Should American school-children be taught to reserve judgment about who was to blame in the Sept. 11 attack on the United States? If the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, has its way, that's exactly what millions of youngsters will learn this fall.
The NEA, with help from the American Red Cross and Johnson and Johnson Company, is distributing free lesson plans to help teachers incorporate instruction on the terrorist attack in their regular curriculum. But the plans bend over backward not to cast blame against any group or country, except perhaps the United States. The guides encourage teachers to "discuss historical instances of American intolerance," suggesting the "[i]nternment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor and the backlash against Arab Americans during the Gulf War" as "obvious examples."
The lesson plans also discourage teachers from making important moral distinctions. "Be aware that you will not be effective if you purposely or inadvertently take one side over another in controversies of a political, religious or other nature, including taking the side of one student over another," a section on Guidance for Teachers warns. "When you model respect for and tolerance of all the views and feelings that your students share, your students will try to do the same," the guide says.
But is this really the lesson of September 11? Tolerance is a distinctly Western attribute, a value not shared in most of the Islamic world, much less by those individuals who attacked the United States last year. As important as religious and political tolerance are to American values, tolerance, too, has its limits. It's important to take sides sometimes.
Should we teach children that there is no difference between societies that guarantee equal rights to men and women and those that deny women education, force them to undergo painful and dangerous genital mutilation, and sell little girls as child brides to men who can mistreat them and abandon them with impunity?
Should we teach children that there is no difference between those nations that allow individuals freedom to worship -- or not -- as they choose and those that jail, torture and even kill individuals who do not share the religious or anti-religious views of the regime?
At a time when many of the students in our school systems now come from countries that promote intolerance, should we be teaching children not to be judgmental about prejudice, ignorance and bigotry? If a student says that it is not only permissible but obligatory for a believer to destroy an infidel, should a teacher treat this opinion as acceptable?
By promoting a radical, value-neutral approach to thorny issues, the NEA may actually be encouraging the very intolerance it finds so objectionable. Intolerance is far more widespread in parts of the world from which most immigrant students come these days than it is in America. Part of the assimilation process has always been to promote Western, democratic values, which includes the notion of tolerance itself. All American children, especially new immigrants, should be encouraged to embrace these values. This is what it means to become an American.
If teachers want to help students commemorate September 11, why not focus on how special the United States is in its respect for the rights of individuals, in its guarantees of political and religious freedom, in the opportunities it provides for every person to achieve his or her dreams? These are the attributes that our enemies detest and tried to destroy -- and they receive far too little attention in our public school curriculum. For years we've been too busy exploring what's wrong with America. The best honor we could pay those who died a year ago would be to teach our children what makes this nation so great.