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Teaching 9/11 | The Nation

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Teaching 9/11

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9/11 is history--but how is it being taught to students in history courses? George Bush and other conservatives maintain that the attacks were acts of evil; liberals, while they condemn the attacks, see them as having a social and political context that we need to understand. These differences are reflected in the debate over the textbooks written in the past three years.

About the Author

Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener teaches US history at UC Irvine. His most recent book is How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey...

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Conservatives complain that the teaching of 9/11 has been "simplified and sanitized" in an effort "not to...upset special interest groups," in the words of Chester Finn, assistant secretary of education in the Reagan Administration, who wrote the foreword to A Consumer's Guide to High School History Textbooks, by Diane Ravitch, assistant secretary of education in the Bush Sr. Administration. Finn and Ravitch, who based their conclusions on a reading of six of the most widely assigned textbooks in high school history courses, complained that students reading the textbooks "would scarcely learn that anybody in particular had organized these savage attacks...much less why."

Finn and Ravitch are right about some of the texts. America: Pathways to the Present, by Andrew Cayton et al., says in its 2005 edition that the "prime suspect" in the attacks was Osama bin Laden, but he is described only as "a wealthy Saudi dissident." "Saudi dissident" is hardly the right term--a student might get the impression he was fighting for Saudi women's rights. The book goes on to say that bin Laden had been granted sanctuary by the Taliban in Afghanistan, but the Taliban are described only as a "group" that "sought to set up their version of a pure Islamic state, banning such things as television and music." From the perspective of an American tenth grader, this is typical of tyrants everywhere--starting with their own parents, punishing them for bad grades. As an explanation of the "who" and "why" of 9/11, the discussion in Pathways might best be termed "incoherent."

Several other leading texts do much better. The American Republic, by Joyce Appleby et al., has a section on 9/11 in its 2005 edition, written by Alan Brinkley of the Columbia University history department, that provides a wonderfully clear and thorough explanation of the "who" and "why" of 9/11, starting with bin Laden's role in the resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. "Bin Laden's experience in Afghanistan convinced him that superpowers could be beaten. He also believed that Western ideas had contaminated Muslim society. He was outraged when Saudi Arabia allowed American troops on Saudi soil after Iraq invaded Kuwait." He therefore began a series of attacks seeking to drive Americans out of the Middle East. 9/11 was the most spectacular in this series of attacks.

A different approach can be found in The American Promise, by James Roark et al., an introductory college text that is the most widely adopted textbook in the market. It is assigned in dozens of high schools, public and private, including public schools in Atlanta, Newark and Chicago. A section written by Susan Hartmann, who teaches history at Ohio State, identifies bin Laden's goals and then explains the "why" of his finding supporters: "High levels of poverty ignored by undemocratic and corrupt governments provided bin Laden a pool of disaffected young Muslims who saw the United States as the evil source of their misery and the supporter of Israel's oppression of Palestinian Muslims." A companion volume of historical documents, edited by Michael Johnson, includes the famous President's Daily Brief from August 6, 2001: "bin Laden Determined to Strike in the US"; the text of Bush's address on September 20, 2001: "they hate us...[because] they hate our freedoms"; and an Al Qaeda training manual posted on the Justice Department website.

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