Before Sept. 11, one of the major battlefields in the culture wars was over what to teach our children about the world they live in - not only what they learn, but how they learn it.
The controversy was posed in polarities: political correctness vs. tradition; multiculturalism vs. the Great Books written by dead white men ("the DWMs," as they're called in women's studies programs). Arguments raged over types of teaching: touchy-feely exercises vs. old-fashioned book learning, ideology vs. historical narrative, "dumbing down" vs. the discipline of hard work.
Given all this, it was possible to get through college with a respectable degree without ever having read Chaucer, Milton or de Tocqueville, and a lot of young men and women did. They were, however, well acquainted with books by Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut and Karl Marx. Public school textbooks were often the worst examples of modern education, driven by the lowest common denominators, appealing to short attention spans with lots of photographs, big type and acres of white space. One social studies series in California included videotapes scripted as game shows, to motivate bored children.
Last year, a report of the American Textbook Council, which monitors such things, described a passage about the Mississippi River designed to interest 10-year olds. It included a large photograph of a black man singing into a microphone, superimposed on a photograph of barges floating down the river over the following caption: "The Mississippi River forms the western border of the state of Mississippi, birthplace of Charley Pride and other country music singers."
The text doesn't mention Mississippi as the birthplace of William Faulkner or Eudora Welty, presumably because they're not popular and they're both white. (At least Miss Welty wasn't a man.)
But why bring this up now? Well, textbook publishers are struggling to include information about Sept. 11 to get them up to date. Many students (as well as most adults) didn't have a clue before Sept. 11 where to find Afghanistan on the map. Students both young and old complain they don't understand how this terrorism happened. When The Washington Post interviewed educators for suggestions on how to prepare young people for the 21st century in an age of terrorism, many emphasized teaching "how the United States is viewed in other countries."
Judith Rizzo, deputy chancellor for instruction in the New York City school systems, insists it calls for more multiculturalism. "We have to do more to teach habits of tolerance, knowledge and awareness of other cultures."
This sounds like a prescription for a hangover - just a little more hair of the dog. Who were the victims of intolerance anyway? The hijackers who crashed the planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? Or the 5,000 or so who died at their hands?
Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia University in New York, asks: "Is 'Middlemarch' (a 19th century English novel by George Eliot) more important than the Koran in terms of the curriculum?"
I'm all for teaching the Koran (begin ital) and (end ital) "Middlemarch," but this question, comparing a religious document with a novel, exposes a flawed focus. Lynne Cheney, the former chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities and an aggressive critic of what's happening in education today (and the wife of the vice president) gets it exactly right. Students should be able to compare the historical origins and central ideas of the major religious philosophies of the world.
But that was true the day before Sept. 11. "If there were one aspect of schooling from kindergarten through college to which I would give added emphasis today," says Mrs. Cheney, "it would be American history."
Seniors surveyed at 55 of the nation's elite liberal arts colleges reveal a striking ignorance of American democracy and the Constitution. That ought not to surprise anyone. Not one of those schools require a course in American history.
And even when American history is taught, our failures are often treated as more important than our achievements. (Not much good. Slavery bad. Women-without-the-vote bad.) The glory of democracy with all its flaws is reduced to an endless recital of mistakes.
In "1984," George Orwell wrote that "he who controls the past controls the future." We should understand that how we shape the future depends on understanding our history, the remarkable experiment of our democracy - exactly what we're fighting to protect in this war against 12th century barbarism.