Teaching 9/11

Teaching 9/11

How do you tell a student the story of September 11?


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.

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.

Probably the best textbook on 9/11 is Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty, a new introductory college text that has been adopted at more than 300 institutions in its first year. It is also assigned in some high school AP classes, ranging from suburban New Trier Township High School in Illinois to Transit Tech High School in Brooklyn. Foner (a member of The Nation‘s editorial board), in addition to explaining bin Laden’s opposition to specific US policies, also examines the Bush Administration’s response–declaring suspect citizens “enemy combatants” and creating secret military tribunals–and places these decisions in historical context. He finds parallels between this response and previous efforts to limit civil liberties in the name of security: suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, persecution of German-Americans during World War I and Japanese-Americans during World War II, McCarthyism during the cold war. Foner thus connects the response to 9/11 with larger themes in American history, asking, “What is the proper balance between liberty and security? Who deserves the full enjoyment of American freedom?”

Of course, critics on the right object to this kind of teaching. Lynne Cheney, wife of the Vice President and former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, said in a 2001 speech that those who argue that 9/11 shows we need to learn more about the rest of the world were blaming America’s “failure to understand Islam” for the attacks. Dinesh D’Souza made a similar argument in his 2002 book What’s So Great About America, and William Bennett, in his 2002 book Why We Fight, spoke out against historians who “weaken the country’s resolve.” Foner rejects these arguments. He insists, in an article about the problems and opportunities in teaching 9/11, that “Explanation is not a justification for murder, criticism is not equivalent to treason, and offering a historical analysis of evil is not the same thing as consorting with evil.” If Finn and Ravitch really support teaching about 9/11 that isn’t “simplified and sanitized,” conceding the validity of those points would be a good place to start.

Whatever the merits of Foner’s argument, problems with the teaching of 9/11 aren’t likely to be resolved soon. Many high school students won’t see any of the new texts because their schools are still using old books. Then there’s the impact of Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act: It requires standards and testing, and since teachers teach to the test, it’s unclear how much 9/11 teaching there will be. In California, for example, the standards haven’t been revised since 9/11, so “there’s no specific standards that reflect it even happened,” says Adam Wemmer, who teaches at Pacifica High School in Garden Grove. And finally, there’s the simple matter of too much history, too little time. “The trouble,” says Beth Anderson, who teaches at El Toro High School in Lake Forest, California, “is that no one manages to get to the Clinton years, much less 2001.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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