It is now popular to say that America is at war, and I'm not sure
that's an inappropriate way to feel or to act, given the massive
attack on civilian populations in the heart of our society. I think
it is vital for us to help our students reflect on what it means
for American civilians to go to war effectively, not stupidly.
I'm old enough to have some childhood memories of World War
Two, and I think we can profit from some of the ways civilians
went to war then, in response to another devastating attack.
Mainly, they pulled together, united, supported each other, and
found ways to make the whole society strong. At our best, we
are a resilient people, strengthened in that by our diversity.
Bucky Fuller used to point out that the key strength of his geodesic
dome was that when you applied pressure at one spot, that pressure
was spread across the whole surface: the entire dome would shrink
in slightly, getting stronger in the process. That's the way we are
as a nation at our best.
I can recall the "Victory Gardens" that everyone planted to make
more food available to the armed forces. We saved string and
the aluminum foil in gum wrappers. Each student in my class
knitted a 4-inch square, which our teacher sewed together into
a blanket for a soldier, we were told. Whether the blanket ever
went to war, all of us had the profound sense that we were part
of the war effort.
I know there were other faces of civilians at war: angry attacks
on German-, Italian-, and Japanese-Americans; internment camps,
and other atrocities. These were the unproductive actions we
now uniformly regret and recall with shame. Each of us has seen
the rumblings of such reactions in the aftermath of Tuesday's
tragedy. Our students are confused, angry, and fearful. They
desperately want to do something.
As teachers, I think we need to help our students see what it
means to be a productive civilian at war. Like you, I have been
moved by the courageous and selfless acts of people on the
scene of the violence, sometimes giving their lives in the process.
Even those of us at a distance can be productive participants in
the immediate crisis: aiding friends and family on the scene,
giving blood, giving money, etc. (Sheila and I gave our unsolicited
tax refund to the NYC firefighters.) We and our students can
think of countless other actions to take immediately.
In the long run, we need to work with our students to see how
to restore the strength of our institutions allthewhile learning
how to improve them and avoid such events in the future. We
need our students to take seriously the question of how the
USA can be so hated as to produce Tuesday's attack and the
many, less severe attacks that are commonplace. Our students
will be the ones who establish a future in which the USA is
respected for our many virtues, or those students will lead
the retreat into the bunkers and barricades of attack and
I think we teachers have never faced a greater challenge
nor a more worthy and promising one.