Short Memories, Short on Civics

Oct. 29, 2009

A dear friend of mine called me at home in the early evening on Friday, the 11th of last month. It had been a pretty hectic day at the office as I prepared my schedule for the upcoming ASIS conference, leaving me finishing up some e-mails sitting on the couch as the Braves baseball game droned in the background.

A security consultant based in New York City, my friend seemed a bit distraught judging by the strain in his voice, although he said nothing was wrong. We briefly chatted about the upcoming conference and a new project his firm had just won in the government sector. Then he suddenly lost it.

He told me his 12-year-old son had been admonished by his teacher at school for questioning why today — Sept. 11, 2009 — was being celebrated as an “Interfaith Day of Service.” As long as he could remember, his school had observed 9-11 as a day to honor those who perished in the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001. His son went on to say there was no mention of the attacks, no discussion of Islamic terrorism, no reference to the “war on terror” — which has been replaced with the more innocuous term “overseas contingency operation” when his teacher even mentioned events in Iraq or Afghanistan in the classroom.

Like many of the children in his son’s class, they were confused as to why the school had suddenly decided to downplay the true significance of 9-11. His son never really received the answer he was looking for, my friend said. Instead, the teacher assured the class that this anniversary should celebrate lessons learned and how peoples of all faiths must work together to bring understanding to all. And then the teacher quickly added, “We don’t want to make anyone in our class uncomfortable, do we?”

I had to confess to my friend that I had not given much thought to the anniversary — at least until my wife switched the TV from baseball to the History Channel, where hours of 9-11 documentary specials were airing. He forgave my lapse, but cried, “This is New York! It is different for us. You can’t change the facts and you can’t let our young people forget. Is it politically incorrect to teach history or civics?”

Apparently it is, or perhaps it is just inconvenient. Just look at the sobering facts some educational research surveys have revealed this year. The Goldwater Institute released its report this summer, “Freedom from Responsibility: A Survey of Civic Knowledge Among Arizona High School Students,” which reported only 3.5 percent of Arizona high school students have learned the basic history, government and geography necessary to pass the U.S. Citizenship test. Consider the fact that 92.4 percent of citizen applicants (i.e. immigrants) passed on the first try. Questions included: who was the first president of the United States; who wrote the Declaration of Independence; and what ocean is located on the East Coast of the United States? Brainteasers all!

Politically mandating that no child be left behind does not mean we should risk losing the civic values that drive our political process and the lessons of history that, if not learned, could doom us to repeat failure. A major justification for supporting a system of public schools has long been the promotion of a general civic knowledge necessary for a well-informed citizenry.

As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” One of the strengths of America is we are able to emerge from tragedy and move forward. No one should be doomed to wear outrage on their sleeve forever. Current events reinforce the fact that Islamic terrorist are a real threat to America, which makes it all the more important to resist the political revisionists who choose to erase the emotional memory of 9-11.

If you have any questions or comments for Steve Lasky regarding this or any other security industry-related issue, please e-mail him at
[email protected].