The fracas over what to teach children about September 11, 2001, revealed a deep fault line within the school subject known as "social studies."
Put simply, one camp believes that social studies classes should help children feel good about themselves, be nice to others, and learn to respect all cultures, with minimal attention to traditional history, geography, and civics. The other camp holds that the schools' job is to transmit information to children about their shared American culture, how it works, and where it came from. Guess which side is winning?
The overwhelming majority of September 11 curricular guidance that teachers received from the National Council for the Social Studies, the National Association of School Psychologists, the National Education Association, and many others focused on pop psychotherapy. A year after the attacks, the underlying assumption in the renewed flood of instructional advice was still that children needed to be comforted, reassured, and admonished not to cast blame or show bias toward any group, religion, or country.
One found little in the curricular suggestions about who attacked us and why. There was even less about America's core values of freedom and equality and why the world's fanatics and fundamentalists abhor these. There was nothing about the difference between democracy and theocracy. Although New York's noble firefighters and police came in for some praise, little was made of the many acts of heroism on September 11 and nary a word about the brutal villains who killed thousands of innocents on that bright September morning. Nor were there lessons from history about how America responded on previous occasions when its principles have been challenged, its freedoms attacked, and its sovereignty assaulted.
Not surprisingly, "patriotism" was almost completely absent from these recommended lesson plans. One was more apt to find warnings against jingoism.
Many teachers sensibly ignored all this advice and did what they thought right. The youngsters I spoke to about September 11 reported that on the anniversary they wore something red, white, and blue to school, recited the Pledge of Allegiance, maybe spent a few minutes remembering the events of a year earlier, and (in private schools) said a prayer. That was about it. Then back to multiplication and division, verbs and nouns, whatever.
Perhaps an important "teachable moment" was thus wasted. But at least these teachers did not make matters worse on September 11. Yet the social studies curriculum for which they are responsible all year long, day in and day out, is far more apt to embrace the worldview of the National Council for the Social Studies than the priorities of patriotic Americans, as are the textbooks, the ed-school courses in which tomorrow's teachers are prepared, and their professional journals.
Social studies needs a top-to-bottom overhaul. We will do an important service to the memory of our heroes and those they left behind if, by September 11, 2003, this overhaul is well under way.