Category Archives: 9/11

Why social studies should teach empathy

I have seen some teachers argue against teaching empathy in social studies. I admit I don’t really get their point of view, but in danger of simplifying it, it sounds to me something like “it is not our job to teach students how to feel about a topic” or “you are presenting history in a (liberal) bias on this topic.”

I totally disagree. It is our job to teach multiple points of view. And to be honest almost all history textbooks are extremely biased towards WASP viewpoints (aka the “winners” of history). That is why I use Howard Zinn in my classroom to show the other side (but of course not exclusively). My other argument is that every person, every source, and yes every teacher is biased. Therefore just by the materials the teacher selects she is making a biased decision. The best option is to give multiple sources from multiple viewpoints and PBL takes it one step further by encouraging students to go out and research and find these different views.

The problem with student research sometimes is that it too is biased. Students often lack the historical background to start their research and identify different viewpoints. My approach to this is that during “work time” I give them specific articles, primary sources, etc to steer them into interesting questions and alternative viewpoints for their topic. Then I encourage them to continue to research on the topic and go deeper. Then we come back in a class discussion or Socratic circle and they can discuss different aspects of it.

Case in point is the 9/11 project we are currently working on where students will design a monument commemorating that time period. Students immediately gravitated toward the American victims/heroes side of history. But our driving question was “Why did 9/11 happen and how should we respond to terrorism?”
We read Ender’s Game and used the concept of “Speaker for the Dead” to shift students to think of 9/11 and the following wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from a Middle Eastern perspective. After researching all of the American Interventions since the end of the Cold War students were able to see (but not justify) the motives of terrorism. Looking at the events post 9/11 such as the civilian casualties in the wars, Abu Graib, Guantanamo Bay, and abuses of the Patriot Act students were also critical of many of our responses to 9/11. Now students are designing much more complex monuments that are not just American “hero worship” but actual critiques of history.

In reality I believe we do our students an injustice if we do NOT ask them to be empathetic and look at history from the viewpoint of its “losers”-the weak, the down trodden, the humble citizens who are just trying to raise their families and live the best they know how. Because that is ultimately the category that most humans (including myself) fall into as few of us will ever be famous or huge centers of power. I also think most of the greatest heroes humans in history such as Gandhi, Dr. King, Mother Theresa, and Nelson Mandela fall into the “loser” category but rise above through humility, justice, and love. And isn’t that the goal of social studies? To teach students to be responsible, critical thinking citizens? But what good is critical thinking without an empathetic heart to go with it.

9/11 as a PBL theme

I just posted on TeachPaperless about why I will not be teaching 9/11 tomorrow. That does not mean that students will not learn about it eventually. It might take us all year in Global Studies to get the background to truly begin to understand it.

As I will have the same students next year for American History I am thinking that 9/11and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would make a great PBL theme for the whole year. It could be connected to almost everything in our history.

  • The terrorist acts on civilians could be compared to other attacks on civilians such as the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Wounded Knee Massacre or the My Lai Massacre.
By Rolling Thunder at de.wikipedia [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

  • The propaganda of WMD to justify a preemptive strike against Iraq could be compared to other propaganda in history. The use of patriotism for war to distract people from domestic and economic problems is another theme in US history.

  • The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could be compared with the many other conflicts in our history. The parallels with Vietnam are numerous. 

  • The history of Afghanistan can only be understood in the context of the Cold War and the Soviet Union. 

  • Our setting up governments in Iraq and Afghanistan could be compared to puppet governments in Africa, Asia, and South and Central America under the guise of “keeping out the Reds” while we protected our rights to pilfer countries of their natural resources.

  • The torture and abuse at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib could lead to a discussion on civil rights and who has rights under our Constitution. Not to mention the high percentage of minorities who serve in our armed forces and fight the politicians’ wars. 

  • The question of the motives of the terrorists leads to complicated discussions of imperialism, puppet dictators paid for oil, and centuries of hate between Jews, Muslims, and Christians dating back to the Crusades.

What would you add to this list?