November 9, 2004
By Jacob Laksin
Pop quiz: Who’s responsible for the
attacks of 9-11? If you said the United States, you’re well qualified to teach
American students about the defining historical event of their lives. That, at
least, is the conclusion reached by Dickinson College.
This September, in a bid to resolve the lingering dilemma over how best to broach with students the subject of the attacks, and terrorism generally, the Carlisle, Pa-based college sponsored a contest. Together with the Smithsonian Institution, the college invited educators across the country to submit lesson plans proposing creative ways to teach the subject of September 11. The four winning entries - one each for the elementary school, middle school, high school, and college level - were expected to share a common purpose. As explained by the contest’s director, Dickinson professor and former Brookings institution scholar Douglas Stuart, they had to help American students “confront and make sense of, the horrific events of that day.”
So went the official rules. But if the contest’s eventual winners are any indication, there was yet another, unspoken criterion: the lesson plans had to encourage students in the notion that the terrorist attacks, however horrific, were the direct consequence of an abominably misguided U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East.
Call it Blame America 101. Outspoken leftist activist and fifth grade teacher Bob Peterson, whose plan to teach 9-11 at elementary schools was selected as one of the four winning entries, urges students to consider the attacks “in the broader context of global injustice.” To wrap their young minds around terrorism, Peterson contends, they must first untangle the “tough questions,” such as, “Why do they hate us?” Another winner, Iowa middle school teacher Tracy Paxton, recommends a vocabulary lesson. Among the words she believes shed light on the nature of terrorism are, “Al Qaeda,” “Saddam Hussein,” “stereotype,” “Taliban,” and, ominously, “Right wing.”
Equally politicized is the lesson plan of Oregon high school teacher Masato Ogawa. A proponent of “multicultural” studies, Ogawa’s lesson teaches students about the legislation prompted by September 11, the Patriot Act. Far from a dispassionate discussion of legal issues, Ogawa’s lesson exhorts teachers to present the Patriot Act against the backdrop of the Japanese internment during World War II. Finally, there is David Mednicoff. To teach his winning course, “Explaining Terror: The U.S. and the Middle East,” the University of Massachusetts professor, a strident critic of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East who has accused Israel of backing the Iraq war in order to ethnically cleanse Palestinian Arabs, relies on a book by Fawaz Gergez. Gerges, it may be remembered, is the prominent Middle East studies professor who, prior to 9-11, downplayed the danger of militant Islam and assailed the U.S. government for “inflating” the importance of Osama bin Laden.
Taken together, the winning lessons hint at an attempt to sow in American students disapproval with U.S. policies. Indeed, it hardly exaggerates the heavily anti-American pitch of these lesson plans - held up as models for teachers across the country - to venture that the masterminds of 9-11 would have little quarrel with their account of the attacks.
Take Bob Peterson, for instance. The author of a book charging Christopher Columbus with genocide, Peterson is not shy about what he calls his “left-liberal” politics. But Peterson, who counts a video by the left-wing Canadian magazine Adbusters among his preferred instructional tools, dismisses the suggestion that his lesson plan amounts to little more than an exercise in left-wing indoctrination. “My approach would be to offer a broad range of opinions that challenge the received wisdom of society,” says Peterson in an interview. “If the kids left my classroom parroting a left-liberal perspective I would not find it satisfying. I want kids to ask the ‘why’ questions. I don’t want to turn out left-wing students.”
A review of Peterson’s lesson plan, however, suggests he may be doing just that. For example, Peterson regards as beyond dispute his view that the terrorists that perpetrated 9-11 are animated by legitimate grievances against the United States. Peterson defends that position by explaining that he accords his students ample license to voice opinions to the contrary. Peterson’s actual lesson plan tells a different story. Explanations for terrorism that run up against Peterson’s leftist politics seem to be actively discouraged. Consider this typical exercise, aimed at getting elementary school kids sympathize with terrorists, which Peterson describes in his winning plan:
“As a class, we brainstormed why people might dislike the United States. Many students parroted President Bush’s claim that terrorists hate us because of our freedoms. I suggested that matters were more complicated and that throughout the year we would explore this topic.”More complicated? One might point out that a cogent case can be made for the president’s assertion. After all, al-Qaeda’s contempt for women’s rights, their murderous antipathy to Jews and Shiites, and their well-documented intolerance of all secular authorities constitutes nothing if not a fundamental hatred of core American freedoms. Peterson rejects this argument as superficial. Yet his ostensibly “more complicated” account of the buildup to September 11 is anything but. Quite the contrary: To an uncharitable eye, it seems largely to parrot the claims of al-Qaeda propagandists. Listen to Peterson’s account of the following lesson, which he calls for elementary school teachers to replicate:
What seems clear is that kids are coached to come to predetermined
conclusions about U.S. policies; namely, that they give rise to terrorism. For
his part, Peterson maintains he’s not teaching kids to blame American first. “I
don’t throw stones at the United States,” he says, “We try to understand all
perspectives.” Skeptics may be pardoned for wondering whether an instruction
that seeks to explain terrorism as a response to far more nefarious American
actions is consistent with that aim. Moreover, as Peterson himself concedes, the
majority of students leave his classroom convinced that the driving force behind
the world’s problems - problems they have been taught to believe fuel terrorism
the United States.
Next to Peterson’s introduction to U.S.-bashing, Tracy Paxton’s multiculturalism-inspired instruction seems downright appropriate. But it too is not without its questionable aspects. In one activity, for example, Paxton encourages middle school students to compare and contrast the United States with, in addition to several Middle Eastern countries, al-Qaeda. How a terrorist network can sensibly be compared to a democratic country is puzzling. Paxton, for her part, seems untroubled by such questions. Instead, she stresses that her lesson plan seeks to engage students by arousing their emotions. “The emotional aspect of this lesson is important to kids this age. They are vulnerable, confused, and anxious to escape inside themselves,” Paxton explains an email.
That being the case, Paxton’s insistence on making words like “right wing” the stuff of a suggestive vocabulary lesson - at the glaring exclusion of words such as, say, left wing - seems like little more than a calculated attempt to cultivate in kids a distrust, if not outright hostility, to conservative politics. On this point, Paxton is evasive. “I hope they take an understanding of basic vocabulary so as to be able to follow news reports, understand lectures and the material they read about 9-11 and terrorism,” she says. “I want them to be find a way, or the words, to express their emotions - be it confusion, anger, frustration, sadness, etc. - about 9-11 and the terrorism in our world today.”
Few would contest the admirableness of that mission. What they may take issue with is that Paxton’s lesson plan does more than merely urge kids to get in touch with their feelings: it also exploits those feelings to instill a politically motivated understanding of 9-11.
Parallel criticism might be leveled at the high school lesson plan of Masato Ogawa. Initially stumped as to how to teach students about 9-11, Ogawa solved the problem by instead making the Patriot Act the focus of his class. The idea, according to Ogawa’s lesson plan, is to prod students to think about the U.S. government’s “use of authority during wartime.” But Ogawa’s approach - comparing the experiences of Muslim Americans after September 11 to one of the most execrable excesses of the U.S. government, the Japanese-Americans during World War II - seems like a recipe to stir opposition to the legislation among high school students. If he disagrees, Ogawa, who did not answer repeated requests for an interview, does not say so.
Somewhat more forthcoming is the University of Massachusetts’ David Mednicoff. Critics have charged that “Explaining Terror,” Mednicoff’s winning lesson plan, is troublingly true to its mission, explaining terrorism as a logical response to American foreign policy in the Middle East. Confronted with this criticism, Mednicoff bristles at the implication that his course has an underlying agenda. “My interest is in having students ask and answer for themselves questions about the possible connections between terrorism and September 11,” he says in an interview. “I do not indoctrinate my students; my students have no idea what my politics are.”
That may well be true. But even the briefest online sleuthing would disclose the fact that Mednicoff, besides being a severe critic of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, has routinely alleged that this policy laid the seedbed for the terrorism of 9-11. Here, for instance, is how Mednicoff sums up his philosophy on teaching students about 9-11: “What students need is an introduction to Middle Eastern History, politics, a set of questions about what the United States’ role in the region has been in the past and whether its reasonable to make connections between that role and what happened on September 11.” In December of 2003, Mednicoff made a similar point on the Web site of the Chronicle of Higher Education: “[T]he problem is that most Americans, and government in particular, seem uninterested in addressing the connection between American foreign policy general tendencies and unilateral practices and this anger.”
Asked if he believes the real culprit of 9-11 is U.S. foreign policy, Mednicoff, though more circumspect, does not shrink from his views. “The fact is that there are a lot of people in the Middle East whose views of the United States are colored by 20th century western colonial involvement in the region. And that’s the view many of my students tend to take away from the class.” Pressed if this is not clear evidence that “Explaining Terror” adds up to a short course in anti-American ax-grinding, Mednicoff is adamant. “What I am doing is in no sense indoctrinating my students, but rather empowering them to arrive at their own conclusions,” Mednicoff says. “I believe, as an educator, in letting students make up their own minds. And my specific goal is that they get exposure to a variety of experts.”
By any reckoning, however, Mednicoff’s notion of variety is strikingly limited. As one of the main books of his course, for instance, he uses “America and Political Islam” by Fawaz Gerges. A professor of Middle East studies and a regular feature on television, Gerges spent most of the 90's advancing his pet theme that the U.S. government, actuated by an irrational fear of terrorism, was exaggerating the potential threat posed by militant Islam. September 11 had conspicuously little impact on Gerges’s perspective: today, he accuses the U.S. government of using the threat of militant Islam to wage a “unilateral military onslaught against Iraq.” One might justifiably wonder whether grounding a class on terrorism in books that proclaim it a monster of America’s own making does not suggest to college students that it is in this context that they ought to view the attacks of 9-11. Mednicoff has no time for such criticism. He heatedly dismisses the idea that his class promulgates a specific conception of terrorism, one informed by an unshakeable disdain for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. His reasoning, however, is revealing. “If my students come to raise concerns about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, then it is a function of their own conclusions - it comes out of a sense of what’s true.”
Such statements serve to reinforce the notion that the winning lessons plans collectively draw on an anti-American animus. It is a notion that is not lost on David Commins, a professor of history at Dickinson who helped oversee the college’s contest. That such an animus is indeed in evidence in the winning entries is clear, Commins acknowledges. “There’s the assumption that U.S. foreign policy is responsible for the attacks of September 11,” Commins says. “I do think that’s something that is present in the discussion.” Nonetheless, Commins believes that this is less the result of any plot to influence the teaching of 9-11 across the country than a simple matter of selection. “In terms of the several dozen lesson plans that came before the judges, not one of them stated a view other than that was the result of U.S. foreign policy. That may be the result. But it was not the intent.”
That explanation supposes that the judges had no preference for the content of the lesson plans. However, the comments of MaryEllen Salamone, president of Families of 9-11 one of the contest’s four judges, suggest that the eventual winners conformed to the judges’ conception of terrorism. In an interview with USA Today, Salamone revealed that like elementary school teacher Bob Peterson, she was looking for a more complicated explanation of terrorism. “I don't think it's helpful for children to think this [ 9-11]... happened for a reason,” Salamone said. Other judges, who included Alison Zimbalist, head of the New York Times Learning Network, a Web site for teachers of grades 3-12, seemed to share Salamone’s views. What’s more, David Commins notes that, as one of the contest’s organizers, he would have rejected lesson plans that took the view of al-Qaeda terrorists as the agents of irrational hatred. “If there had been lesson plans that presented the point of view that these people were rabidly anti-American, and who would carry out attacks no matter what, I would not have included it,” Commins says.
How the inclusion of lesson plans that are overtly anti-American qualifies as any kind of improvement is unclear. Commins parries this criticism by explaining that, whatever the view of the judging panel, the contest’s entries uniformly described terrorism as the outgrowth of American policies in the Middle East. According to Commins, there was not a single exception. Nevertheless, Commins cautions that this should be seen as the fault of Dickinson’s contest. Rather, he surmises, it has to do with the conformity of political views among American educators. “If there’s an ideological point of view, that emerged in the educational community. I really think it’s a matter of the culture of education.” Even so, Commins defends the winning lesson plans as an alternative way to teach students about terrorism. “The great thing about this country is that’s not like Syria,” Commins says. “Everything is not one way.”