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.