Teach Our Children Tolerant Ways

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," September 25, 2001, p. 9A

October 4th marks the 44th anniversary of a shock to our nation. Not a deafening explosion. A faint beep from a 183-pound, basketball-sized orbiting satellite. Sputnik meant the Soviet Union was ahead of us in the space race.

Our response? Something called “The National Defense Education Act” –  emphasis on “defense.” More money for math, science and foreign language instruction.

This time let’s include social studies.

This is the 79th and last column in a series begun October 12, 1998. It was originally planned to be thanks for those who elected me to the school board, my fellow board members, administrators and staff. A review of the board’s accomplishments. Its remaining agenda. My continuing Web page. And an announcement of the John Haefner Social Studies Award I’ve created through our district’s foundation.

Two weeks of shock, grief and anger from terrorists’ barbaric attacks on our nation changed that.

President Bush urged us to get back to what we were doing before September 11. What was he doing that morning? Campaigning for his education bill.

It’s time for the president and Congress to get back to it.

Some call for a U.S. revenge of violence. Others plead for greater understanding. Either way, education is a major part of the answer.

We have the world’s finest intelligence gathering technology. What we don’t have are enough folks who can translate those millions of conversations and e-mails into English.

How can you spy, let alone infiltrate, if you don’t know the language? If you can’t find the country on an outline map? If you know nothing of its people – their history, culture, economic conditions, and religion?

We have more military power than many nations combined. And yet we’re still vulnerable. Not to the wars of the last century. Those we could still fight and win. Vulnerable to the wars of this century. Wars without nations, front lines and tanks. Wars fought with cardboard box openers – and commercial airliners.

A terrorist used to be “someone who has a bomb but doesn’t have a plane.” Now terrorists use planes as bombs.

It’s good to tighten airline security. But terrorists have many alternatives to bombing buildings with hijacked planes.

Terrorism is not about “winning wars.” It’s not even about death and destruction, as such. Terrorism is about fomenting terror.

Terror comes from the innovative and unexpected attack. A bridge, nuclear power plant or natural gas pipeline here. An electric power grid or Internet there. Atom bombs in backpacks. Poisoned air in a subway one day. A water supply another.

Such attacks are easy for perpetrators willing to die. Especially in countries where individual liberties are highly desired and valued.
We don’t want to turn America into an armed camp. But even if we imposed martial law we could not eliminate our vulnerability.

Retaliation may make us feel better. But it will likely increase terrorism.

So what can we do?

Something our school district’s already doing. Encourage children to celebrate – rather than hate – the community’s, and world’s, diversity.

Prejudice against all Muslims is abhorrent. Attacking Sikhs, thinking them Muslims, reflects basic ignorance as well.

We must provide more understanding than do our corporate media about others’ living conditions. Whom do they blame for their misery? Their oppressive regimes? What attracts them to a bin Laden?

America is a generous nation. But it’s also capable of overt and covert government and corporate practices that oppress and exploit others for convenience and profit.

Practices often seen as arrogant. Policies reflecting ignorance of others’ cultures.

Such ignorance contributed to our misjudgments in Vietnam, the hostage taking in Iran – and this terrorist attack. Not to mention failed global marketing efforts.

Our students will be better able than we to deal with the globalism and terrorism we leave them. Is education the only answer? Of course not. But it’s an imperative beginning. And it’s something we can do.

Goodbye, and thanks for the opportunity to serve.

Nicholas Johnson is an Iowa City School Board member. More information is available on his Web site www.nicholasjohnson.org.