In history class, a flood of urgent and newly relevant questions

I was on my way to school when I heard the news that would rivet the nation, and the world, for days. Like many throughout the United States, my reaction went from shock to sorrow. But, there was another thought that went through my head that morning: "What will I teach my students today?"

It wasn't that I didn't have lesson plans - of course, I did. But I teach social studies, which usually includes attention to current events. How could I teach about the Industrial Revolution in world history, and the Gilded Age in US history, and ignore the events of this day? I wondered how I would respond to my students' questions, how we could talk about the event without exacerbating fear?

I have encouraged my students to form their own opinions about events in their history books, and they apply the same principle to the current situation. These opinions include a statement few will want to hear: "I think the US deserved this." Yes, one of my students said "deserved." He did not mean that all those people should have been killed, but he was not alone in citing the arrogance with which America has been involved in world affairs, and he was not alone in thinking this event should be a "wake-up call" to America to rethink its policies.

Looking back, my initial questions on Sept. 11 were the easiest I would confront regarding this event. I have urged my students to question - to think critically, to read critically, and to ask questions about the world around them. So they continue to ask me, "Why would people in other countries be celebrating? Why would people want to cause this destruction? How has the United States created these enemies?"

I also have questions. How do we as a nation critically look at why this might have happened, without being seen as "unpatriotic"? Shouldn't it be a sign of patriotism that we seek to improve our nation? The US has certainly not led a pure and perfect existence, but our democracy has been strong enough to change with the challenges brought by women, African-Americans, social activists, and many others.

How can the events of Sept. 11 be molded into an opportunity for humanity's progress?

I wonder, if this tragic event was possible in part because of the freedom and openness of our society, whether restricting that freedom could be the best response. My students, many of whom are first- or second-generation Americans themselves, would probably be among the first to complain of heightened immigration controls. They already ask me, "Why should the US restrict immigration? Immigrants are only looking for a better life."

And if my students look to history for understanding, as I frequently tell my them to do, what can they - and we - learn from Israel's unsuccessful war on terrorism over the past years?

Can we root out terrorism by government-sanctioned violence, regardless of the magnitude of that violence? The more the US is seen as an aggressor, the more resentment it will engender from around the world - and hence the greater commitment it will foster among thousands of individuals who will become willing to put their own lives on the line?

And that implies a question for my classroom: How can I explain to critical teenagers that violence by a government is OK, but violence by an individual is not? What about the violence that was used by imperialist nations to subdue and exploit the African continent?

In the American Revolution, the British were stronger economically and militarily. They had more-experienced generals and stronger supply lines. But the American colonists won. Why? Their commitment to their cause overcome their opponents' strength. As the war progressed and colonists saw what the British were willing to do - the horrendous state-sanctioned treatment of prisoners of war and colonial villages - it did not convince colonists that the fight was futile, it convinced them that to do nothing was no longer an option. Their fight was for their very lives, their way of being, their beliefs. Are we not fighting against people who view this battle in the same way?

My students' questioning has also led me to wonder if the US - because of our power and economic strength - is held to a higher standard than other countries that similarly act in their own self-interest. And whether it should it be.

I believe that asking these questions helps my students understand. I hope they will see adults around them asking questions, too, as we all work through these events and their repercussions.

On Sept. 11, my class talked about questions no one yet knows the answers to, but are worth asking anyway. I gave students space to reflect, to put the events outside on "pause" for a few moments.

One student articulated what was probably one of the underlying reasons for much of the questioning that day.

"I'm not ready to go to war," she said.

- Mary Hendra

Mary Hendra teaches world- and US-history classes at Foshay Learning Center in Los Angeles, Calif.

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