Jewish World Review Sept. 4, 2002 / 27 Elul, 5762

Terry Eastland

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The Education Gadfly stings again


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | A gadfly, my dictionary advises, is "any fly that goads or stings domestic animals." Gadflies take various forms and have other targets, and one particularly good at goading and stinging a complacent educational establishment is the self-described "Education Gadfly," otherwise known as Chester E. Finn, the former assistant secretary of education and college professor at, among other places, Vanderbilt University.

Because the schools are his beat - Mr. Finn runs the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a research center that pursues the reform of elementary and secondary education - he has followed the innumerable efforts launched by professional educators to tell the nation's teachers what they should teach about Sept. 11, 2001.

Mr. Finn bluntly says the advice is bad and even awful. He cites, for example, the "Remember Sept. 11" Web site put up by the National Education Association. The site, he says, is "a mishmash of pop-psychotherapeutics, feel-goodism, relativism and overblown multiculturalism." Even more notable, he told me, are the "sins of omission" - i.e., topics not really covered on the site, among them history, civics and patriotism.

Fortunately, the void has been filled, at least partly, by the Education Gadfly and his Fordham associates. They asked 23 Americans from various academic disciplines to respond to the question: "What civic lessons are the most imperative for [our] K-12 teachers to teach their pupils, as the anniversary of the September 11th attacks draws near, about the United States and what it means to be an American?"

You can find the responses at edexcellence.net. None of the writers provides a lesson plan as such. But from their essays you can see how a teacher might best approach Sept. 11. As with teaching any history, a good place to begin is with the facts - in this case, the hijacking of the planes, the use of those planes to kill thousands of innocents, and the heroic actions of so many, including the firefighters and police in New York.

Consideration of those facts leads naturally to inquiries about the hijackers and what motivated them. You get to al-Qaeda and then to its adherents' commitment to a radical strain of Islam and its hostility to free people and free institutions. And so you get to the object of the hijackers' fury - America, a nation indeed conceived in liberty, including religious and intellectual freedom.

Here the Fordham writers are especially good, for they emphasize teaching what often is taken for granted - the truly remarkable accomplishment in world historical terms that America represents.

"Freedom, democracy, an independent judiciary and the dignity of the individual," reminds the classicist Victor Davis Hanson, "are not innate

to the human species." It took work to pursue freedom and to create the institutions needed for its best exercise and protection. "How perilous," observes Lynne Cheney, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, "was the voyage that the Pilgrims undertook, how risky was the declaration that we would be a free and independent nation, how unlikely to endure - if one judged by prior history - was the republic established in Philadelphia in 1787."

The Fordham writers don't neglect slavery and America's other sins, but they note America's demonstrated capacity to improve over the years. They stress the "civic virtues" long characteristic of America and that, not incidentally, were abundantly exercised in the response to Sept. 11.

Those virtues, writes the philosopher and former Clinton White House aide William Galston, are "not innate but must be learned" - by every generation.

Inevitably, a student of Sept. 11 is confronted, as another former NEH head, John Agresto, points out, with a "diversity" - between al-Qaeda and us. Consideration of the differences "leads to comparisons, and comparisons lead to judgments." Yes, judgments - about right and wrong, good and evil, how to organize a society and how not to.

"If your students," Mr. Agresto says drily, "wish to draw conclusions about the stark diversity of outlooks given us by September 11th - that there is something to the distinction between civilization and barbarism, for example, or between decency and evil - do not stand in their way."

Good advice, that, like so much found in the Fordham report. It deserves an audience among teachers, if only because our student deserve a decent education about a day that forever will be in our memory.

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JWR contributor Terry Eastland is is publisher of The Weekly Standard.Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Terry Eastland