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A LITTLE TEACHING MAY BE THE REMEDY WE SEEK

10/1/01

    The tragedy of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon has placed before teachers an important challenge that I hope they will be able to meet. I fear, however, that should they meet this challenge, they will have to do so in spite of narrow-minded school managements whose responses are almost always structured by the latest educationist cant.

    While the young people in our classrooms naturally looked to us for help in making sense of our terror threatened world, I fear too many of us have responded to their need to understand with cloying sentimentality and educationist psychology. From commissioners of education to superintendents and principals, the admonition to teachers has been to focus on the emotions of the children in their charge rather than their ideas. There has been an almost universal assumption that children would be overcome by these frightening events and that an army of counselors and psychologists had to be mobilized to save them from mental collapse. I don’t mean to suggest that students who suffered the loss of someone close to them should not be helped to grieve. Certainly they should have the most skilled professional resources we have. But I do mean to say that it appears to me that we generally continue to overlook the most significant contribution we as teachers can make to young people and their ability to cope with the anxieties of the modern world. We can teach them.

    We can teach them the historical context necessary to make sense of the current crisis. We can teach them how to evaluate the media from which they draw their news, helping them distinguish fact from rumor and opinion, opinion from propaganda, and jingoism from patriotism. We can teach them that Arab and Muslim Americans now face the same sort of bigotry that Japanese Americans faced after Pearl Harbor, and we can enlist them to struggle against this darker side of American society. We can teach them to balance the human desire for safety at any cost with the glory of being a citizen of a free society, helping them to realize that civil rights are often casualties of hot and cold wars. We can teach them to question the ideas of our elected leaders and to engage them politically, thereby helping them to understand that to be a true patriot of the greatest democratic country requires more than blind allegiance. It requires informed and thoughtful participation in the political life of the United States. We could ask them to think about the patriotism of corporate leaders who are quick to sacrifice the jobs of their workers to the financial shock of the terrorist attack while they continue to rake in salaries and benefits worth millions upon millions of dollars. There is so much teaching to be done!

    Supporting students by giving them information and teaching them to think critically about what they have learned is to arm them powerfully to deal with the crises they will face in their lives. Sheltering them and smothering them with sentiment does not contribute to the growth of strong, independent children. Neither does it contribute to development of those qualities of citizenship that make our great nation profoundly different from spawning grounds of the terrorists who would murder us.

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