As the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attack on America draws near, a controversy has erupted over the question of how the tragedy should be commemorated in our schools. The largest teachers' union in the United States, the National Education Association (NEA), has been accused of pushing lesson plans that promote anti-Americanism and maybe even blame America for the terrorist attack. Shocking, if true—but is it true?
The story first broke in The Washington Times, where one headline cried, "NEA not sure who to blame for attacks—maybe U.S." It quickly became fodder for talk radio, the Fox News Channel, and conservative commentators in print.
The NEA, a major Democratic party backer, has long been a bête noire of the right, and much of the conservative critique of the union is on target. It has championed various liberal causes that have nothing to do with education (abortion rights or the nuclear freeze), as well as dubious progressive educational policies such as bilingual education. Its self-serving opposition to school vouchers has often relied on misleading scare tactics.
But on the issue of Sept. 11 and alleged lack of patriotism, the NEA is largely getting a bum rap.
Much of the controversy focuses on a few lines from a document linked on the NEA's Web site, giving teachers this advice: "When discussing the attacks, do not suggest any group is responsible. Discuss historical instances of American intolerance. Internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor and the backlash against Arab-Americans during the Gulf War are obvious examples."
Critics were quick to draw the conclusion: The NEA doesn't think we know who's responsible for the attacks, but it does know enough to draw attention to America's past misdeeds.
In The Washington Times, columnist Tom Knott jeered that "Sept. 11 … baffles the mushy-headed thinkers of the National Education Association. They are still not sure who perpetrated the horror. Was it them? Was it us? Was it a natural response to America's foreign policy? … After 11-plus months, the NEA is stumped, at a loss."
Yet the much criticized document "Tips for Parents and Schools Regarding the Anniversary of September 11, 2001" by psychologist Brian Lippincott is not an official NEA statement. It appears on the Web site of the John F. Kennedy University School of Professional Psychology and is one of the many resources suggested on the NEA site.
Besides, while the tips are indeed rather squishy, with more emphasis on America's wrongdoing than on the wrong done to America on Sept. 11, even Lippincott does not suggest that we brought the attacks on ourselves—or that we don't know who the perpetrators are. In context, "any group" clearly does not mean Al Qaeda or the Taliban, but all Arab-Americans.
As for the NEA, the War on Terrorism page on its "Remember September" site offers links to provide an overview on Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden, the terrorists who killed innocent Americans on Sept. 11, and the Qaeda network.
The many links on the site include such subversive organizations as the CIA and the Department of Defense, a speech by President Bush, and materials on the Constitution of the United States.
Overall, the NEA's proposals for commemorating Sept. 11 are hardly above criticism. Many lesson plans seem to substitute hand-holding and group therapy for learning about facts and ideas; some have an annoying whiff of political correctness. Thus, a lesson plan on the Public Broadcasting Corp. Web site instructs teachers to criticize the media for showing footage of Palestinians celebrating the terrorist attacks, thus allegedly stoking ant-Arab sentiment, though at the time it was unclear who was responsible for the attacks or how widespread such celebrations were in the Middle East.
Such excessive genuflections to tolerance can be silly. But the charges of anti-Americanism flung at the NEA are wildly exaggerated and sometimes disturbingly akin to a smear.
Thus, The Washington Times has stated that after reviewing the NEA lesson plans, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) had this to say through spokeswoman Janet Bass: "The AFT does not support a blame-America approach in particular … and wishes to distance itself from the entire document."
However, Bass insists that the Times left out a sentence making it clear that she was referring solely to Lippincott's lesson plan; a wire story published two days before the Times article quoted her as saying that the AFT had no problem with any of the other links or materials on the NEA's site.
On many issues the NEA's critics have good points. But let's keep the criticism honest.