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Don't Skip the Hard Lessons of Sept. 11th

BY Jonathan Zimmerman
by Jonathan Zimmerman on 8/8/02.

Patriotism, Samuel Johnson once warned, is often the last refuge of a scoundrel. As our public schools prepare to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, though, we might wish to add another danger to Johnson's list: psychologism.
"Psychologism" reduces every social and political issue to a question of personal health and well-being. Whereas the patriot sees treason and subversion around every corner, the psychologist worries about trauma and self-esteem.
Across the country, more than 1,000 high schools have announced plans to commemorate the 9/11 attacks with a special five-day curriculum about terrorism and global affairs. But here in New York, the main target of the attacks, students won't be learning much of anything. After consulting with child psychologists, city school officials have decided to downplay the Sept. 11 anniversary.
"There are students here who witnessed tremendous trauma, not just on television or in ripples, but by seeing what happened or facing their own personal losses," explained Francine Goldstein, chief executive of school support services for the city's Board of Education. "All of this can drag up some very difficult symbolism for both the children and the staff."
Of course it can. But the horror of the tragedy should not provide an excuse for eschewing a discussion of it. In the guise of protecting students, we will forfeit an enormous opportunity to teach them.
For example, how many students know that the United States established a "citizens' auxiliary" to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in World War One? More than a quarter of a million people joined the American Protective League, spying on their neighbors and co-workers in the hunt for German infiltrators and sympathizers. League members opened other people's mail, and intercepted their telegrams - all with the government's sanction.
How does this effort compare to Attorney General John Ashcroft's proposed "TIPS" program, which would enlist millions of civilians as government spies? Should the World War I precedent make us wary of his proposal? Supportive of it? Why? How can we guard against terrorism but still protect our civil liberties?
In previous national crises, patriotic propaganda blocked any such analysis from America's classrooms. During World War I, for example, the federal government distributed lesson plans illustrating the "democratic" virtues of our British and French allies and the "autocratic" nature of our German foes. (One lesson used the example of French patriot Joan of Arc - until somebody realized that she had been burned at the stake by England.)
In the 1950s, schools purged textbooks of material about American poverty and racism. If students learned of their own country's problems, the argument went, they might start to sympathize with its Cold War foe: the Soviet Union. "There should be a constructive, positive approach," explained a patriotic group in California, "and emphasis should be placed on the 'good things' of American life."
Even now, self-appointed patriotic organizations impose a cheery gloss upon the nation's textbooks. For example, in Texas, right-wing activists in the Texas chapter of Citizens for a Sound Economy work assiduously to remove any passages that might sully America's pristine image.
Here in New York, by contrast, the soft glove of liberal psychology - not the hard fist of conservative patriotism - constrains what our children learn. Lest any racial or ethnic group suffer a deficit of "self-esteem," textbooks distort or simply falsify American history. As school officials admitted earlier this year, even standardized examinations have removed ethnic referents like "black" or "Jewish" - because such terms might supposedly harm the delicate minds of young test-takers.
To be sure, millions have been affected in some manner by racial or ethnic prejudice. Likewise, every person in New York was probably traumatized - in one way or another - by the attacks of Sept. 11.
But the main job of our public schools is to make people into good citizens, not to make them feel good. Schools must give children the knowledge, skill, and interest to participate in complicated public questions - like the balance between individual freedom and collective security.
Which brings us back to John Ashcroft and "TIPS." No matter what we think of citizen spies, let's all keep a close eye on our schools as the Sept. 11 anniversary draws near. Let's make sure our students use this day to learn about the tragedy and - especially - about our nation's response to it. And let's resist the twin perils of patriotism and psychologism, which will only defer the critical discussion that we need.