Our Kids’ Sad Lack of 9/11 Education
Ignorance, fear, political correctness — all play a role in the absence of instruction about this tragic day
Many of today’s kids were not even alive when the 9/11 attacks occurred in September 2001 — a day their parents will never forget. How are teachers and schools teaching 9/11?
Turns out that most of them aren’t — certainly not in any substantive way. A pervasive politically correct atmosphere and a very restrictive “teach to the test” pressure in many U.S. classrooms means American schoolchildren are lucky to participate in simple remembrances of an event they know nothing about.
“Too many parents and teachers are in denial about the ongoing threat of terrorism,” said one psychologist.
“We will have a moment of silence, but that’s about it,” said one Boston high-schooler who was just two years old at the time of the attacks. “What I know about 9/11 is from documentaries about that day and what my family tells me. The topic of 9/11 just isn’t something we’re taught. Maybe because it’s too recent — teachers don’t know what to say about it.”
How about the facts? In the same way it is acceptable to teach that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, it should be permissible to teach that a radical Islamic ideology killed thousands of innocent Americans, leaving them jumping from the towers or perishing when the buildings collapsed and fell.
"Schools — just like parents — feel awkward teaching kids about 9/11 and terrorism in general," said Dr. Carole Lieberman, a California psychologist and author of the book "Lion, Tigers and Terrorists — Oh My! How to Protect Your Child in a Time of Terror." "It is especially easy for them to avoid the subject when the kids were born after 9/11."
This woeful inadequacy should be corrected, said Lieberman. "Indeed, every school should take a field trip to the 9/11 Museum to give children a proper understanding of history, and how terrorism has affected their lives," she told LifeZette.
One of the problems that interferes with more complete teaching about 9/11 is simple denial, said Lieberman.
"Too many parents and teachers are in denial about the ongoing threat of terrorism, so they want to protect kids from this reality," she noted. "But they need to realize that kids are exposed to terrorism on television, radio, and the internet, where they see things that scare them because they don't understand them. So it's imperative that children are taught about 9/11 in school, as well as at home."
Lieberman said she wrote her book for both parents and teachers to share with kids, to give them a gentle introduction to 9/11 and terrorism.
There is some variation in how well schools teach 9/11, Lieberman has found — with private schools, higher grade levels, and schools closer to the sites of the attacks of 9/11 more likely to study it in depth.
Dr. Cheryl Duckworth is a professor of conflict resolution at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida, and the author of "Teaching About Terror: 9/11 and Collective Memory in U.S. Classrooms." For her book, Duckworth questioned 154 teachers via a 15-question survey on their teaching of the events of 9/11.
"So much time has passed," she said, "that today, even freshmen and sophomores in high school are going to depend on us — the adults around them — for their memories of what happened, and what it means. What are the implications of that [a lack of education in the classroom] going forward?"
It should be permissible to teach that a radical Islamic ideology killed innocent Americans.
Questions for teachers in Duckworth's survey included: "What, if anything, do you teach about 9/11?" and "Do you feel free to teach about 9/11?"
"The topic can't help but be political," said Duckworth. "I expected it to be politically charged, and that definitely came back as a barrier to teaching about it. The emotionally painful nature of the event was also a barrier."
"But even more than that," she continued, "a significant barrier was — surprisingly — standardized testing. Since 9/11 is not on the test, they don't have time to teach it."
Teachers responding to the survey told Duckworth they feel very controlled by standardized curriculum — especially the tests. "They need control back of the classroom. I didn't expect this — that a standardized curriculum would be interfering to this level with teaching 9/11," she said.
Wherever one stands on how the U.S. responded to 9/11 and other issues related to that fateful day, "we can all agree that kids need to understand what happened," said Duckworth. "Some teachers feel they're not prepared to teach about Islam or Central Asia. There's a whole history there to understand what led up to 9/11."
Lieberman sees political correctness at play in the lack of education surrounding 9/11.
"Most teachers are afraid to teach about radical Islam, especially in this hyper-politically correct climate," she said. "They are afraid of insulting students and parents, or of getting in trouble with the Board of Education. How they refer to terrorists depends so much on the media and politicians. When President Obama refuses to call terrorists 'radical Islamists,' it sets a very bad precedent because it teaches students we should be afraid of naming our enemy for what they really are."
Teaching 9/11 not only opens up constructive discussions on terrorism — it offers the opportunity to reinforce how heroic and giving Americans are.
"The message of 9/11 is not only the sad reality that there are barbaric enemies who want to destroy the American way of life, but also that there are brave people — notably the first responders — who are willing to risk their lives to save others," said Lieberman. "Kids should learn the importance of keeping the memory alive of those who died in 9/11."
Many of those who are teaching about 9/11 are leaning on the memories of others. "There were teachers doing fantastic things, for example using oral history in the classroom," said Duckworth of her findings. "Teachers would ask kids to interview someone at home about 9/11."
Lieberman noted that some classrooms do have the good fortune to visit the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, where special exhibits and events are held for kids.
"When I see the documentaries, I can't believe that happened here, in America," said the high school junior. "And I can't believe how many people gave their lives trying to save others."