School Climate & Safety Commentary

Truths of Civic Life

By William A. Galston — September 11, 2002 3 min read
What should teachers teach their students about Sept. 11, 2001?

Question: What should teachers teach their students about Sept. 11, 2001? Answer: Some of the most important truths about American civic life. Here are a few:

1. There is such a thing as civic virtue, and whether or not we possess it can be a matter of life and death. The memory of police, firefighters, and random civilians doing their duty (and more) in the face of overwhelming danger is as indelible as the images of the collapsing World Trade Center and the maimed Pentagon. Because civic virtue is not innate but must be learned, we must pay careful attention to the processes—institutional and informal—through which it is cultivated.

2. For all the (justified) talk of our diversity, Americans possess a civic identity that both includes and surmounts our differences. The Sept. 11 attack was an assault on all Americans without regard to their race, creed, or national origin. We responded to it as one nation. We watched together, mourned together, gained strength and resolve from one another.

3. Even in a democracy that mistrusts politics and abjures concentrated power, leadership matters. The president’s exemplary conduct in the first dreadful weeks after Sept. 11 helped rally us to a sense of mission and significance. And the core of democratic leadership, we learned once again, is public discourse that makes clear the principles for which we act and the facts that guide our judgment about what we must do together.

4. In the face of danger, it is hard to keep one’s civic balance and safeguard essential liberties. The president’s leadership helped put a lid on what might otherwise have been escalating attacks on Arab- and Muslim-Americans, although laws requested by the administration and enacted by Congress may have granted the government excessive emergency powers. It remains to be seen whether history will judge the post-Sept. 11 arrests and incarcerations as severely as it does the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, but the parallel is cautionary.

5. The relation between politics and religion in America, though hardly uncontested, is a hard-won accomplishment of great worth. We have managed to avoid the Scylla of state secularism and the Charybdis of theocracy while preserving both an astounding variety and vitality of religious faith and practice. But there are groups in the world with very different ideas about the proper relation between politics and religion, and many of them despise what we prize.

6. Whether we like it or not, the United States is enmeshed in the world beyond our shores and, as the most powerful nation, our actions inevitably affect everyone else. We are disliked in some quarters because of the principles we espouse, the policies we pursue, and the friends we support. While conducting ourselves with candor and honor on the world stage, we must accept the burden of protecting ourselves against the enemies we cannot help making.

7. The great illusion of the 1990s (as in the period prior to the outbreak of World War I) was that markets could replace politics. As long as groups pursue goals that cannot be reduced to economics, as long as divisions of friend and foe reflect differences of ethnicity, political principle, and religious faith, not just collisions of material interests, there will be a need for statecraft as well as for international technology and trade treaties. A doctrinaire contempt for politics, whether of the right or the left, is incompatible with our nation’s security and global leadership.

That is but seven lessons—one for each day of a single week—of the many, many truths about American civic life that we look to our teachers and our schools (although not them alone) to help teach our daughters and sons.

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