Sunday, September 18, 2005

Explanation is not justification

There's an excellent article at the History News Network about how 9-11 is being presented in recent editions of popular history books. The whole article is fascinating and well worth reading but the words of one of my favorite historians, Eric Foner, particularly touched a chord with me:

Probably the best textbook on 9/11 is Eric Foner's Give Me Liberty, a new introductory college text that has been adopted at more than 300 institutions in its first year. It is also assigned in some high school AP classes, ranging from suburban New Trier Township High School in Illinois to Transit Tech High School in Brooklyn. Foner (a member of The Nation's editorial board), in addition to explaining bin Laden's opposition to specific US policies, also examines the Bush Administration's response--declaring suspect citizens "enemy combatants" and creating secret military tribunals--and places these decisions in historical context. He finds parallels between this response and previous efforts to limit civil liberties in the name of security: suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, persecution of German-Americans during World War I and Japanese-Americans during World War II, McCarthyism during the cold war. Foner thus connects the response to 9/11 with larger themes in American history, asking, "What is the proper balance between liberty and security? Who deserves the full enjoyment of American freedom?"

Of course, critics on the right object to this kind of teaching. Lynne Cheney, wife of the Vice President and former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, said in a 2001 speech that those who argue that 9/11 shows we need to learn more about the rest of the world were blaming America's "failure to understand Islam" for the attacks. Dinesh D'Souza made a similar argument in his 2002 book What's So Great About America, and William Bennett, in his 2002 book Why We Fight, spoke out against historians who "weaken the country's resolve." Foner rejects these arguments. He insists, in an article about the problems and opportunities in teaching 9/11, that "Explanation is not a justification for murder, criticism is not equivalent to treason, and offering a historical analysis of evil is not the same thing as consorting with evil." If Finn and Ravitch really support teaching about 9/11 that isn't "simplified and sanitized," conceding the validity of those points would be a good place to start. (Emphasis mine.)

"Explanation is not justification." Perfectly stated. Everyone who tried to talk about why 9-11 happened and get beyond the obvious explanation that evil people hate us should remember this point. There is no doubt that the reasons why terrorists struck us are far more nuanced than the Right will admit. We need to understand their reasoning. Remember Sun Tzu's eternally sound advice in the Art of War: "Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer." You've got to know what they're thinking to beat them.And let their be no mistake, we can't afford not to.

The article continues:

Whatever the merits of Foner's argument, problems with the teaching of 9/11 aren't likely to be resolved soon. Many high school students won't see any of the new texts because their schools are still using old books. Then there's the impact of Bush's No Child Left Behind Act: It requires standards and testing, and since teachers teach to the test, it's unclear how much 9/11 teaching there will be. In California, for example, the standards haven't been revised since 9/11, so "there's no specific standards that reflect it even happened," says Adam Wemmer, who teaches at Pacifica High School in Garden Grove.

This is very sad because there can be no doubt that students from 6th grade up -- and some who are younger -- will have distinct memories of that awful day. They need to talk about it. They need to begin to understand it and the complex situations that led up to it. Unfortunately, terrorists aren't going away any time soon.


Post a Comment

<< Home

Listed on BlogShares