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Teaching Multiculturalism in a Country at War
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Last week, in a speech before the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, Lynne Cheney, the wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, criticized educators who had called for an increased emphasis on multicultural education in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11. This week, columnist Linda Starr reacts to that criticism.


We woke up on Monday in a country at war. Unlike other wars fought by U.S. troops in the last 50 years, this one isn't being waged to protect our allies or our foreign interests. This time, we are engaged in a war against an enemy whose primary target is our own freedom, our own democracy, our own way of life. And the worst of it is, we never saw it coming! What were we thinking?

Perhaps we were thinking that we were invulnerable; that we didn't need to understand our enemies because our enemies feared us. If so, we were wrong.

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In today's StarrPoints, columnist Linda Starr responds to Lynne Cheney's criticism of educators who are calling for an increased emphasis on teaching multiculturalism. What do you think? Does teaching multiculturalism imply that our failure to understand other cultures was partly responsible for the terrorist attacks? Share your reflections on a StarrPoints message board.


Linda Starr, a former teacher and the mother of four children, has been an education writer for more than a decade. Starr is the curriculum and technology editor for Education World.

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Last week, Lynne Cheney, the wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, spoke to the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. In her remarks, Mrs. Cheney said, "to say that it is more important [to teach children about world cultures] now implies that the events of September 11 were our fault, that it was our failure to understand Islam that led to so many deaths and so much destruction."

Mrs. Cheney apparently believes that teachers who place greater emphasis on multicultural education in the wake of terrorist attacks send a message that those attacks happened because we did not understand our enemy. Her argument is not only logically flawed, it is also educationally shortsighted.

The events of September 11 were indisputably despicable. They were indisputably evil. They were indisputably the sole responsibility of the perpetrators. There is no question the terrorists are the ones who are to blame.

The question teachers must ask themselves, however, is not Who is to blame for this war? It is What can we do now to promote future peace?

We can start by recognizing that terrorism is anger run amok. We can help our young people become more knowledgeable -- not just about Islam but also about the religious, cultural, economic, and political realities of all those whose lives are different from their own. We can disabuse them of the notion that our perspective is the only perspective. We can teach them to respect ideas they do not agree with.

We will never totally rid the world of radical terrorists like Osama bin Laden. We can, however, through knowledge, through understanding, through mutual respect among nations, deprive him of his followers. We can teach our young people what they will need to know, as future voters and future leaders, to defuse the anger of potential enemies before it evolves into terrorism.

Global understanding is not a goal we can achieve in a month or a year -- or perhaps even in ten years. It is a goal, however, that teachers can -- and must -- strive for with their students.

Mrs. Cheney is right in one respect. It is not more important to teach multiculturalism now. It has always been important. We just didn't realize how important. Now we do.

We woke up on Monday in a country at war, to a democracy suddenly forced to defend itself on the battlefield. We need to make sure that, in the future, we defend democracy not with weapons, but with knowledge; not in the trenches, but in our classrooms.