Japanese historians Nozaki Yoshiko and Inokuchi Hiromatsu once described school textbooks as an “important site [for] creating and disseminating narratives.” By projecting a specific viewpoint of an event on the impressionable minds of students, the books can “readily reinforce dominant ideologies.” A major occurrence in history can be spun in different ways, depending on the words used to describe it. The attacks of September 11, 2001 are a seminal event in the lives of students today, and are bound to remain so for future generations. Despite the indelible images of that day, the greatest impact that 9/11 will have in the public memory may be its description in the pages of history textbooks.
However, several recent American history textbooks fail to give a thorough explanation of the attacks. In two of the most widely used textbooks in America, Daniel Boorstin’s A History of the United States and Andrew Cayton’s Pathways to the Present, the events of September 11th are described in two to three paragraphs, and then the books move on to a discussion of the American response to the attacks. In Pathways, the most widely adopted textbook on the market, no real background on the attacks is ever given. Only one sentence is left describing the period before 9/11 as a time when “most Americans believed that their country was immune to the kind of violence against civilians that wracked Israel and other parts of the world.” Furthermore, Cayton explains the attacks in ways that may confuse some students. For instance, he characterizes Osama bin Laden as a “wealthy Saudi dissident,” a description that may lead some to believe that he was simply a political exile rather than a terrorist.
Boorstin does a better job of addressing the terrorist threat prior to 9/11, listing attacks like the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. Despite the inclusion of these events, 9/11 still gets short shrift, with two brief paragraphs of the major incidents of that day: a description of the three planes crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the casualties suffered. The book continues with American response to the attacks and the October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. In both Cayton and Boorstin’s books, bin Laden becomes “a prime suspect” in the plot, and is portrayed as the mastermind behind the attacks. There is little discussion on the rest of al-Qaeda’s role in 9/11, with bin Laden labeled solely responsible.
Most glaringly, there is never a reason given as to why the attacks occurred. The books characterize them as an isolated incident that seemingly transpired in a vacuum in 2001. Though Boorstin includes a few sentences on previous al-Qaeda bombings, Cayton fails to list any acts of terrorism against the United States in the 1990s. The portrayal of 9/11 as a crime committed by a small band of Islamic terrorists conceals that it was merely the most spectacular manifestation of anti-American sentiment amidst a string of such incidents. Yet after reading Cayton and Boorstin’s books, the reader gets the impression that 9/11 was nothing more than a single act against America by a posse of “bad men.” It appears that the books tried to answer every question about 9/11 except why the events occurred.
Diane Ravitch, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and an education adviser during the George H.W. Bush administration, agrees that the discussion of the attacks is insubstantial. She has characterized the coverage of 9/11 in many high school history textbooks as “superficial” and “non-probing.” “I can tell you, having reviewed high school history textbooks, that 9/11 gets very cursory mention,” Ravitch says. “There is meager explanation of what happened, how it happened, [and] who was responsible.”
The lack of a background on 9/11 in Cayton and Boorstin’s textbooks as well as others has become a cause of concern among educators and historians, who often disagree over how the attacks should be taught. A September 2005 article in The Nation characterized the debate as falling along a liberal and conservative divide. In the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration immediately defined the attacks in moral terms. In a September 20, 2001 speech, President George W. Bush stated that al-Qaeda had attacked the country because its members “hate our freedoms.” Since then, a debate has raged between those who continue to believe the attacks were “acts of evil” and others who believe them to be indicative of the need to understand anti-Americanism in the world, especially in the Middle East. In order to avoid upsetting either side, recent history textbooks have toed an intermediate line, describing the 9/11 attacks themselves and then simply moving on. Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia, agrees that it is because of this “fear of controversy” that these books leave out important details of events like 9/11.
“A lot of people who write textbooks do not want to offend anybody, left, right, or center,” Foner says. “And therefore, [the textbooks] have become extraordinarily bland. Giving a cause to something is going to aggravate someone.” Foner’s approach to controversial issues is to simply “teach the controversy.” When teaching a topic that is disputed among historians, he brings the controversy to the attention of the class and then illustrates the reasons for the argument. He then tries to present both perspectives on the issue.
“Don’t just act like there’s one point of view,” he continues. “Get on the table so students can think about a range of potential viewpoints.” Foner uses this approach extensively in his own textbook Give Me Liberty!, first published in 2005 and adopted by over 600 high schools and colleges. In it, he touches on certain events in American history that other historians would exclude, such as the suppression of free speech during the First World War, the extensive involvement of American corporations in Latin American politics, and the covert operations of the CIA in Iran and Guatemala. He devotes his entire epilogue to a discussion of the 9/11 attacks and American military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. In a direct departure from Cayton and Boorstin, Foner notes that “a rising terrorist threat was visible before September 11,” pointing out that bin Laden “declared ‘war’ on the United States” after the Persian Gulf conflict in 1991. He follows with an extended description of the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks of the 1990s, touching on the bombings of the World Trade Center in 1993, the American embassy in Nairobi in 1998, and the USS Cole in 2000. Moreover, Foner discusses the outrage of bin Laden and other Arab extremists “by the presence of American military bases in Saudi Arabia and by American support for Israel in its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.” He notes that they perceived the Western culture of the United States and its spread to the Middle East as “the antithesis of the rigid values in which they believed.”
In a few paragraphs, Foner has given the reader not only a background on recent acts of terrorism against the United States, but also a hint of al-Qaeda’s reasons for the 9/11 attacks. He argues that the attacks themselves pose large questions for the traditional American mindset, which believed “that freedom was the central quality of American life, and the United States had a mission to spread freedom throughout the world and to fight those it saw as freedom’s enemies.” Foner challenges the reader at the end of his discussion with the questions the U.S. faced after 9/11: “Should the United States act in the world as a republic or an empire? What is the proper balance between liberty and security?” His book attempts to engage the student in the debate over America’s role in the world.
With a detailed description of the background and the events of September 11th, Foner’s book carries great potential for properly addressing the problem of teaching the attacks in public schools. However, the path to adopting textbooks like Foner’s is a difficult one. For starters, history is often written from a vantage point of at least a few decades or more after the events in question have occurred. Due to the abundance of information that remains classified on 9/11 and the terrorist attacks that preceded it, it is difficult for many historians to write with the greatest clarity on these events. Anders Stephanson, a Columbia professor specializing in American diplomatic history, writes that “diplomatic historians…are exceedingly skeptical of any account that is not grounded empirically in a period where the archives are open.”
In addition, the attacks themselves are an extremely complex subject, and it is often difficult to teach them without some debate. Vincent Cannato, a professor of American history at the University of Massachusetts –Boston, believes that there is simply not enough available information to properly understand the reasons for 9/11. According to Cannato, the rationale for al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States was widespread and not simply a reaction to American involvement in the Middle East. He characterizes these latter implications from the left as “blowback”, pointing out that the American aid to Muslims in Afghanistan and U.S. defense of ethnic Muslims in Kosovo argue otherwise. From a more practical standpoint, the 9/11 attacks might simply be too recent to be history. For September 11th to be covered in detail, other sections of the book or the course curriculum must be cut out. Most high schools, Foner points out, “won’t even reach 9/11″ in their history coverage, though he notes that many students may still want to talk about it. Usually, high school AP U.S. history classes hardly have time to cover the 1990s, much less the 2000s. Furthermore, most American high schools still use history textbooks printed before 2001. “None of our textbooks are recent enough to have incorporated 9/11,” writes Robert Sandler, a social studies teacher at New York’s Stuyvesant High School. “Most teachers get up to Reagan.”
Perhaps the toughest obstacle for textbook authors seeking to cover 9/11 in further detail is the approval of the school board. Several states require that textbooks be approved by a state commission before their adoption in public high schools. School districts in large cities also have city boards of education that must also approve the usage of the textbooks for classes. This approval procedure subjects the historian to the school board, whatever the views of its members might be. Some school boards, such as the school districts of Dallas and Jackson, Miss., also value the inputs of parents. Thus the pressure to satisfy as many people as possible is inherent in a high school textbook, and the inclusion of controversial issues is often dissuaded. By contrast, college professors are free to select books of their choice, and there is no outside body that must approve the readings first.
“The pressure to be bland and middle-of-the-road on everything is less prominent in a college textbook,” says Foner. “High school textbooks are largely written to satisfy the Texas school book commission.”
Foner’s reference to the Lone Star State is not without substance. With a schoolbook budget approaching $600 million, Texas is second only to California in textbook purchases. Because of its large size, the state plays a key role in setting the standards for textbook adoption nationwide. The Texas school board became the center of a November 2001 debate over whether to adopt certain environment science textbooks that were opposed by the independent Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF). The TPPF condemned the book Environmental Science: Creating a Stable Future, which was widely used in high schools and colleges, on the grounds that it was “anti-Christian, anti-free enterprise, and anti-American.” Echoing the group’s sentiment, the board rejected the book. The fears that a history book might feel the ire of a group like the TPPF, combined with the potential for high profits in the textbook market, has thus motivated publishers to avoid any controversial discussions of recent events in history textbooks.
Yet the method of “teaching the controversy” is not limited to well-known liberals like Professor Foner. Thomas Woods, a conservative historian and a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, believes that the description of the 9/11 attacks must be expanded.
“Every time the U.S. is attacked by anybody, not just by Islamic extremists, we always hear…that these people have no motives,” Woods explains. “That’s the type of second-grade level that we’re all expected to speak on. I don’t think we’re going to have a better or safer world if we’re going to proceed along such an absurdly cartoonish way of thinking.”
Woods points out that hatred for the United States has not always existed in the Middle East, and that in the 1940s the U.S. enjoyed an “excellent reputation” in the area. With that in mind, Woods asks, where did that spirit of goodwill go? How has America’s reputation changed and what caused it to change? These questions must be answered in history books, regardless of the controversy they may stir.
“We can’t have unaskable [sic] questions,” Woods says. “If you’re going to talk about 9/11 in an American history textbook, if you’re going to treat it in isolation, how are you equipping Americans to understand the world they live in, to cope with it, and to make whatever changes might help the situation?”
This view may be spreading to more conservative campuses. Daniel Snead, a professor of modern American history at the Christian fundamentalist Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., believes that the full background of historical events, however controversial, must still be taught.
“I do believe the Bush administration, conservatives in general, mentioned [the 9/11 attacks] in too simplistic terms,” Snead says. “I would hope in classes that professors would address some of the root causes. I can tell you that I do that here. I try to explain some of the basic reasons … to understand [al-Qaeda’s] hatred, where their anger comes from.” In addition, both Woods and Snead bring up a significant point regarding the importance of teaching history: its role in preparing today’s students to confront the problems of tomorrow.
“It’s useful to know why these people are attacking us,” Woods continues. “Then we can have an intelligent conversation and ask ourselves, ‘Is our foreign policy of empire so valuable to us that we’re willing to risk incurring the wrath of people like this?’ We at least need to know that there is going to be some risk involved.”
Yet there are still some who disagree with the idea of teaching the roots of September 11th and other controversial issues from the recent past. In a 2002 book, William Bennett, the former Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan and conservative pundit, delivered a mass indictment of historians who have been critical of American endeavors abroad over the last forty years, claiming that they engage in “violent misrepresentation” and “weaken the country’s resolve.”
A more thorough explanation of 9/11 in history textbooks would be sure to arouse the ire of Bennett and others.
“I think William Bennett and others like him want to glorify everything that has happened in the United States and minimize or ignore the controversies of the problems,” Snead says. “That’s not intellectually honest. That’s not the approach to take.”
However, he quickly notes that, “It’s the opposite of Bennett that I’m worried about as well as Bennett.” A historian who emphasizes all the negatives of American history would not be welcome, either.
Woods goes farther in his critique of Bennett’s remarks.
“If teaching 9/11 critically makes people step back and perhaps question the American fighting spirit, well then all to the better,” he says. “Because what the hell good is the ‘American fighting spirit’ if it can’t withstand a few simple questions, for heaven’s sake?”
The debate over how to teach controversial events in history is not new to American textbooks. Perhaps it would be useful to examine another attack on America, the 1941 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. The next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt solidified the attacks in the popular imagination as a “date which will live in infamy.” At the time, Americans saw the attack on Pearl Harbor as treacherous, and the casting of the event in moral terms helped mobilize American support for war against Japan. Sixty-six years later, however, we know that a series of American trade embargoes, among other factors, motivated Japan to pursue war. Similarly, while many Americans continue to believe that September 11th was an “act of evil,” this view will undoubtedly change over time—particularly as we become more informed about al-Qaeda’s motivations behind the attacks. As this history comes to light with the passage of time, one hopes that it will be properly incorporated into textbooks, without the filter of ideology.