Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Monday, April 4, 2005
From This Issue
Volume 82 • Number 4
Spring 2005

Truth in Balance
Placing 9/11 in an accurate historical context
By David Smith
It is a challenge to present truth on controversial issues amid a thickening blizzard of rapid-fire Internet chatter, extremist talk radio, crass special-interest publishing and mass media that serve ever bigger corporate masters and ever fewer points of view.

Doug Stuart, political-science professor and former Clarke Center executive director, embraced such a challenge in 2001, immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Stuart, who saw the content of 9/11 information come under rapid assault from hardening political extremes in the months after the terrorist attacks, launched the Teaching 9/11 Web site, www.teaching9-11.org, to provide comprehensive and unbiased material for teachers to use in building lesson plans.

It was a bold move in a highly politicized atmosphere. Soon after the attacks, educators began to hear from various interest groups with ideological agendas. From the right came calls to quickly fix all the blame on terrorists and to promote an America-first-and-foremost approach. From the left came a quest to identify root causes of terrorism, even if some of those causes were lodged in U.S. foreign policy, and to promote globalism, tolerance and conflict resolution. Both sides laid claim to the truth. Stuart sought to preserve facts and to give beleaguered educators a safe haven dedicated to nonpartisan information.

“In the best of all possible worlds,” Stuart says, “every teacher is balanced. Because he or she does not know what the particular inclinations of the students are, a conscientious teacher wants to give those students the opportunity to make judgments for themselves. I’m one of those people who greatly enjoys when one of my students says, ‘Well, I’ve taken you for two semesters now, and I’m still not sure what your politics are.’ The fact that I’m consciously aware of my responsibilities as a teacher, to try to not bully my students and not brainwash them, I think is just good teaching.”

Since launching the Web site in late 2001, Stuart and his colleagues have been pleased to receive numerous compliments from teachers and professional education organizations. The Dickinson team had also developed an impressive network of contacts, including museum curators, journalists and education experts, who were using the 9/11 site as a resource.

In 2004 Stuart decided to build upon this success by organizing a major conference in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution on the topic “Teaching 9/11: The Role of Media, Museums and Schools in the Construction of National Memory.” The program, which occurred in September, brought together several nationally known experts, including James Fallows of The Atlantic and Marvin Kalb of Harvard University, to discuss this issue. The program also honored a diverse quartet of teachers who took innovative approaches to the topic.

It is ironic that a program designed to encourage a balanced approach to teaching about the 9/11 disaster has not been safe from ideological criticism. Following the Smithsonian conference, one Web site (Front Page Magazine) decried the conference as too tilted toward teachers who attacked U.S. policy in their lessons. The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation parroted that opinion under the headline “Anti-Americanism 101.” In turn, the Fordham Foundation’s own right-leaning approach to teaching 9/11 was called “profoundly anti-intellectual” by the group Rethinking Schools Online and been attacked by the National Council for the Social Studies.

So goes the tug of war.

Stuart stresses that it is no easy task for teachers to find the right voice on hot topics like 9/11. “I think it’s extremely difficult,” Stuart says. “That’s one of the reasons why I see a comprehensive Web site as a really valuable resource. The alternative is to make believe in the classroom that 9/11 didn’t happen, and that is as problematic as not really putting enough thought into it before confronting it in the classroom.”

Dickinson can remain a formidable force in the teaching of 9/11 and the attacks’ complex aftermath, which now stretches from Afghanistan to Iraq and beyond. Creating a new position that would serve as a liaison between the college’s vast resources and the educational community beyond Carlisle is the key, says Michele King Hassinger ’80, Clarke Center director and collaborator on the 9/11 project.

Stuart also hopes that the momentum can be maintained. “At this point,” he says, “we’ve gained some critical mass and some networking as a result of the Web site and the Teaching 9/11 conference, so that when people talk about this issue it is not uncommon for someone to say, ‘Oh, be sure to check [out] Dickinson’s Web site.’ ”

Perhaps nothing can fully prevent an event like the 9/11 attacks from being bifurcated in the public debate. When asked during the conference if two national memories have emerged from the polemics surrounding 9/11, journalist Fallows knowingly smiled and said, “Like the War Between the States?”

His reference hinted at how, after 140 years, the American Civil War still can be taught using two different tracks—one from the North, one from the South.

The truth of 9/11 may be no less complicated and, over time, no less elusive. •

 


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