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Jewish World Review Sept. 3, 2002 / 26 Elul, 5762

John Leo

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Blackboard bungle

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | The National Education Association has taken a lot of abuse for its treatment of September 11, but probably not enough. "Do not suggest that any group is responsible" for the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon, says the NEA's "Remember September 11" Web site. That was the mistake we made over that old Pearl Harbor thing. We rashly jumped to the conclusion that one particular Asia-based group was responsible, thus touching off World War II, instead of setting up tolerance programs. The NEA is willing to concede that "someone is at fault" for September 11, but who that someone might be is apparently supposed to remain a mystery in the schools.

The NEA tried to wriggle off the hook by arguing that the no-group-is-responsible text comes from a link to an outside site. Yes, but the link is clearly presented as part of NEA's recommended treatment of 9/11 under the heading "Tips for parents and schools." The entire, sprawling "Remember September 11" site is a peculiar mess. Maybe half the material is about feelings and how schools must help validate them in a nonjudgmental way. Students in grades three to five are urged to respond to 9/11 by identifying personal health needs in their daily lives, then by blowing bubbles as a way to shed bad feelings.

There is endless emphasis on "healing tools" and "the circle of feelings" but almost nothing on the facts and meaning of September 11. Everything is carried into the abstract. The attacks are lumped with random acts of violence and natural disasters. Even a section labeled "Communicating the Facts" is fact free, instructing teachers vaguely to identify student perceptions and to "determine what further information is needed to form rational opinions" about September 11. Spend a half-hour with this site, and you will be hard pressed to find any 9/11 facts at all.

Kamping with Karl. Many of the suggested 9/11 class projects seem like rainy-day activities at a Marxist summer camp. In one, children are assigned to different power groups, then asked to treat one another in terms of how much power each student has. It's a simple-minded, Marxist class analysis posing as a response to 9/11. In another activity, all children in a class are charged the same fee for lunch, but a few get a "sumptuous" meal, many get beans and rice, and most get only rice and water. Again children are asked to express their feelings about all this. (Possible answer: Loved paying for a whole meal and getting rice and water instead! Marx was right! Can't wait to do it again!)

The folly of the NEA is staggering, but the group insists that it offers plenty of "patriotic" material. Well, yes, but almost none of this material is included in the NEA lesson plans (or wasn't until late last week when it altered the site). Before that, I found one reference to "the documents" (apparently the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, among other texts) in a lesson plan. Here's the recommendation: Parcel out various patriotic documents to sections of the class, then after a few minutes, ask students in each group how they felt about the document they just read.

This is a museum-quality example of NEA culture: Don't actually teach anything, certainly nothing about American traditions and values. Instead, turn everything into a class activity based on the gathering of off-the-cuff, uninformed impressions, all of which are valid because all opinions and attitudes are equal.

This mind-set is the dominant one in the schools of education and on various education Web sites now offering advice about September 11. "It's rotten advice, relativistic, nonjudgmental (except about the United States), pacifist, and anything but patriotic," writes Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Finn and Fordham have just issued a set of papers outlining what it will take to overcome the NEA worldview and prepare students realistically for the post-September 11 world. Those papers, under the heading "What our children need to know," are available at the Fordham Foundation Web site, www.edexcellence.net.

The schools have been very reluctant to back anything that smacks of patriotism or any endorsement of our common civic culture. Bradford Wilson of the National Association of Scholars reports that "constructivist" teaching plays a role, too-many teachers are much more interested in, say, having the class dream up their own constitutions than in studying the real one. Today's schools are very devoted to understanding other cultures and outlooks, not so interested in understanding our own. The upshot is that student understanding of American rights and freedoms, and how we got them, is fraying thin. This problem ought to be at the heart of any curriculum on 9/11.

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JWR contributor John Leo's latest book is Incorrect Thoughts: Notes on Our Wayward Culture. Send your comments by clicking here.

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