advent of 24-hour visual media, before the icons could have been so highly buffed by the modern machinery of memory. Let them act out how other societies, free and otherwise, would have reacted to such an attack. Let them, in weighing questions of causality, recount times in everyday life when parents or pastors made them see the difference between “root causes” and excuses.

Civics is a moribund subject in many schools, but 9/11 can give us a new, more participatory kind of civics. Consider one program, “Facing History and Ourselves,” which was developed by a Massachusetts nonprofit as a cross-disciplinary way for children to understand the Holocaust. “Facing History” approaches the subject from multiple angles of entry—music, art, essays, film—and each entryway leads students to ask how they would have conducted themselves as the Holocaust unfolded. It leads students to understand what it means to choose to participate in good or evil—without preaching about what good or evil is.

Or look at “Microsociety,” found in several schools around the country, which teaches students how to operate in the world by creating a miniature in-school community of courts, small businesses, media outlets, and other institutions. The elaborate role-playing of this program, in which actions have consequences and social benefits also have costs, does more than many “social studies” textbooks to teach kids about life in America.

So let’s stipulate: The right is right that schools should do more than provide emotional comfort. The discomfort of 9/11 should be the grist for hard teaching, not merely the impetus for counseling. The left is right that “the patriotism part” of the curriculum, as Chester Finn calls it, rings hollow if it fails to acknowledge the gap between our transcendent ideals and our all-too-human history—and that, anyway, patriotism can’t be conveyed by fiat.

But the quarrel over curriculum is in the end a quarrel over fault. It seeks judgment about who’s really to blame for terror, so it treats teaching as an exercise in persuasion—which is why it misses the point. An education shouldn’t just prepare kids to be swayed by your talking points or mine. It should prepare them to live as citizens, to know how to act as voters, leaders, neighbors. And the best way to do that, after something like 9/11, is not to rehearse the emoting and posing of the culture wars but to give children practice facing, and making, the world that 9/11 gave us.