September 11 and the Importance of Education
by Reba N. Page & Lauren A. Sosniak - September 03, 2002
An introduction to a special issue of TCRecord.org on the value of education in the wake of the attacks on America.
The profound shock produced a year ago by the bombings in Washington, DC and New York City and the downing of a fourth airplane in Pennsylvania has receded somewhat from the morning headlines and our collective attention, and we find ourselves arriving, again, at a new juncture in making sense of September 11 and taking action in regard to it.
People see the shift in attention variously. Some congratulate the country for having “moved on” and “put September 11 behind us.” Others worry that the nation is again exhibiting the speedy amnesia for which it is justly known. As a colleague mused, maybe September 11 has now had its “15 minutes of fame.”
A third view is that this new juncture, like September 11 itself, will prove to be both an end and a beginning—and that during it, as T. S. Eliot urged more generally, “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end to all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” With crisis muted, this next period may prove more fertile for reflection, right action, and less self-righteousness. It will also almost certainly prove as difficult as September 11 itself, because we must both continue to honor the trauma and bravery encountered on and around that one bright autumnal day while we also turn more vigorously to complex deliberations about the civic and international policies that flow in that day’s aftermath. Too often, those policies are being represented as merely technical, regulatory, or arcanely budgetary, and they do not necessarily make the front page or compel attention; but their effects, precisely if they do not receive informed and generous public debate, may prove deeply and negatively significant for us as individuals and for the country and the world.
In this next juncture, as initially, education will be especially important—as important, if homelier, than the life-giving acts performed a year ago by fire and police workers, mail carriers, public health workers, and other public servants. Education can nourish attentiveness, memory, knowledge, and heartfelt communion, as John Dewey often mentioned. But if we look to schools and universities to help in making sense of September 11 and its fallout, how can they best accomplish this? Will it help if teachers act as part of “the war on terrorism,” as Secretary of Education Roderick Paige has suggested? Will the most informative curriculum emphasize multiculturalism and globalism or patriotism and American-ism? Will we want special “moments of prayer,” the detached “normalcy” of the 3Rs, school lunch, and standardized testing, or will we expect schools and universities to step forward to sponsor the exploration of questions the U.S. has put off far too long—questions about national identity and purpose, about military vs social agendas, about humane responsiveness and responsibilities—in short, questions that may let us “know the place [called America] for the first time”?
The five papers in this special series in TCRecord.org argue the value of education in perilous times. They were initially prepared for a Presidential Invited Symposium sponsored by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and were presented at its annual meeting in New Orleans in April, 2002. They have been revised somewhat for publication, but they retain the tone of immediacy, intense inquiry, and good will that characterized their original, public presentation (and the audience’s response). That tone distinguishes the papers, marking them as belonging to a genre of informed commentary on education. As such, they ably convey the stunning impact of September 11, the keen ideas that can free us to name the blow and comprehend it, and the capacious imagination that may help us reach beyond it. The papers demonstrate how education matters in a terrifying world and why we must trust in it rather than seek too quick an escape, whether from anguished memories or the unsettling moral ambiguities we now face. We hope these papers will nourish far-reaching conversations and deep understanding about who Americans are, and would be, in the world.
In the first paper, “In the Aftermath: The Ivory Tower and the City School as Sources of Insight,” Mary Haywood Metz (University of Wisconsin, Madison) writes eloquently and in detail about the critical importance of “cognitive and emotional intelligence and perspicacity” in our responses to the terrorism: “We should respond not only knowledgeably but humanely, not only based on good information but based on wisdom, and we must develop broadly ethical and compassionate strategies.” Identifying resources education can offer, Professor Metz calls attention to universities that produce and preserve the specialized knowledge which, with little warning, is now essential if our actions are to be considered actions. She calls on professors safeguarded by tenure to bring expertise to bear in the difficult and sometimes overcharged debates that shape public policy in a democratic culture. Professor Metz then turns to urban schools and the equally essential practical knowledge that they have to offer—knowledge they have developed about understanding, respecting, and reaching youth who too often come to school without mainstream advantages or commitments and which parallels the “strategies that are needed to start an intercultural dialogue” abroad with others, similarly pushed aside.
In the second paper, “Remembering Our Educational Values,” David Hansen writes about his first day of school at Teachers College, Columbia University, two days after the violent tragedy, when he found himself and his students “trying to enchant and hearten and comfort one another in the face of the vast, imponderable, overwhelming reality of our mortality, so starkly and so violently exposed on September 11.” As he explains with not a little wonderment, “I think my students and I found that, in ways normally taken for granted, we had educational values upon which we could rely.” Those values came to the fore as Professor Hansen and his students sought to broaden rather than narrow their knowledge, deepen and not dilute their insight and understanding, and enrich rather than impoverish their outlooks and points of view. How many other teachers and students around the country and the globe, “without orchestration” but attuned to the comforting familiarity of the classroom, recovered the educational values that “‘taught’ [them] what to do that day when the chips were down”?
In “Hope within the Limits of Education,” John Willinsky (University of British Columbia) portrays a universal “faith in education [which was] part of what took a profound hit on September 11.” His far-reaching but incisive argument is that people around the world encountered education’s inherent limits—its inability to encompass ineffable horror, including death; the impotence of knowledge alone in securing a rational and ordered world; and the shock of seeing that education can be used to destruction, as when the terrorists extrapolated from lessons in flight school to turn planes into weapons and, in some madrasahs, to turn Islamic teachings into jihad. As this last suggests, the crucial limits on hope for education are not inherent but imposed, when “what goes on in the name of education [is] drawn into [the] war on terrorism.” When we narrow education for national defense, we close down the positions of critics abroad as “evil” and those of critics at home as “unpatriotic, we blame breached security on a “soft” multicultural curriculum, or we brand curiosity about the perspectives of others as moral relativism. Dr. Willinsky urges global, not nationalistic, education, because “what is important about education is not how it prepares us against terrorism, or even how it helps us to understand the soul of terrorism. What is important about education is that its spirit of openness survives any attack on the human qualities of trust and the drive to know, both of which education offers.”
In “Dwelling in the Experience of Others: Reflections on Culture in Education after September 11,” Barbara Finkelstein (University of Maryland at College Park) emphasizes that “the post 9/11 world is not, as countless social pundits have asserted, a new world, at least not for most of the world’s people. Nor is it necessarily a less safe or more dangerous world. It is . . . a culturally more congested world.” Furthermore, it is a world that U.S. schools will have difficulty bringing into view because, as Professor Finkelstein enumerates, they are presently structured around a set of myths, or delusions, that proclaim the existence of individual autonomy, American exceptionalism, opportunities open to all, and the impartial rule of law. Professor Finkelstein concludes prophetically, calling on U.S. schools to begin drawing on less-recognized cultural values—what she calls multicultural communitarianism—if they would “chart a path to a less terrifying future than the one that we now know.”
In the final paper, “Looking through the Veil: The Post 9-11 Response from the Margins,” Gloria Ladson-Billings (University of Wisconsin, Madison) writes about September 11 with “the conviction of a person who is committed to a dream . . . of an America she cannot see.” So as not to lose that commitment as well as to actualize the dream, Dr. Ladson-Billings bluntly enumerates “four things we should not do as we process and live though the trauma” of September 11: “We should not confuse patriotism with nationalism. We should not succumb to simplistic binaries. We should not compromise our civil liberties for a perceived sense of safety. And we should not pretend that we have changed.” These admonitions mean that schools must not deny space for dissenting perspectives because, as Professor Ladson-Billings notes, “How can we teach our children about democracy in an undemocratic environment?” They mean that we must not bifurcate the world into “the West and all the rest,” with our compassion and wealth reserved only for the former, and that we must act courageously to prevent a reprise of McCarthyism. Finally, they mean that we must face the fact that for many in the U.S., the world that would “never be the same after September 11" did not change: “George Bush discovered terror on 9-11, too many people in this country did not. They know it, they live with it, and what they have to contribute to the national dialogue is that they know how to rise above terror and remain human.”