The National Education Association (NEA), the largest teachers' union in the country, recently found itself in the midst of a political struggle as a number of groups, columnists, and editorials took exception to some of its proposed lesson plans for how classrooms should approach the anniversary of 9/11.
Although the NEA put together dozens of lesson plans, a few in particular rubbed some people the wrong way. Two of the most controversial items appeared to be "Explore who and what may be to blame for this event. Use non-speculative terms. Do not suggest any group is responsible" and "Discuss historical instances of American intolerance" so that Americans can avoid "repeating terrible mistakes."
Concerned Women for America was particularly visible as a critic of these plans, arguing that the NEA, which it viewed as "pushing some of the most leftist social agendas for the last 20 or 30 years, has really gone way over the line" (CNN, August 19).
Critics argued that the "blame no one" lesson was actually suggesting that America was to blame. An editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch (August 22) bluntly stated, "It is willfully obtuse not to assign blame for 9/11 when videotapes clearly show Osama bin Laden rejoicing in the success of the attack and boasting that al Qaeda calculated the number of casualties in advance."
Those who defended the NEA argued that the lesson plans had been misinterpreted and taken out of context. The point of the exercise, they countered, was to avoid a knee-jerk reaction to stereotype and blame all Arabs and/or Muslims. In making this point, Robert Kuttner of American Prospect told Fox News (August 19), "This is just a completely trumped-up hoax of a charge." However, the critics were more visible in the coverage analyzed by Media Watch, with nearly all of the stories criticizing these particular NEA lessons, while very few reports defended the NEA.
The media coverage also gave some indication that the NEA backpedaled on its original concept of "blame no one." An NEA spokesman who appeared on CNN (August 19) clearly acknowledged, "The enemy here is Osama bin Laden. The enemy here is al Qaeda."
A few publications also took the NEA to task for suggesting teachers use 9/11 as an occasion to recall past injustices in America. An editorial in Jacksonville's Florida Times-Union (August 22) stated, "It's offensive to suggest that the anniversary of those evil deeds be a time of national self-flagellation by a captive audience of impressionable young people."
Another criticism of the NEA's plans was that they focused too much on sensitivity rather than teaching the facts. Columnist George Will wrote a piece that was published throughout the country stating that the "most repellent" aspect of the NEA's plan was its "therapeutic rather than educational focus - an emphasis not on learning but on feelings, not on good thinking but on feeling good" (The Washington Post, August 25). The Washington Times (August 22) seconded this criticism, writing, "The NEA merely considers the squishy sentiments of the times, as only those bound in a classroom can. The real world is messier than the feel-good expressions put to a chalkboard."
As the anniversary nears, teachers around the US will have to decide what works best for them - whether to follow the NEA's suggested guidelines or use their own lesson plans.
Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found at www.carma.com.