Wednesday, September 11, 2013

How Teachers are Teaching about 9/11: 10 Essentials We Now Know

For about the past year, my team and I have been surveying and interviewing US public middle and high-school teachers nationwide about their experiences teaching 9/11. How have they approached teaching today’s students about one of the most painful, important and arguably divisive events in US history? Here’s what they had to say.

1. Most teachers (including history teachers) don’t see teaching about 9/11 as part of their curriculum. According to my survey 84% of teachers who don’t address it give this as their reasoning.

2. When 9/11 is addressed in the classroom, this appears to be only on the anniversary of the attacks. 65% of teachers report addressing 9/11 once a year (on 9/11 itself). Only 10% report addressing 9/11 once a quarter, and 7% once a month.

3. Teachers who have developed units on 9/11 place a priority on critical thinking! According to the interviews my team and I conducted, teachers are involving students in hearing and gathering oral histories, conducting online research, presenting in front of the class, and debating issues that have emerged since 9/11 (like the use of torture, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the prison Guantanamo Bay). Teachers, especially our government and history teachers, design lessons to help students understand 9/11 in historical context, providing information about the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the Cold War, for example. They also use teaching about 9/11 as a way into teaching about war powers, the Constitution and the branches of government.

4. Teachers find themselves often working to correct misconceptions and stereotypes about Muslims, as well as rampant internet rumors about who was “really” behind the events of 9/11.

5. Even over a decade later, over 20% of teachers report that addressing 9/11 in the classroom remains too painful. They need and deserve school-based support.

6. We have an abundance of curriculum on teaching 9/11, but most teachers are not using it. Only 45% of teachers report using curriculum such as from PBS, the New York Times or similar curriculum sources.

7. The teachers I interviewed expressed that they believe passing on the knowledge and memory of the events of 9/11 is a patriotic duty.

8. While teachers overwhelmingly do “feel academically safe” teaching about 9/11, most express real caution when it comes to addressing the controversial political issues that have faced us since 9/11. They fear being perceived as biased or even unprofessional.

9. Only 6% of teachers view their students’ knowledge of what occurred and why on 9/11 as “excellent” or “very good”.

10. About a quarter of teachers responding to my survey express that a “lack of time in the curriculum” is a real barrier to teaching 9/11 the way they’d like. About ¾ of the teachers I interviewed more at length specified that a bureaucratic culture of standardized testing and centralized curriculum was a major barrier. In such a culture, how can teachers foster democratic, empowered and engaged citizens? How can we reclaim the classroom for teachers as public intellectuals?

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Can a classroom prevent a genocide?

Given that people from vastly different cultures naturally will have differing ideas on what “counts” as a human right, is it possible to foster enough consensus that collaboration for human rights across cultures is possible?  I would argue yes, it is possible, and I would go even further.  I say building this consensus around human rights in the 21st century is necessary because the realities of travel and communications technology, as well as an increasingly globalized economy, mean that the “global village” just continues to get smaller.  I am passionate about how peace education can help facilitate this reality and call for peace education in every classroom worldwide.  We cannot fully achieve the protection of human rights without peace education.  I believe, in fact, that a classroom can stop a genocide. 
How can we then build a culture of peace which would, by its nature, protect and value human rights?  Much of the discussion about how to protect human rights, from World War II on, has spoken of the “right to have rights”.  Human rights scholars from Hannah Arendt (writing about the Holocaust just after World War II) to recent work by Seyla Behabib (2011) use this lens of the “right to have rights” to understand how we can best actually realize human rights for all.  This is because often the first struggle for a group whose human rights have been collectively abused is that most basic recognition that this particular community does in fact exist and therefore they have a right to demand participation, protection and dignity.  Think of, for example, the continued invisibility of Native Americans or indeed indigenous peoples the world over.  Their historical invisibility is no metaphor—in some instances government map surveyors reported that plots of land were not inhabited when in fact this was not true (Duckworth, 2011). 
What then can peace education offer, even in the face of some of history’s worst atrocities? One, peace educators can and must teach students to recognize, deconstruct and challenge so-called war narratives, narratives which position the Other as dangerous, evil and subhuman.  Such narratives are an early warning sign of genocide. (Think of the Nazis depicting Jews as rats for example.)  But this alone isn’t enough to build a true culture of peace, a culture where human rights for all are embraced.  Especially in a post-conflict context, the collaborative problem solving, cross cultural communication skills, self-awareness and empathy developed when a diverse group of students come together to address shared challenges lays the foundation for a culture of peace. 
Further, peace education develops within students a sense of personal empowerment human dignity.  That is, it inspires the sense that all human beings have the “right to have rights”.  Peace education is centered around a collaborative, cooperative pedagogy where the voice and value of each diverse community member is recognized.  Through the collective problem solving which peace education involves, students build empathy, critical and creative thinking skills, the ability to be critically self-aware of the biases of one’s own culture and perhaps most importantly, a sense of personal agency and dignity which enables us to believe to begin with that we do have the power to impact the world around us.  Such education is a vital aspect of building a culture of peace and human rights, where citizens will not only feel the sense of empowerment and responsibility to speak up for human rights, but will also have the necessary skills to do so effectively.   This is why I can make the rather audacious claim that peace education can possibly prevent a genocide. 

Friday, May 3, 2013

Youth Development Is Security: Djokhar Zarhyaev edition

There is nothing I or anyone else can say to fully explain or help us understand why anyone would plant bombs at a major civilian celebration like the Boston marathon.  There remains much investigation and profiling left to be done.  It’s not even been a month since the attacks in Copley Square. 

I write this knowing that for some, an attempt to understand or to truly address the root causes of terror, to the extent that we can identify them, feels like justification.  For what it’s worth, I had skin in this game in a way that was not true of 9/11.  Of course every American—and many around the world—still feel the outrage and pain of that attack, but the Boston bombing was different for me.  My family lives in Boston, my mother, my step dad, my sister, my brother in law, and my 4 year-old niece.  Not only do they live in Boston, they live two blocks from Copley Square and were walking home from the Sox game (my niece’s first!) near Copley Square when the bombing occurred.  Of course they were on lock down the Friday after the bombing, as the manhunt for Djokhar unfolded.  I had real, beloved skin in this one. The thought of 5 dearly loved ones all gathered up together in danger with me so far away remains unbearable. 

Perhaps nothing could have prevented those attacks.  As Americans seem to increasingly understand, a free society cannot promise complete security.  Intelligence experts will examine their processes, as will law enforcement.  FBI profilers will flesh out their dossier on whatever motive can be identified. 

As a peace educator, however, I don’t want the role and potential of schools to be overlooked.  In addition to “terrorist” when I look at Djokhar and even his older brother, I also see a student.  Classmates and friends expressed shock and I have to wonder, was there outreach a campus peer counselor or professor or Imam could have done that might have made a difference?  Perhaps not, but surely the effort is worthwhile.  I have long called for peace education in every classroom worldwide.  One outcome of peace education ought to be to inoculate students against extremism.  Professors, friends, bosses, faith leaders and anyone who can help integrate especially isolated young men into intercultural communities have a key role to play.  Campuses are ideal spaces for this, if faculty and administration are thoughtful and proactive about what peace educators often call educating against extremism.  (See Lynn Davies for excellent work on this.)  We can’t wait any longer to create and implement anti-extremist programing and curriculum. 

What would such curriculum look like?  Perhaps the most important feature it has is that it insists on critical thought, especially critical dialogue regarding anti-Americanism, Islamophobia and the underlying, too often unexamined cultural narratives which underlie both.  This entails bringing in critical media analysis and tough discussions of the histories of relevant conflicts.  Nothing will ever be a guarantee, but campuses have a vital yet often overlooked role to play in combating extremist violence.  Let’s not wait another day! 

Friday, April 26, 2013

Boston, New York and DC: a tale of two attacks

At times a horrific circumstance will provide an excellent social laboratory for the study of peace and conflict. On mid-day of April 15, 2013, two bombs went off in Copley Square, one of the most major commercial and residential areas of Boston. This area also happens to be known to much of my family as home. All Americans felt the pain and outrage of 9/11, but this one was even more personal for me. My mother, sister, brother-in-law, step dad and four year-old niece were walking near Copley Square (about two blocks away) home from the Red Sox game they’d just enjoyed. Within an hour, one could see the national habits and myths, both admirable and dangerous, manifest as echoes of 9/11. This was perhaps best put on display by some of the major cable US media (specifically CNN and Fox News) in their failure to accurately report what turned out to be the non-arrest of two suspects reportedly caught on camera. For an afternoon, major cable news networks inaccurately “broke” the news that a suspect/s had been arrested and that an FBI press conference was imminent. It fell to the FBI themselves to correct the story. A couple of days after this, the Bureau did indeed release photos of two suspects, and by the end of the week, one suspect was dead in a shoot out with local law enforcement and the other was in custody.

The particular nature of the media failures here were not just revealing, they were dangerous. One reporter, CNN’s John King, felt the need to repeat numerous times in his banter with Wolf Blitzer that the arrest was of a “dark-skinned male”. Given that there had not even yet been an arrest, this information could not have been verified via the traditional three separate sources, yet it was repeated. While King and Blitzer did state that they did not have complete certainty, they also clearly reported that a “dark-skinned male” was in fact in custody. King stated, “I was told by law enforcement officials that a dark-skinned male was in custody”. The damage resurfaced from the darkest parts of collective American psyche and history, and was a clear reminder of the racist nature of our media even today. In a social and political culture where teenaged Trayvon Martin can be killed simply walking home with a hoodie, such mistakes by the media are not just embarrassing. They are perilous. Less than twelve hours after the bombing, a Saudi man, hospitalized with his wounds from the attack, had his apartment searched. Shortly after, a Palestinian woman in Boston was assaulted. Another young man, Sunil Tripathi, also misidentified as a suspect by social media, has since committee suicide.

The subtext of the errors was clear: the perpetrators of the Boston bombings were likely black, Hispanic or Middle Eastern. To incorrectly “confirm” this was to confirm what far too many were already primed to believe and to reproduce white privilege and the social oppression of black and brown people. This is important to understanding the collective narratives of 9/11 in the following way. Part of the national myth of American exceptionalism holds that the United States is a uniquely blessed nation, meant by God to represent freedom, human dignity and progress. Thus attacks on US civilians are not merely seen as outrageous crimes, and human rights violations (which they surely are), they are framed almost instantly as attacks on the values of freedom and democracy, even on civilization itself. In moving speeches at the Memorial shortly after the bombing, Gov. Duval Patrick and President Obama both invoked this narrative. Obama even specifically referred to America’s “state of grace”. And Boston itself of course (like Washington and New York) is rich with American history and symbolism. Corollary to this national myth is the view of other peoples as at least somewhat less godly, free, modern or brave. This casts ready suspicion on all who might be defined as less or not American. It hardly needs to be said from here that foreigners, immigrants, and those who are not white and Christian have historically been locked into this category. The consequences were lethal. While it is still too early to judge how we will respond to the Boston Bombing, one can already clearly see the ghosts of 9/11 haunting how we talk about and understand what occurred.