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Jewish World Review March 24, 2003/ 20 Adar II, 5763

Suzanne Fields

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The right stuff of civics | Everyone's talking about the war, with conversations laced with all kinds of historical analogies, political comparisons and literary illusions.

Lessons from the Trojan War, the heroism and treachery of men on the battlefield as described by Homer in the Iliad, are evoked to describe attitudes toward combat. The initial hesitation to confront Saddam Hussein is often compared to the complacency and cowardice of Neville Chamberlain at Munich. Saddam Hussein himself inevitably evokes evil images of Adolf Hitler.

A good teacher uses analogy to enliven a discussion of current events, provoking curiosity about the influences that make war or preserve the peace. Illuminating the moment is hard work because sometimes not everybody gets it.

Terrence Moore, the principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colo., recalls his lesson on the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire, written for his students on Sept. 10, 2001. Striving for an appropriate description of the emotional response of the Roman citizens to the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410, he offered this analogy: "It would be like a foreign power today taking New York or Washington hostage." He was trying to be neither prophetic nor intuitive on that last day of the nation's innocence, but merely using imagination to incorporate the lessons of history. No doubt, his analogy was burned into the memory of his students the next day.

Schoolchildren quickly grasp the instant history they live through, and, depending on their age, many of them can recite chapter and verse of the details of the day we refer to now as "9/11." But, since they get a lot of their education from pop music, movies and television, they're usually ignorant of the legacies of Western thought. As schools and colleges focus on the diversity of the current culture, young men and women are denied the larger dimensions of what was once called "a liberal education," what Terrence Moore calls "a classical education." (

"It began in ancient Greece, was adopted wholesale by the Romans, faltered after the fall of Rome, made a slow but steady recovery during the Middle Ages, and was again brought to the perfection in the Italian Renaissance," writes Mr. Moore. This knowledge passed to England, to the American colonies, and was enshrined in the ethos of the new republic.

In times of war, especially, students crave studies that put conflicting arguments in the context of the history of the Western world and in the history of our nation. It's a ripe time to deepen understanding of history's pivot points that change everything - from the defeat of Troy to the fall of the Roman Empire and on to the Revolutionary War, our own Civil War and the two World Wars. This is the understanding that enables us to recognize those pivot points, where one kind of world order gives way to another.

Perhaps we stand at one of those pivot points today. As the lone superpower, it's more important than ever to understand how we got to where we are, and what we represent. Who we are determines what we must defend. But, our schools are flunking out.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, who focused on educational issues when he was the governor of Tennessee, then as secretary of education and then in pursuit of the Republican nomination to the presidency, is alarmed at the number of schoolchildren who are "civic illiterates." The little American history they do get is watered down, and civics, which teaches not only the rights, but the duties of citizenship, has disappeared from most public-school curriculums. Although parents say they want their kids to learn about the heroes and heroic events that made America what it is, many public schools aren't interested. "Today's college graduates probably have less civics knowledge than high school graduates of 50 years ago," the senator says. "Especially during such serious times when our values and way of life are being attacked, we need to understand clearly just what those values are."

Mr. Alexander has introduced legislation called the American History and Civics Act, which would create summer academies for training teachers and educating students in the study of the ideas, events and men and women that shaped our democratic institutions. The academies would complement the congressional grants that encourage schools to teach traditional American history.

How sad that schools need such encouragement to do what they ought never to have stopped doing, because the classroom of the 21st century requires that children learn the intellectual and historical principles that tell us what it means to be an American, the principles that can unite us all. That, after all, is what we fight to defend.

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