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Facing History and Ourselves

Moral lessons

By Ellen Goodman, 10/7/2001

IF YOU ARE looking for someone questioning the value of her work in the wake of Sept. 11, don't talk to Margot Stern Strom. Ever since terror struck out of the blue, this moral educator has felt only ''a new sense of urgency.''

Strom has spent the last quarter-century guiding teachers, who in turn guide adolescents in what she calls ''their journey to moral adulthood.'' She cofounded and shepherds an organization that encourages students not only to study history but to face it, to look for lessons in right and wrong, humanity and inhumanity.

The organization, Facing History and Ourselves, based in Brookline, has reached some 13,000 teachers and millions of students across the country. The teachers have used the atrocities of the 20th century - especially the Holocaust - as a curriculum to engage students in a rigorous wrestling match over the hardest questions:

Why did democracy fail in Germany? Why did people divide into ''us'' and ''the other'' in Rwanda or Bosnia or even the school lunchroom? Why hatred? Why violence? Why?

Last month all these questions came flying out of history and into the headlines. When terror struck, students were where they always are at 9 on a Tuesday morning: school. For many it was the second day of a new school year with a new teacher.

In some schools words were spoken, assemblies assembled. In others, it was business as usual. One teacher said, ''We're right in the middle of history being made and we can't go to the computer and get information.'' Another said, ''We're supposed to teach our children how to live in the world. When this happened I wasn't sure what this world is.''

Across the country, many teachers dusted off old maps and led students in writing letters, painting flags, and raising funds. But now Strom says, ''I hear teachers saying, 'I have to put that away.''' Back to normal. Back to silence.

Strom resists the silence she remembers from her girlhood in Memphis when she memorized the Bill of Rights for a teacher who never mentioned the sign on the zoo across the street that read: ''Colored Day On Thursday.'' As a young adult when she studied the Holocaust she wondered aloud, ''Who forgot to teach me this?''

Now a grandmother, Strom says her own ''sense of betrayal'' as a student motivated the creation of Facing History and Ourselves. She believes deeply that ''kids are moral philosophers from the first time they discover an egg turns into a chicken.'' To turn away and turn off those questions leaves them illiterate and unarmed in the world.

On the organization's Web site,, where teachers shared their experiences and worries, the staff has posted the first, simple lesson ideas. One encourages students to write their memories of Sept. 11 as a way of both remembering and tracking the way their ideas will change. Strom also tells about one of their teachers who literally engaged her students in creating a recipe for hate - imagining the ingredients of this bitter dish.

But ''terrorism'' is not a unit, and history is more than a series of dates that will make room for Sept. 11. Deeper moral questions connect this event with the collective violence and courage of the 20th century, with the messy conversations that these moral educators have been encouraging all along:

Conversations about identity and ostracism. Conversations about dangers of dogma and how to walk in someone else's shoes while honing your own sense of right and wrong. Conversations that don't lend themselves to multiple-choice answers.

''How to be human,'' says Strom, ''is a day-to-day task.''

By and large, history has been dismissed with the wave of a hand. The subtleties, not the dates but the ideas and human behavior, have taken a back seat behind ''the basics.'' But now history is our story in the making. We are living through a turning point, and teaching has indeed become more ''urgent.''

''Everyone is trying to figure out how to speak to kids,'' says Strom. ''Kids struggle with right and wrong and fairness. We have to prepare them not to be indifferent. To have a healthy skepticism and to find out how they can make a difference.''

The other night, Aaron Sorkin framed his ''West Wing'' episode as a terrorism seminar to - who else? - high school students. You want to defeat terrorism, asks the character Josh Lyman? ''Keep accepting more than one idea. It makes them absolutely crazy.''

This is what we learn from history if we face it.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address

This story ran on page A11 of the Boston Globe on 10/7/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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