Education Opinion

Now Is the Time To Teach Democracy

By Diane Ravitch — October 17, 2001 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was sitting at my kitchen table, enjoying a second cup of coffee and reading the morning paper. A friend called to tell me that a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center. I live about three blocks from the waterfront in Brooklyn, directly across the river from Lower Manhattan, so I ran to the harbor. Just as I arrived, the second plane crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center. Along with about six others, I stood there wordless as we watched huge balls of flame and smoke erupting from the two buildings. On that bright blue, cloudless morning, the air in the harbor was filled as far as the eye could see with tiny bits of paper, like confetti in a ticker-tape parade, the paper blown off the desks of people who worked in the upper floors of the burning buildings.

All that day, ashes and soot rained down on my neighborhood. Cars were coated with the air-borne ash, and a distinctive sickening smell, something akin to burning plastic, permeated the air.

Thousands of our fellow citizens were killed in the conflagration. They were people of all races, religions, ethnicities, and social origins. Most were Americans, some were not. The hundreds of rescuers who died when the buildings collapsed were trying to save human lives, without distinction to anyone’s color, beliefs, or national origin. By day’s end, New Yorkers were lining up at emergency centers to give blood or to offer supplies or to volunteer in any way that seemed useful. The outpouring of volunteers was so large that many were turned away. So much for those who have decried the decline of civic participation in the United States.


This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.

Since the mass murders, educators have been opining about how we must change what we teach our children. We must teach tolerance, they say, as if our children were somehow responsible for what happened because their teachers had failed to teach them tolerance. Of course, we must teach tolerance, but we must not teach children to tolerate those who hijack commercial jetliners and kill innocent victims. We must not teach children to tolerate fanaticism, be it political or religious. (Perhaps we could engage in civic dialogues with educators in the countries that the terrorists came from, to share what we know about teaching tolerance.)

Others have said that the events of Sept. 11 demonstrate the necessity for a multicultural curriculum. Again, the implication is that this unprecedented atrocity was caused by a failure in the schools’ curriculum, rather than by heartless, inhumane terrorists. For those who wish to see some responses by educators, I recommend an article in The Washington Post by Valerie Straus on Oct. 1 (“Sept. 11 Prompts Lesson Review: Educators Rethink Multiculturalism”). Educators quoted in the article claim that the tragedy proves that American schools must now teach more multiculturalism.

I beg to differ. I have long urged that American students need to learn more world history (and American history that includes accurate accounts of the experience of our diverse people). In the late 1980s, I helped to draft the California history/social science curriculum, which is the only one in the nation that requires three years of world history. That curriculum includes the study of Western, Islamic, Indian, African, Asian, and Latin American civilizations. Certainly our students need a solid grounding in world history. This kind of knowledge is invaluable for everyone, but I reject the view that the murderous behavior of terrorists was linked in any way to what our students’ did not know about the terrorists’ culture or worldview.

If curriculum reformers agreed on more time for the study of world history, that would be a major improvement in all of our schools. However, what they have in mind is not more world history but more “multiculturalism,” more attention to our own racial and ethnic differences. No one addressed this issue more forcefully than the late Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. I was with him in 1995 in Prague, when he discussed multiculturalism with educators from Eastern and Western Europe (his speech is online). Shanker warned that multiculturalism, as it is taught in the United States, is dangerous for a democratic, multiethnic society because it encourages people “to think of themselves not as individuals, but primarily in terms of their membership in groups.” By focusing on differences instead of commonalities, Shanker said, this kind of education does not increase tolerance; on the contrary, it feeds racial and ethnic tensions and erodes civil society, which requires a sense of the common good, a recognition that we are all members of the human race.

I reject the view that murderous behavior of terrorists was linked in any way to what our students did not know about the terrorist culture or worldview.

Shanker noted that multicultural education teaches cultural relativism because it implies that “no group may make a judgment on any other.” Yet all societies must establish basic values and guidelines for behavior. Now, in the wake of the terrorist attacks, we hear expressions of cultural relativism when avant- garde thinkers tell us that we must try to understand why the terrorists chose to kill thousands of innocent people, and that we must try to understand why others in the world hate America. Perhaps if we understood why they hate us, then we could accept the blame for their actions.

I suggest that we reject this blame-the-victim approach. I suggest that what our schools must do is to teach young people the virtues and blessings of our democratic system of government. Our ability to defend what we hold dear depends on our knowledge and understanding of it. If we value a free society, we must know about its origins and its evolution. If we value our rights and freedoms, we must understand how we got them and what it would mean to live in a society that did not have them. A good place for teachers to begin is with the “National Standards for Civics and Government,” published in 1994 by the Center for Civic Education.

To be sure, our democratic practices are not universal, even though almost all of them were clearly articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was endorsed by the United Nations in 1948. It is true that there are many societies that treat women as beasts of burden. There are societies that do not choose their leaders. There are societies where the government and religious authorities decide who is allowed to speak and write. There are societies where free public education does not exist. There are societies where homosexuals are rounded up and imprisoned. There are societies where our Western legal concepts of due process are unknown.

Some societies hate us because of our rights and freedoms.

Some of these societies hate us because they hate our way of life. They think it is decadent. They think we are decadent because we protect freedom of speech, allowing people to read, say, and write whatever they want; because we protect freedom of religion, allowing “truth” and “untruth” to be taught without any regulation; because we grant equal rights to men and women, allowing women to be educated to the same extent as men and to advance in the same professions.

Certainly other generations of Americans understood that these rights and freedoms were part of the American way of life. The “greatest generation” that saved the world from fascism and Nazism knew that they were defending these rights and freedoms. The Cold War generation that helped to bring down Soviet totalitarianism understood the importance of these rights and freedoms.

We do not know what sacrifices will be required of us in the months and years ahead. What we should know is the importance of teaching our children about democracy, freedom, human rights, the principle that every person is equal before the law, and the value of the individual. These are ideas with a long history. Our children need to know them.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP
Education Massachusetts National Guard to Help With Busing Students to School
250 guard personnel will be available to serve as drivers of school transport vans, as districts nationwide struggle to hire enough drivers.
1 min read
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass. Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, activated the state's National Guard to help with busing students to school as districts across the country struggle to hire enough drivers.
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass.
Michael Dwyer/AP