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Patriotism and Accountability:
The Role of Educators in the War On Terrorism

by Pedro Noguera and Robby Cohen
New York, New York

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What are the responsibilities of educators while our nation is at war? This is not a question that comes up at most conferences or workshops on education, even though anyone familiar with our work as educators knows that it is nearly impossible to avoid taking a stance, in support or opposition, on the issue.

Should educators be expected to promote patriotism and support for the military effort in Iraq or Afghanistan? Should we encourage our students to enlist if they seek our advice and counsel or should we tell them that the decision is theirs to make? What about the Patriot Act? Should we urge our students to accept curtailments on our civil liberties as a necessary sacrifice in the [so-called] "war on terrorism," a war against a stateless enemy that is not confined to a particular territory, or should we warn them of the potential dangers that may arise when the government is allowed to invade the privacy of its citizens?

Ignoring these questions does not allow one to escape taking a stand. Even if you are uncomfortable speaking out for or against the war it is important to understand that during times such as these we cannot pretend that education is apolitical work. Particularly at a time when accountability has become the mantra guiding educational policies, we feel that in relation to the war educators must hold themselves accountable for insuring that students acquire an intellectual grounding in history, civics and culture sufficient to develop informed opinions about the war, U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East, and the implications of the war for civil liberties in American society.

Increasingly, silence and inaction are nothing more than a form of complicity with the status quo; the war is happening now and those who do not express opposition are in effect demonstrating complicity if not support. People: Iraqis, Afghanis, and Americans - are dying and decisions are being made in Washington that will affect our future. Our schools are being used as recruiting grounds for the military because No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requires schools to provide military recruiters with access to schools and student records. Our schools are not required to provide antiwar groups with equivalent access so clearly our educational system is tilted toward war rather than peace.

During the 1960’s, universities and colleges were the site of demonstrations and sit-ins when campus administrators provided the Federal Government with access to student records for the military draft during the Vietnam War. Today, use of student records for military recruitment provokes relatively little protest, and since 9/11, there is less tolerance toward antiwar protests than in the past. Fear of terrorist attack, fear of being perceived as sympathizing with terrorists or enemies of the U.S., and the mistaken belief that the war in Iraq is in intended to prevent terrorists from attacking us here, all make it increasingly difficult for individuals to take public positions against the war. There are also heightened sensitivities that occur whenever American men and women -- actually one third of those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are not U.S. citizens -- are deployed to fight in a foreign land, and this too contributes to the chilling effect upon domestic dissent. However, as educators we have a special responsibility to encourage critical thinking among our students that is essential for the functioning of our democracy, and we cannot allow our nation’s schools to become an uncontested cog in a war machine, nor allow ourselves as educators to become unwitting supporters.

Redefining Accountability for Democratic Citizenship

Over the past decade there has been a new emphasis on accountability in our nation’s schools. NCLB has required schools to produce evidence that students are learning (as measured by performance on standardized tests), and that they graduate from school with basic competencies in math and literacy. While many educators (including the two authors) applaud certain aspects of NCLB, under President Bush educational policy has been increasingly linked to other administration initiatives, including the war, and as a result, educators are being held accountable in new ways. As a result of this linkage, the stakes are increasingly high for teachers, administrators and students.

Educators who support the war, the President and the policies of his Administration may experience little difficulty doing what they can to embrace the military effort and NCLB with patriotic enthusiasm. They may do so either because they trust the President and his policies or because they believe that obedience and loyalty are essential when the nation is at war. They may have no qualms about promoting patriotism among their students and encourage them to enlist in the military, even if like President Bush they do not encourage their own draft-age children to do the same.

Others may secretly oppose the war and the policies of the administration but are simply afraid to make their opposition known. They may fear being accused of disloyalty, of being identified as a troublemaker, or they may be concerned that if they speak out they will be censored, fired or worse.

It is not surprising that many who oppose the war (and polls show that a majority of Americans no longer support it ), who question the rationale and logic used to justify the military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, and who regard NCLB as a threat to the integrity of public education, may be reluctant to do so openly. In several parts of the country critics of the war, including prominent politicians, journalists and celebrities, have been castigated for being “soft” on terrorism, and their patriotism has been questioned. Just before launching the war in Afghanistan, the President declared, “You are either with us or with the terrorists”. When the lines of debate are drawn so starkly, even passive neutrality may give rise to suspicion.

Yet, educators who prefer to avoid controversy and who would rather remain silent on these polarizing issues may find a stance of neutrality difficult to maintain during these tense times. When the National Education Association (NEA) is called a terrorist organization by the former Secretary of Education, and the state superintendent of Connecticut is described as “un-American” by the current Secretary, simply because both have been critical of NCLB and other aspects of federal education policy, it is clear that a link between war and education has been made. It may seem odd and even unfair for one’s attitudes and positions toward the war to be linked to one’s position on NCLB and federal education policy, but these are not ordinary times.

While no one wants to risk being questioned by the FBI, blacklisted, or detained (or even deported if one is not a U.S. citizen), for taking public positions that are regarded as unpatriotic, it is important for us to remember that the right to dissent is an essential part of our democracy. It is also important to remember that as educators a great responsibility has been invested in us to impart knowledge that will prepare our students to become citizens in this democracy. This is not a responsibility that can be taken lightly.

Accountability and Democratic Citizenship

As accountability has become the LEADING policy fixation [for the moment at least] in education, it might be helpful for educators to think of patriotism and citizenship in terms of accountability as well. Given that our nation is at war in at least two countries, shouldn’t educators be accountable for insuring that all students have some understanding of why we are fighting, who we are at war with, and what is at stake?

Citizenship education is important in every society, but there is no place where it is more vital than in the U.S., the world’s preeminent military power. Our government spends far more on the military than does any other nation; in fact, we spend more than the rest of the world combined. Our nation has military bases and troops deployed in more than 100 foreign countries, and hundreds of nuclear warheads ready to be launched on the order of the President. A nation with so strong a military and so vast a military presence must have an educational system that is equally strong in teaching its future citizens to think critically and independently about the uses of American power, and the role of the American military in the world.

Unlike most military superpowers of the past the U.S. is a democracy and the results of our elections can influence the global policies we pursue. Since the rest of the world cannot vote in our elections, even though their fate may be determined by the outcomes, it is up to us as citizens, and even more precisely, up to us as educators, to insure that our teaching fosters the kind of informed debate and discussion that is necessary for the functioning of a healthy democracy.

Such an approach to teaching must include a willingness to engage in discussion of controversial issues such as the [present] nature and implications of American imperialism, our role as a global power, and our ongoing desire to intervene in the affairs of other nations. Every student in our nation’s secondary schools should be exposed to both sides of the debate about how the U.S. uses its power in the world. They should be able to understand the rationale given for American troop deployments and military actions abroad, and before graduating they should be able, and perhaps even required to write a coherent essay exploring the merits of this course of action and be able to put forward their own perspective on the ethics of U.S. foreign policy.

To acquire this form of political literacy, our students must have an understanding of American and world history that goes far beyond regurgitating facts, dates and events, or passing state history exams. They must also understand the complexity of politics in ways that exceed what is typically made available to them in the mainstream media. In short, they must learn, as Paulo Freire once admonished, to "read the world" so that they might have a clearer understanding of the forces shaping their lives.

Let us use the concept of imperialism to illustrate how these educational goals might be pursued. The American Heritage Dictionary defines imperialism as "the policy of extending a nation’s authority by territorial acquisition or by the establishment of economic and political hegemony over other nations". To determine whether it is appropriate to apply this term to the United States students would need to be exposed to a thematic approach to the history of America’s territorial expansion, its ascendance to global power after the Spanish-American War, and its emergence as the world’s foremost superpower in the aftermath of World War II.

Such an approach to history would compel students to grapple with the meaning and significance of economic and political changes rather than merely being required to recall a chronology of isolated facts. It would also enable them to comprehend the significance of blatant contradictions in U.S. foreign policy. For example, many Americans do not realize that the United States once supported many of the groups that now are part of Al Queda (including Osama Bin Laden himself) when they were carrying out acts of terrorism in Afghanistan in opposition to the Soviet occupation of that country (Mamdani 2004). They also may not know that Saddam Hussein was once a U.S. ally, and that we supported him in his war against Iran even when we knew he was using chemical weapons against the Kurds (Mamdani 2004).

We should teach history in ways that make it possible for students to make sense of contradictions such as these. We must do so in order for our students to appreciate the complex social processes that led to America's rise as an imperial power. This does not mean that we should engage in an unfair bashing of the United States. One way to avoid this is to provide readings that offer different points of view on the same subject. However, even as we strive for balance and fairness we should provide our students with the analytical skills to critique and evaluate the information they are exposed to so that they can develop a logical and historically grounded framework for comprehending present conflicts and foreign engagements.

To have a context for understanding the present war in Iraq, every student should know that war and violence were central to the founding and early development of the United States. What began as 13 states on the east coast of North America, eventually expanded from coast to coast through a process of conquest and conflict. Students should understand that while some historians view this expansion in positive terms -- as the growth of a liberty-loving republic, others see this expansion as having been achieved by the near genocide of Native Americans, and the seizure of immense western territories from Mexico (Zinn 1980).

Similarly, to appreciate the significance of the false pretense used to take the nation to war - namely President Bush’s assertion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction - it would help students to know that similar tactics have been used in the past. The sinking of the Maine off the coast of Cuba and the attack on U.S. vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam, are [all] examples of controversial rationales that were used to take the nation to war in the past. Understanding the nature of these past controversies, namely who wanted the war, who opposed it, and why, would help students to appreciate the significance of the ongoing debate over how and why the U.S. entered the war with Iraq.

Accountability in teaching should also include insuring that students have the ability to process the news and information they are exposed to so that they can understand how the war is being conducted and develop informed opinions about it. To be an intelligent citizen in the U.S. today students should be able use the daily reportage from Iraq, from mainstream and other sources, to question and critique the claims of the administration, such as Vice President Cheney's recent assertion that the insurgency in Iraq is in it "last throes". The parallels between such claims and the nearly identical claims made by the Johnson administration are worth exploring, as they offer both historical precedents and evidence that the Republicans have no monopoly on this kind of spin and truth twisting; as the saying goes “in war truth is the first casualty”.

They should also understand the risks involved if the U.S. leaves Iraq before peace and democracy are established, as well as the risks of staying longer. Again, the parallels to Vietnam are haunting. Making sense of such issues and arriving at an intelligent, well-thought out point of view, requires an ability to critique arguments and opinions that are presented as facts, and to recognize misleading statements that may be made by politicians, past and present.

In a recent essay entitled "War and the American Constitutional Order”, Mark E. Brandon asserts that Americans have been involved in wars or military actions in 182 of the 228 years since the United States was founded in 1776 (80% of the life of the nation). He also points out that military actions have become much more frequent in the 20th century. Remarkably, from 1900-2000 there were only six years in which the U.S. was not engaged in some form of military action. We began the 21st century already at war, and our current president is the first to justify what is widely regarded as a preemptive war since we attacked Iraq not in response to any immediate threat or attack on Americans but in response to a perceived threat that later proved to be non-existent. Now we are pursuing an open-ended commitment to a global war with terrorism that knows no national or temporal boundaries.

Critics such as Andrew J. Bacevich write of a “new American militarism” in which the nation’s political elite, infatuated with the capabilities of high tech weaponry and emboldened by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the lack of a countervailing power, has embraced military action as a first rather than a last resort to advance U.S. interests. Our students need not accept Bacevich’s arguments, but they do need to know enough about American history to critique and debate them. Why has the U.S. been so reliant on military force for so much of its history? What rationales have Americans used in the past to justify going to war? Would Americans be as willing to accept war as an instrument of foreign policy if our territory were under attack? Our students need to engage questions such as these with an understanding of history and with a critical frame of mind.

Our efforts to insure that our students understand the war we are in should also include discussion of how our troops conduct themselves during the war. We must help our students to understand how it was possible for prisoners of war to be tortured by American forces in Iraq, and why it is that Amnesty International has referred to the prison at the Guantanamo military base in Cuba as the “Gulag of our times”.

We should encourage our students to debate who should be held accountable when atrocities like these come to light -- those who torture or those who supervise and command them. They should know why the Geneva Conventions were adopted for the treatment of prisoners during war, and why America’s designation of certain prisoners as “unlawful combatants” represents a threat to any American who may be captured in the future. Likewise, similar kinds of questions must be asked of the Iraqi insurgents, and terrorists groups whose suicide bombings and attacks upon civilians have created the worst horrors of the war.

The extent to which our civil liberties should be curtailed as a result of the war on terrorism, is yet another topic that should be fully explored. Is President Bush’s Patriot Act fundamentally different from Senator McCarthy’s search for communists during the Cold War years? Was President Franklin Roosevelt's decision to intern Japanese Americans during World War II similar or different from the mass detentions of Muslims who are still being held without trial or legal representation throughout America today? With police searching bags at airports and security agencies possessing new powers to order wiretaps on Americans, students need to assess whether the national security rationales for these acts can bear critical scrutiny.

The Middle Eastern focus of much of the war on terrorism poses a serious challenge to our schools, because many of our students lack an understanding of the history and culture of the region that would be needed to understand the complex issues. Not many public schools teach Arabic or have teachers with expertise in the history of Islam. With such educational deficiencies rampant in the U.S. it is little wonder that the American electorate followed President Bush’s lead in confusing the secular tyranny of Saddam Hussein with the violent religious fanaticism of Osama Bin Laden. Educators need to do better than our politicians have in grappling with the complexity of issues and making distinctions among those we regard as our enemies. Our students should be encouraged to probe whether an exclusively military response to the threat of terrorism strengthens terrorism as critics of the Iraq war claim, or weaken it as President Bush insists.

Perhaps the most provocative and theory-rich area of inquiry our students can engage in as they reflect on their nation’s international impact and posture is at the macro-historical level. What is it that motivates the U.S. to act as it does internationally? Is American foreign policy and war-making driven by democratic altruism? Or does economics, the search for markets, cheap labor, and raw materials (oil) guide the American agenda? Should we work with and support the United Nations, the international body we helped to create, or should we support the position of many conservatives who denounce the UN as an anti-American institution and reject the idea of allowing outsiders to debate questions pertinent to our defense and security?

While many of the topics we have highlighted are most easily covered in social studies and English classes, teachers in other subject areas should not shy away from participating in the process of citizenship education. American students need to understand how the rest of the world perceives us, and why so many people who sympathized with us after September 11th no longer do. Teachers of all kinds should raise these issues with their students, not to dictate what they should think, but to simply encourage them to think. Too much is at stake for citizenship education to be treated as an isolated unit to be covered in a social studies class.

My Country Right or Wrong?

If we are honest in our approach to teaching history and getting our students to think critically about the war we will point out that there is a tension between flag-waving nationalism and an honest willingness to confront the ugly side of American history. For example, American nationalism impels us to think of 9-11 not merely as a day of U.S. suffering or an act of brutal violence, but as a rallying cry for a global war on terror. If we put aside our nationalist lenses we might seek to understand why many Third World countries regard us as an international bully, a nation motivated more by power and greed than altruism and a sincere commitment to human rights and democracy.

Chilean writer, Ariel Dorfman reminds us that there is "More than one America and more than one September 11th". Dorfman and millions of others remember September 11, 1973 as a day of mourning. That was the day that a U.S. backed coup overthrew the democratically elected socialist President of Chile, Salvadore Allende and replaced his government with a military junta led by General Agusto Pinochet. Dorfman beckons Americans to recognize that their suffering is neither unique or exclusive, and he challenges us as educators to see that when we push beyond the boundaries of a narrow patriotism we see a world in which the U.S. plays a complex and contradictory role; sometimes as victim, sometimes as perpetrator of anti-democratic violence.

Criticizing Islamic fundamentalist and rabid nationalist in other countries is easy. It is far more difficult to challenge the patriotic assumptions and biases of one’s own country, especially during wartime.

The earliest advocates pioneers of public education -- Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, and John Dewey, argued that schools were essential to the health and well being our republic. They understood an ignorant citizenry would doom our republic because they would be incapable of either electing good leaders or voting out of office leaders who had abused their power. As educators it is our democratic responsibility to foster critical thinking among our students.

Those who deem such challenges unpatriotic would do well to heed the warning of English writer CK Chesterton: "My country right or wrong is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, "My mother, drunk or sober".

With NCLB making our schools sites of military recruitment educators have an obligation to insure that their students are able to make informed decisions about their future. They must be exposed to all sides of the debates over America’s role as a superpower. They must be able to draw lessons from the past so that they will be more informed about the present. In short, they must be made to understand what they may be putting their young lives on the line for. To do anything less is not only irresponsible but a willful neglect of our professional duties as educators.

Published in In Motion Magazine October 15, 2006.

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