Saturday, September 07, 2002

What Schools Teach Children about Terrorism

In today's New York Times, Richard Rothstein takes on claims that the NEA's 9/11 website offered an anti-American slant on the events of 9/11. He argues that it shows just "how poisoned public discussion about education has become."

Similarly, Reason's own Cathy Young asks in a September 2 Boston Globe column, "Is the NEA Really Guilty of Treason?" She concludes that the anti-American charges are largely a bum rap but that overall, "the NEA's proposals for commemorating Sept. 11 are hardly above criticism. Many lesson plans seem to substitute hand-holding and group therapy for learning about facts and ideas; some have an annoying whiff of political correctness."

In contrast, both the Fordham Foundation and The Bill of Rights Foundation have posted their own 9/11 lessons for teachers who want to focus on civics and history.

I first noted the touchy-feely emphasis of public school teachers' response to children after 9/11 in my September 15, 2001 essay "What Schools Teach Children About Terrorism."

I have a three year old and a five year old and I want them to feel safe. Having said that, the media coverage of the impact of the terrorist attacks on America's children is sickeningly trite and leaves one with the impression that our school children are extremely coddled. I have been following Education Week's coverage of the terrorist attack "Terror Touches Schools," which has collected newspaper stories about terrorism and children from around the nation. Every major newspaper in the country has run a story on how teachers should respond to children. From the NEA's "Crisis Communication Guide and Toolkit" to the cadre of child-development specialist and grief counselors being called to service at elementary and high schools-the consensus seems to be that "eggshell stepping is best." School children should be protected and reassured that they are safe. The best advice is to turn the television off and try to return to a sense of normalcy. However, the realities of early dismissals, television bans, and the strange behavior of their parents and teachers make it perfectly clear to children that the adults do not feel safe. Security above all else is the most important theme perpetuated in our schools.

Perhaps schools have been protecting kids for too long. The obsession with childhood grief counselors may make some long for the days of climbing under their desk for a duck and cover drill.

My mother-in-law called from Baltimore before 7:00 AM [Pacific] to tell us to turn on our television. My five year old saw the live coverage of the second plane crashing into the WTC. He immediately went and found his Spiderman t-shirt and told me that he and Gavin would not be at school when I picked them up because they were going with the Power Rangers to save the world. He urgently wanted to get to school to call a meeting with Gavin and Tanner, his five-year-old compadres, to decide what to do-a typical reaction from a boy who lives and breathes bad guys versus good guys. People are always talking about how bad television is for children and they seldom talk about how bad their schools are for children. Yet, I would rather be on a highjacked airplane with someone inoculated by Power Rangers than someone who believes the message of every school institution: that weapons are bad and that the authorities and the government will solve all problems and protect you.

Public institutions want children to believe that good guys never use weapons to defend themselves. At my son's "private" school five-year old boys are not allowed to play Power Rangers or Spiderman. Even talking about superheroes is grounds for a "Time Out." In other respects, the private school is a good one--but I have yet to find any other public or private school that is nuanced in any way about guns and violence. The message to children is that all weapons are always bad and that public institutions (like schools) have to protect ordinary citizens from violence. The message is that if people are nicer and more tolerant-if kids learn to respect all cultures, then these bad violent things will not happen.

There were also stories in Education Week's coverage about "lessons" schoolchildren could learn from the tragedy. Reported lessons include geography, lessons about letter writing, and lessons about making civic contributions to our nation.

Sadly, I have yet to see any newspaper or school specialist call for lessons about liberty, about constitutional guarantees, about how these terrorist acts will test fundamental values of freedom versus safety. Schools will not ask schoolchildren to think about how it came to be that only the terrorists had weapons while flight crews, pilots, and ordinary citizens did not.

In fact, schools rarely engage students to think about issues of liberty-it is never part of the curriculum. Perhaps that is why so many national leaders and ordinary citizens (with many exceptions) are so quick to concede that we have to give up many of our prior conveniences, in the name of security. That message is really no different than the standard message we have been taught in school.

The fact that public and private schools have no appreciation for liberty and freedom and that these themes never are discussed in the classroom is one of the most important arguments for parental choice and control of a child's education.

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