America’s schools must be summoned to defend freedom

Sunday, September 30, 2001

Has the “age of terror” begun? Or will this be “an age of liberty here and across the world,” as the president proclaimed before Congress on Sept. 20?

The answer will turn on how the American people respond to the horror of Sept. 11.

President Bush got it right. “Freedom and fear are at war,” he said. “The advance of human freedom, the great achievement of our time and the great hope of every time now depends on us.”

What must we do? Beyond the immediate tasks of offering comfort, exacting justice, increasing security and rallying the nation, what must America do to ensure the survival of freedom?

This week, the U.S. Senate identified what one newspaper called “critical homeland defenders” that must work together for the long-term defense of freedom. Twenty-one government agencies were on the list ranging from the Border Patrol and the Centers for Disease Control to the National Security Council and the State Department.

All well and good. But if we take the long view, another American institution — conspicuously absent from this list — must be called into service: America's schools.

Over the course of this long struggle, the most effective answer to training camps of hatred and terror will be schools of freedom and democracy. While Osama bin Laden and his ilk use tools of indoctrination and propaganda to teach blind obedience, our schools must use democratic principles to instill an abiding commitment to universal human rights.

Are our schools (and here I include all schools, public and private) prepared to carry out this mission? Before Sept. 11, we had the luxury of debating their role in teaching civic principles and virtues. We had time to discuss how schools might better encourage active citizenship among the young.

Now we have little choice but to act. How can we ask young people to defend freedom if they don't understand what they're defending? Waving the flag isn't enough. People need to know and apply the guiding principles represented by the flag if we hope to sustain our freedoms in a time of maximum danger.

How can schools meet this challenge? Here are four starting points:

1. Return to first principles. In recent polls conducted by the First Amendment Center, nearly half the American people (including an astounding one-fifth of our teachers) couldn't name a single freedom protected by the First Amendment. Schools need to do a much better job of teaching what our founding principles are, how we have and have not lived up to them, and how we should apply them today.

2. Practice freedom. It's not enough to teach about freedom, especially in schools that restrict the very freedoms being taught.

If we are serious about expecting young Americans to be free and engaged citizens, then we need to ensure that schools encourage students to exercise their rights responsibly. That means, among other things, giving students a real voice in shaping the school culture, allowing a free student press and encouraging freedom of expression.

3. Protect dissent. I'm hearing from students (and others) who tell me they are afraid to speak up when they disagree with the direction our government has taken since Sept. 11. That's chilling.

The real test of our commitment to freedom is our willingness to guard the right of others to dissent, to say things we may not want to hear in a time of widespread patriotic fervor. Schools are the best place to teach citizens how to engage in vigorous, robust debate while maintaining a tone of civility and respect.

4. Take religious liberty seriously. The current attacks on Muslim Americans (and others mistaken for Muslims) are stark reminders that ignorance and hatred are an internal threat to freedom. We must do a better job of teaching about religions and modeling religious liberty in our schools.

For over a decade now, most major educational and religious groups have agreed on First Amendment guidelines for protecting the religious-liberty rights of students and for teaching about religion in the curriculum. In January 2000, the U.S. Department of Education sent a packet of these guidelines to every principal in the nation. But according to a recent poll, a majority of school administrators aren't familiar with these materials and nearly 70% of our teachers know nothing about them.

If, before Sept. 11, we thought that understanding the constitutional role of religion in public life and schools was important, we now know that protecting religious liberty and learning about our religious differences are essential.

Can we do all of this in our schools and in our nation? We must.

I keep recalling the words I first heard as a child attending elementary school in New York City. “In the long history of the world,” John F. Kennedy told us that cold January morning in 1961, “only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.”

This is another such hour. Now we are summoned once again to defend freedom. And we too must “bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

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