Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Teaching 9/11
Alternet has republished a piece from The Nation about how various textbooks teach the events of September 11. For what it's worth, I had to deal with this issue in a social studies review book I developed earlier this year. It took me quite a while to satisfactorily tweak my approach, knowing that almost any attempt to discuss historical events that are still within the realm of memory can be controversial--and knowing also that my audience for these short pieces would be eighth-grade students in a Southern state. So I kept it dry and factual, intending as much as possible only to narrate and not explain, along the lines of the following:
On the morning of September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four airplanes. Two were deliberately flown into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York, causing the buildings to collapse and killing over 2,700 people. Another was crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C, killing over 100 people. A fourth plane, which crashed in Pennsylvania killing over 40 people on board, was thought to be headed for either the White House or the Capitol. The coordinated attacks were the largest terrorist strike ever on American soil.

In the days following the attacks, the administration of president George W. Bush announced that the country would fight a war on terror--in other words, that it would take military action against terrorists and any country accused of aiding them. The first country to be attacked was Afghanistan, in October 2001. Its government, known as the Taliban, was believed to have sheltered and aided Osama bin Laden, the terrorist leader who ordered the September 11 attacks. The Taliban was quickly overthrown, and a democratic government installed.
And so on. I explained who Osama bin Laden was, and gave a bit of the history of Al Qaeda, in the same style. Then it came time to explain the Iraq War. How do you explain a war that many Americans supported because they believed something that turned out to be false? Very carefully.
Following the Afghan campaign, the Bush administration began planning for a war against Iraq, which it accused of arming terrorists and possessing weapons of mass destruction. (Many Americans also believed Iraq had been involved in the September 11 attacks. None of the terrorists were Iraqis, however, and no conclusive proof exists that Iraq had any connection to the events of September 11.) The United States built an international coalition against Iraq, although participation from other countries was far less than it had been in 1991. The vast majority of the troops and money were provided by the United States, and the United Nations refused to authorize the war, as it had done in 1991.

In March 2003, the Iraq War began with air strikes. Ground forces moved in a few days later. In less than a month, Iraq fell and Saddam Hussein was removed from power and arrested. A temporary government was installed in Iraq. However, Iraqi insurgents continued to fight against American troops. Elections to establish a permanent government were held in January 2005, although the insurgent attacks continued afterward. As this book went to press, the future of Iraq remained unclear--whether it would become a stable, democratic state, thus setting an example for other countries in the Middle East, or whether it would continue to be an unstable, war-torn place.
There are a couple of potentially controversial statements there. First, the one about there being no evidence that Iraq had anything to do with September 11, which is still being contested by a few Republican diehards. And second, the speculation about Iraq's future. Any suggestion that the mission might ultimately fail can give conservatives a case of the fantods.

Nevertheless, I feel as though I did the best I could do under the circumstances, although putting myself in the shoes of a conservative (thinking it safer to stand inside their shoes than to live inside their heads), I can imagine being criticized precisely because I kept the tone so measured and factual when discussing the events of September 11 itself. After all, there's a school of thought (if you can call it "thinking") that the attacks on that day were an Irruption of Insensate Evil That Must Be Taught as Such. I suppose I could also be criticized for paragraphs (not reproduced here) suggesting that Islamic extremism has roots in particular political and social contexts, instead of discussing it as an obvious Irruption of Insensate Evil--because to try and explain the attacks as anything else is "excusing the hijackers."

Cripes, it's a wonder anybody tries to teach 9/11--but as The Nation notes, few teachers ever get that far, at least in general survey courses. The gap between the present day and the most recent time period taught seems to be about one generation--when I was in high school 30 years ago, survey courses rarely made it past the Korean War; today, the social studies standards in a few states mention the Reagan Era, but practically nothing later. (My inclusion of 9/11 and the Iraq War in my book was based on a broad interpretation of a particular history standard in the state for which the book was written. The standard didn't specifically mention those events, but it required students to understand concepts of American foreign policy from the 19th century "to the present." So I took a shot. I'd like to think there's at least one teacher down there who appreciates the effort.)

If I'd followed through and gotten a job teaching social studies after getting my certificate in 1997, I'd be starting my ninth year in the classroom this fall, and I'd likely be facing the teaching-9/11 dilemma up close. It's also likely that I'd have been in a classroom somewhere on September 11, 2001. Jay Bullock of Folkbum's Rambles and Rants is a teacher who was there, and who had to figure out how to use the Mother of All Teachable Moments. It's definitely worth the click.

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