Schools must give kids tools for informed debate on Iraq

Sunday, March 2, 2003

President Bush’s long march toward war with Iraq is igniting a rancorous debate among young Americans not heard since the Vietnam War era. And once the bombs begin to fall (by the ides of March?), arguments will grow louder and protests bigger.

Is this disputation good for America? Of course it is. Debate and dissent are vital for a healthy democracy. But are our nation’s youth — on all sides of the war issue — prepared to engage the debate with reason and civility?

The disturbing answer may be “no.” In my own (highly unscientific) poll of high school students over the past few months, I’ve heard much passion about questions of war and peace — but very little substance. Angry rhetoric and “bumper sticker” opinions may be popular on talk radio, but young citizens need more than that to make informed, thoughtful judgments about American foreign policy.

That’s where public schools come in. Where else, if not in our classrooms, are students going to get the historical and civic knowledge needed and the civic virtues necessary to seriously engage questions of war and peace?

Unfortunately, most teachers have neither the time nor the support to prepare students for active and informed citizenship. According to a new report on the civic mission of schools (endorsed by a broad range of scholars and educators), “many teachers fear criticism or even litigation if they address topics that may be considered controversial or political in nature.”

Even teachers willing to tackle the tough questions don’t have time to do it. In this era of high-stakes testing in reading and math, civic education is a very low priority. Students now take “only a single semester course on government — compared to as many as three courses in civics, democracy, and government that were common until the 1960s.” (Read the full report at

And we wonder why young Americans are alienated from the political process, uninformed about public policy, and unlikely to vote.

Here’s the disconnect: For reasons that are difficult to fathom, many Americans (including many of our political leaders) ignore the civic mission of schools until a crisis hits. Then, for a brief moment, we hear cries for more flag salutes and patriotic songs — as though rote exercises can inspire “love of country” overnight.

Even worse are schools that wave the flag while simultaneously violating the principles for which it stands. As war tensions increase, teachers are told to avoid controversy, school newspapers are censored, and students with political messages on their T-shirts are sent home.

Jingoism isn’t patriotism. And stifling debate is an attack on democratic freedom. All of this sounds more like Iraqi schools of propaganda. We can — and must — do better.

Despite these barriers, some schools — and many individual teachers — forge ahead and teach the controversy. A Seattle Times story recently described two teachers in a rural high school — one on each side of the war question — who are working hard to help students draw their own conclusions about war with Iraq. Their students learn about the roots of the crisis, read a variety of perspectives and engage in civil discussion about the issues. This is what needs to happen in all schools.

Fighting for freedom abroad is a hollow exercise unless we are willing to model freedom at home. That’s why the First Amendment Center and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development have launched the First Amendment Schools project. The initiative encourages every school to engage students in active citizenship, to transmit democratic principles, and to give students meaningful opportunities to speak out on all sides of issues that are critical to our nation’s future.

None of this is easy to do in a time of war. But we have no choice. This generation is called to defend freedom at home and around the world. Our task is to ensure that they understand what they are defending — and why.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22209.

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