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Published in Print: October 3, 2001, as Talking About Terrorism

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Talking About Terrorism

Talk with children. Find out what scares them; try to reassure them.

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Talk with children. Find out what scares them; try to reassure them.

Talk with the children. Tell them what happened. Find out what scares them; try to reassure them. Most of all, keep your ears and eyes open. That's what America's teachers have been asked to do since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. They're supposed to make our kids feel secure, even as they look for "warning signs" of students or others who might breach our security. Priest, therapist, news anchor, cop: Teachers must now play all of these roles, all of the time.

Let's not forget their most important job: to prepare our youngsters for citizenship. A healthy democracy requires citizens who can think and deliberate about difficult public issues. In the wake of the attacks, then, teachers need to challenge their students with hard questions—not just to comfort them with easy answers.

Who are these terrorists? Why did they attack America?

Should America retaliate? Against whom?

Would you be willing to fight in such a war? To die in it? Why?

Let's not forget teachers' most important job: to prepare our youngsters for citizenship.

Adults have been asking one another these questions since the events of last month. But we've been loath to ask our children, lest we upset their cherished view of a safe and secure world.

For elementary-age children, of course, that's entirely appropriate: They can't understand the questions well enough to frame cogent answers. But students in junior high and high school can understand, and they can answer—if we have the courage to demand it.

These young people are the heirs of our democracy; in a few short years, they will be electing our leaders and shaping our public life. How will they learn to assume these duties unless our schools teach them? And when better to do so than during the greatest political crisis of their lives?


For most of American history, sadly, schools have indoctrinated students with a single national "truth" instead of encouraging them to formulate their own. During World War I, for example, federally sponsored lesson plans taught children that Germany was historically "autocratic," while France—as personified by Joan of Arc—was inherently "democratic." (Little noticed was the fact that England—another supposedly "democratic'' ally—had burned Joan of Arc at the stake.)

In the 1950s, likewise, school boards removed a textbook that asked students to explain the causes of unemployment in America. As one critic explained, any such line of inquiry could only play into the hands of the Soviet enemy. "There should be a constructive, positive approach," he explained, "and emphasis should be placed upon the 'good things' in American life."

After the civil rights revolution, to be sure, textbooks devoted far more attention to the hardships of African-Americans and other minorities. But the themes of our classrooms—like the titles of our texts—remained overwhelmingly positive: Quest for Liberty, Land of Freedom, and so on. Rarely were students asked to decide for themselves whether America is a uniquely "free" nation, and what that might mean.

Into the present, in fact, our public schools remain remarkably free of political controversy. Most surveys of teachers report that they avoid or discourage divisive subjects, lest they offend parents or lose control of students. Better to focus on "the facts"—bland, neutral, and authoritative—than to engage in a risky debate about them.

Teachers need to challenge students—not just comfort them

But this approach mocks the same values of freedom and democracy that it purports to celebrate. If we took freedom seriously, we would encourage each student to develop his or her own perspective on the nation—its past, present, and future. And if we took democracy seriously, we would require these students to argue and deliberate with one another about the leading public issues of their day.

Would such instruction turn young people against America, or weaken their resolve to defend it? The very question reveals a cynical and static view of the nation itself. America is not a timeless entity, but a work in progress; not a statue cast in bronze, but a society composed of people. Since it is also a democracy, these people must determine its direction and its fate. And schools must give them the skills and the capacities to do so.

Would discussions of war frighten the students, disturbing their bucolic teenage idyll? The terrorists already did that. If we want to comfort our children—and ourselves—in a meaningful way, we should demand that they develop a solid understanding of the tragedy as well as an informed opinion about America's response. The only image scarier than the smoldering World Trade Center is the idea of future citizens who have not thought deeply about it.

So yes, teachers, please console the children. Hug them, if it helps. After that, though, make sure to ask them, "What should America do now?"

And make sure they know that their answer counts.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history in the school of education at New York University. He is the author of Storm Over the Schoolhouse: The Culture Wars in American Education, which will be published next year by Harvard University Press.

Vol. 21, Issue 5, Page 56

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