Schools Must Prepare Youth for the Post-September 11th World

Terrence Moore

September 1, 2003

On Monday night the 10th of September two years ago I was preparing my lecture on the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire. In trying to describe the emotional response on the part of Roman citizens throughout the Empire to the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in A.D. 410, all I could come up with was an unimaginable analogy. “It would be like a foreign power today taking New York or Washington hostage.” By the time I had to deliver that lecture the next day, this scenario seemed hardly so unimaginable. This was no prophecy on my part. The last thing on my mind when I went to bed that Monday night was the possibility of an enemy strike on this nation’s public buildings and civilian population.

There is not much that a busy schoolmaster can add to the news and commentary that have followed in the wake of these criminal atrocities. Nonetheless, events of such magnitude have or should have affected education, just as they have altered the ways in which we Americans travel, preserve our national security, and, perhaps, live our lives. The best thing schools can do for the nation is to prepare young people for the positions of responsibility they will assume in the world. We must do so by telling them honestly what sort of world it is and by cultivating in them the knowledge and the virtues necessary to maintain our freedom and our noble traditions. In the aftermath of 11 September, we can say a few modest things about this world.

First of all, this is not a world in which nations and empires endure when they grow complacent. Edward Gibbon began his monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in terms that recaptured the confidence of Imperial Rome:

In the second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury.

What Gibbon described was quite simply luxury at home and “globalization” abroad. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the Pax Romana, the Roman peace. That confidence remained for another three centuries until just before the Fall. In one chilling phrase, Gibbon pointed to the dangers of Roman complacency: “The Romans were ignorant of the extent of their danger, and the number of their enemies.” Compare that to Henry Kissinger’s words from two years ago: “For a decade, democracies have progressively fallen prey to the illusion that threats from abroad have disappeared…”

Second, our world remains one of ideas and ideals. The terrorist attacks were not performed without reason. Rather, radical Islamic forces (which is not to say all of Islam) hate America and the progress of Western Civilization. Liberty, individualism, freedom of religion, prosperity, all are thought to be the enemies of their god that must be destroyed at all costs. As I have taught and visited various classes since September 11th I have realized anew how important are the subjects taught in schools and colleges, or at least those that ought to be taught: American history, Western Civilization, economics, science, mathematics, classical and modern literature. These are our guides to the making of our civilization, a civilization that some very dangerous men now want to destroy. In these classes I see many students who very much enjoy learning these subjects. Yet I also see students who are disengaged. I hope these latter students will learn to take what we are teaching seriously. Certainly our enemies do.

Finally, the students of today are the citizens and soldiers of tomorrow. Citizenship and military service are responsibilities that have fallen out of fashion lately. This is not to say that they cannot be revived, even instantaneously. The bravery of rescue workers in New York was astounding. The nation responded with massive donations of both money and blood. The military actions in Afghanistan have largely defeated the Taliban. The valor of American fighting forces in Iraq continues. Yet the military ventures of the last decade have required little in the way of citizenship or soldiery from most of the population. People have calmly watched war on CNN. The new kind of war requires more resolve and higher levels of citizenship. For in this war civilians are the targets. The enemy may still be behind our lines of defense. And it will quite likely be not an all-out war of a few years, but a sustained operation of decades, much like the Cold War. What sort of courage, what sort of patriotism will be required of our young people in the years to come? I hope the nation’s schools will fortify their minds and spirits for the challenges ahead.

Terrence Moore is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He studied history and political science at The University of Chicago and later earned a Ph.D. in history from The University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Moore served as a Lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps and was an assistant professor of history at Ashland University in Ohio. He is now Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins.