The Courage to Debate

9/11My daughter’s class is studying 9/11, so at the dinner table it was naturally the prime subject for discussion. I asked what the teacher had said about 9/11 and my daughter told us that they learned that it was a tragic “bittersweet” event. I thought I had misheard. Bittersweet?? Because it brought the country together, she explained. I was stunned to learn that this is what’s being taught today. So I wondered, is the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 being described in classrooms as a “bittersweet” event that pulled Americans together?

“Well, what did the teacher say about why 9/11 happened, or who planned and executed the attack?” I asked. “Oh, we didn’t get in to that,” my daughter replied.

Wow.

How can a discussion of 9/11 not include delving into the motivation which was fueled by a hatred of the West and the U.S. in particular? How can you teach kids about 9/11 and not bring up Al Qaida or the existence of Islamic terrorist groups?

Have we gotten to the point where our teachers are afraid of open discussion – afraid of retaliation from parents who get offended, afraid for the politics that could cost them their job, afraid of debate which sometimes involves examination of the worst of human behavior? Maybe the teacher was reluctant to use the phrase ‘islamic terrorist’ for fear of insulting Islam. God knows what these educators are thinking. Since when is conveying the basic facts of a milestone event in our history a problem? What’s next, not describing the reign of Nazis in Germany for fear of insulting people of German descent?

If the teacher’s goal is to mitigate divisiveness and promote a healthy society, then there is a tragic misconception at work here. Supporting a society where people get along with one another does not require that everyone agree. Disagreement is in fact healthy. Debate is healthy. Take the Greeks – the Socratic method is based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and draw out ideas and underlying assumptions. Hearing all sides of an issue supported by facts, questioning others and one’s own stance – this is how we form beliefs. Besides which, debate and the Socratic method is one of the best ways to learn. It pushes a student to support their arguments with facts, understand the counter argument and dig deep.

My daughter’s teacher told the class about the fall of the WTC twin towers. She failed to mention the attacks on the Pentagon, or UA Flight 93 that crashed into a Pennsylvania field. Tippy toeing around a subject so important to our recent history, events that continue to have implications for us today least of which is the political and military role of the U.S. in the world and in the Middle East, is a disservice to the students. There were so many good questions that could have been raised and debated about the who, what and why of 9/11, and the impact of that attack vis-a-vis at the very least, the wars that followed.

My daughter had a homework assignment. It was to interview someone who was around for 9/11 and ask: What were you doing when you heard the news and how did you feel about it, and did it change you? While I surely don’t object to getting a personal view, and obviously 9/11 was an emotionally charged event, could the questions be any more superficial? My daughter is in Middle School and is emotionally and intellectually able to understand so much more than was on offer in this lesson. The lesson was imposing limits and at the same time, the kids were not asking better questions. Since when have we become so afraid of the facts and so misguided about what our children are capable of digesting? Schools are a mirror to our society, responsible for shaping tomorrow’s leaders. If the 9/11 lesson plan is any example, it bodes badly.

In general, our society’s intellectual curiosity seems to be waning.  Maybe it’s a product of Twitter and social media.  After all, how deep can you go when you’re limited to 280 characters? Yet children possess natural curiosity in abundance. But in an environment that doesn’t foster and promote debate, the light of intellectual curiosity dims.

Over dessert, I explained the facts of 9/11, how it was accomplished, who the terrorists were. I also explained what terrorism is in its many forms and pointed out that there are Christian terrorists, Jewish terrorists, Muslim terrorists and even Buddhist terrorists in Burma attacking Muslims.

The world’s nations, cultures and people are complex and contradictory. Life is not black and white but rather a thousand shades of gray. And these nuances color context. Nowadays it seems context is ignored. Context is too messy. What’s worse, we are altering history to serve our agenda, ignoring facts to avoid controversy, sugar coating events in the name of protecting our children and keeping them ‘safe’ – when in fact this approach will have the very opposite effect. We need to find the courage to teach all the facts and encourage (respectful) questioning and debates and disagreement in the classroom and in our communities. If not, future generations will lack the insights and intellectual skills to navigate a tough world.

Freedom of speech is not just a piece of legislation. It is a goal to which society should constantly strive and nurture starting in our kids’ classrooms and at our family dinner tables. With healthy debate, future generations may find it less tempting to yell empty slogans, tweet nonsense or even resort to violence. They will prefer dialogues over monologues. They will learn to learn, to dive into every subject and study it from multiple points of view.

On September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda terrorists killed thousands of innocent people and toppled iconic buildings. But their main motivation was to attack Western ideals of openness, freedom of expression and individualism that in their minds threatened their superior religion and way of life.  These basic ideals on which our society stands can only be preserved if we maintain the courage to teach our children and ourselves to ask uncomfortable questions.

3 Comments

  1. Vijay Nilekani on September 16, 2020 at 3:56 pm

    Very good commentary on objective and fact based, grounded critical thinking. This country and the world in general, swings wildly from politically correct, to totally abusive thinking and expression. Top leaders themselves are indulging in this dysfunctional way of communicating and exploring reality. Heavy on unproven, non data driven ideology, and very little on facts, science or empirical evidence.

  2. Gregg Kurasz, CPP on September 16, 2020 at 7:01 pm

    Great commentary and thank you for alerting us how fast things are moving if 9-11 is being soft peddled this way around the country. Being a retired law enforcement officer in Arlington Virginia during 9-11, it is clear that there is so much that needs to be passed on to our students about that day.

    Thank you.

  3. Kevin Barnard on September 17, 2020 at 2:00 pm

    Exceptional feedback. I wonder your thoughts on teachers now, who were young at the time of 9/11, or teachers who have a limited understanding of the attacks of 9/11, attempting to explain the events of 9/11? For those of us who had a dog in the fight and had first hand accounts of the events, we took this event to heart and have a deep understanding of who was involved and why. However, as not everyone was affected so deeply by this event, I personally am not sure I would want someone explaining these events to my child, unless they understood what they were speaking on. With a grain of salt here, I realize we take the same chance when we send our children to school each and every day. More to your point of debates, I believe ALL students should be required to debate in each and every grade. This will force our future leaders to not only take a stand, but to do the research necessary, to defend their stance. In this “self-entitled” society that is becoming more rampant, preparing youth to not expect and rather earn, would be a welcome change. Thank you once again for this platform! Keep up the great work!

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