Since Sept. 11, the young woman who cleans my home is one of the few people around me here who has questioned our government's attack of Afghanistan. She plans to read the Qu'ran on the Internet. She's haunted by the footage of Afghan women being cowardly shot in the head by their own people. In her 20s, she knows little about the Cold War, much less the Soviet skirmish with US-armed fighters. She's just heard that the US armed Osama bin Laden and his fellow "freedom" fighters in the 1980s. She's shocked that the US deserted the war-torn region after the war. She's hungry for history: "I want to know. I want to understand what caused all this," she tells me.
Listening to her, I think of comments last week by vice presidential spouse Lynne Cheney -- or is that Mrs. Dick Cheney? -- and shudder at how sheltered our future generations will be if that woman has her way. On Oct. 5, speaking to the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, Cheney excoriated Judith Rizzo, a deputy chancellor of the New York City schools. In the Washington Post, Rizzo said that Sept. 11 shows the necessity of teaching multiculturalism: "We have to do more to teach habits of tolerance, knowledge and awareness of other cultures."
Whoa doggy. Teaching about world cultures is fine, Cheney retorted, but "to say it is more important now implies that the events of Sept. 11 were our fault, that it was our failure to understand Islam that led to so many deaths and so much destruction ... that somehow intolerance on our part was the cause."
Does it really imply that? Perhaps it could mean that we want our young people to understand that not all Muslims support terrorism. Maybe it indicates that as the US is courting the world for favors, we Americans should understand our place, and track record, in the international community. It might be about understanding our international reputation so we can counter it when it's skewed. But in the small Bush-Cheney black-or-white, dead-or-alive, with-us-or-with-the-terrorists world, we're now told that understanding other cultures somehow undermines our own patriotism and resolve.
Cheney's defensiveness is no surprise, though: She is a star in the world of conservative think-tankism -- the "freedom means freedom to be conservative" crowd. Called a "right-wing warrior" by The Nation, Cheney -- formerly an American Enterprise Institute fellow and a Lockheed Martin director -- seems steeped in paranoia that unfiltered knowledge of international history is going to tear apart America-the-great and make our white guys look bad. A former angry pundit, Cheney stayed quiet as her husband and his protégé ascended to the White House. Had she not remained muzzled, more Americans might have gleaned the true meaning of "compassionate conservatism" (tough trickle-down love, not some namby-pamby moderate niceness). But now amid all the flags, pledges and talk of restoring Christian prayer to the schools, it's a great time to tell the schools the propaganda she deems acceptable to teach kids.
This is familiar turf for Cheney. When she was head of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1994, she targeted the National History Standards, developed at UCLA with input from 6,000 teachers as a baseline for schools. In her book, Telling the Truth, Cheney complains that the standards talked too much about women and minorities. She protested that they mentioned the KKK 17 times, McCarthyism 19 and the Great Depression 25, while giving short shrift to white heroes like George Washington and Thomas Edison and to American tech advances. She wants a pro-US bias: "[T]he Cold War is presented as a deadly competition between two equally culpable superpowers, each bent on world domination," she writes.
Cheney says the "most irresponsible section" asked students to read a book about a Japanese girl who died a painful death from radiation from the atomic bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima. "What fifth- and sixth-graders would be likely to conclude is that their country was guilty of a horrible -- and completely unjustified -- act of cruelty against innocents," she writes. Later she criticizes proponents of multiculturalism who say that uninformed patriotism can lead Americans to believe they're superior to other nations, and thus support all-out wars. She defends a Florida school board for demanding instruction that the US is "superior to other foreign or historic cultures."
The New York Times called Cheney's rhetoric a "misrepresentation." University of California-Irvine history professor Jon Wiener wrote in The Nation that white men were included on about every page of the standards. Students would be asked to consider both sides of issues like affirmative action, the Equal Rights Amendment and even the Brown v. Board of Education decision. No matter, though: Victory was sweet for the woman who wrote in the Wall Street Journal that schools should tell kids what they need to know instead of allowing them to discover it themselves. The US Senate voted to kill the standards 99-to-1.
Now Cheney's back, ready to milk these difficult times to ensure that schools teach the glories of the US government and the federal flag -- as long as it's waving over her beliefs. But equating "understanding" with "agreeing" is a terrifyingly naïve approach to educating a populace, but to Cheney the alternative may be worse. She seems to assume that if kids learn about other cultures and their problems, they will hate America. She is probably right that many young Americans will balk at this country's resource-grabbing abroad in order to protect our prosperity at home. Like my friend today, they might be shocked to hear that we wouldn't sign the Land-Mine Treaty, or the Kyoto Protocol, or that 500,000 children have starved in Iraq under US sanctions. But they should have that democratic choice of deciding where to stand based on an international reality, not propaganda disguised as "American ideals." And, surely if America is ultimately as infallible as Cheney argues, it can withstand a bit of critical analysis on the part of fifth-graders who might, in turn, learn from the mistakes of the past.
Instead, we're imminently faced with a Bush education plan with testing requirements that are an ideological attempt to teach to the test of certain American "standards" weighted to keep our young consumers ignorant and compliant and, hopefully, conservative. This is no way to help democracy, or our American melting pot, survive. Yes, we need to improve reading and math skills, but teaching to standardized tests is not going to do that. (Pushing low scorers to drop out of school might make it seem like it will, however.) What these tests will do is limit the amount of time for creative learning and critical thinking, and that is by design.
On Oct. 11, Cheney announced that she will author America: A Patriotic Primer to help "define the ideas and ideals that define the United States." The A-to-Z listing of American ideals -- let me guess: G won't be for Greed -- will help children learn "the foundation of America's freedom and understand why we hold this nation dear," she said in a statement, reported by the Associated Press.
Her timing couldn't be better. Christianity and the flag are all the rage in public schools right now. But Cheney's propagandizing will push the type of limited, lopsided education that is rampant in hate-US curricula around the world. Many bin Laden supporters and other extremists haven't been taught what the world thinks of their beliefs or their methods, either, just that they are superior to people not like them. That's surely not a standard we should emulate in our schools. As my helper told me today, "We need to know everything." Like it or not, that includes the painful stuff.
Donna Ladd is a free-lance writer in Mississippi. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.