Commentary | Education

Lessons—Teach More Than Where to Put H in Afghanistan

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Teach more than where to put H in Afghanistan

By  Richard Rothstein

School reformers often call for critical thinking, but this means little if students think critically only when there are no consequences. Now, as the nation debates how to respond to last week’s terror, the consequences are big enough to matter.

Teachers need answers to questions from students about personal safety, about what motivates others to attack us, about how we should relate to fellow citizens who are Muslim or Arab and about whether civil liberties should be curtailed in a time of crisis. If unasked, these questions should be provoked. Few teachers are prepared to do this.

On Sunday, I asked high school students in Winter Haven, a town in central Florida, to describe how teachers had handled the terrorist attacks. This was no representative sample of youth. All were in honors classes, members of a church youth group, with well-educated middle-class parents. If adolescents anywhere could begin to think critically, these should.

But school was giving them little guidance. On Sept. 11, they watched the attacks on classroom television. In some rooms the television watching continued all week; in most, teachers soon returned to scheduled lessons.

I asked these students why they thought the nation had been attacked. Kelly Powell, a sophomore, said that she thought it was because people elsewhere were jealous of Americans’ freedom. Others agreed.

Erica Lippe, a ninth grader, was upset by images of Palestinian children celebrating the violence. Schools have brainwashed them; hatred is all they know, she said. Travis Sowards, a sophomore, said these children didn’t know the facts because they lacked freedoms we have.

Many students do not have social studies classes. Teachers of other subjects were at a loss to answer questions. Erica’s English teacher could say only that the attacks stemmed from crazed hatred. She had no further explanation.

Judy Joiner, a history teacher, told students who said we should “just blow them up” that nobody knew exactly whom to blow up, or how to find them. Ms. Joiner unfurled maps to point out Afghanistan. This week, she showed a 15-year-old filmstrip of that country, made when the Soviet Union still occupied it.

Ms. Joiner is now soliciting student opinions on whether immigration policy should be changed. Two days ago, she asked how they felt about seeing on television a Muslim cleric speak at the National Cathedral memorial service on Friday. She showed a video on world religions, with 15 minutes devoted to Islam.

This may be the best we are doing, but it is not good enough. Until this week, Ms. Joiner’s students had no idea that Israel was a new nation. They do not know that any Mideast peace must be unjust to both Palestinians and Israelis. These students were 5 years old during the Persian Gulf war, and barely older when American attacks on Iraq and Sudan caused civilian casualties that fueled Arab rage. Teachers need curriculums that help explain these issues, quickly. The most pressing question for older students is, “Will I be drafted?” They deserve answers about why they face such danger.

A big need is for materials that help explain terrorists’ motivations. In 1971, The New York Times and The Washington Post published what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, classified documents showing that policy makers had more sophisticated knowledge of Vietnamese motives than the slogans about Communist invaders that were publicly proclaimed. Thousands of lives might have been saved if ordinary Americans better understood the other side.

Critical thinking requires sources with conflicting viewpoints. Giving teachers materials that show hostile ideologies to be based on more than jealousy does not imply sympathy for these views. But we cannot mobilize properly against foes we do not understand.

Until new curriculums are distributed, teachers are on their own. They will have to search for thought-provoking material, suitable (or convertible) for students in all grades.

The New York Times Company’s digital division has collected selected articles from last week for teacher and student use at The Web site includes geopolitical analyses as well as discussions about balancing civil liberties and security.

The Middle East Institute’s Web site,, organized by former Foreign Service officers, publishes a range of viewpoints — some will reinforce and others challenge student preconceptions. A site more sympathetic to Arab analyses is, run by the Middle East Research and Information Project, which was founded 30 years ago by returned Peace Corps volunteers. Some materials may be appropriate only for students with more advanced interpretive skills.

Students in Winter Haven believe that what makes American schools strong is freedom to explore alternative perspectives. Teachers now have the chance, and the challenge, to prove them right.

Return to the Education Column Archive

See related work on Education

See more work by Richard Rothstein