Education in an Age of Terror

According to a 2015 Gallup Poll, the number of Americans who worry “a great deal” about the possibility of a terrorist attack has increased by 12 percentage points since 2014, to stand at 51 percent. That survey was conducted nearly a year ago – long before the recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. In light of the Syrian quagmire and the mounting threats posed by ISIS and those influenced by radical Islamic Jihadism, it is little wonder that national security ranks high among the issues most frequently addressed by the current crop of U.S. presidential aspirants.

The candidates differ on a number of key questions: Should a no-fly zone be established over Syria? Should U.S. ground troops be committed to the campaign to destroy ISIS? How can the military burden best be distributed without sacrificing effectiveness? How can intelligence-gathering be enhanced without encroaching upon privacy? Should Congress issue a formal declaration of war?

Formal declaration or not, few would argue that our nation is not currently at war with shadowy enemies that employ terrorism as their chief means of attack. Sadly, one consideration that appears to unite the field of current presidential candidates is their failure to connect the dots linking national security and education. This is regrettable, as education will become increasingly necessary to combat terrorism’s related threats to our lives, and the values by which we live.

In the long shadow of history, the time wasn’t terribly distant in which military battles were won and lost by sheer force of numbers. While tactical maneuvers came to play an increasingly important role in the outcome of battles, numbers still counted. Whether troops were holding spears or muskets, most battles were decided by sheer force of attrition. And while it took a certain type of training to discipline soldiers into willingly serving as canon fodder, such an education required relatively little technical knowledge on the part of the combat soldier.

Today, whether deployed on the ground, in the air, or over the seas, military personnel are required to master the use of ever-more- sophisticated weaponry and weapons systems. The orders preceding the use of such weaponry have, increasingly, become products of algorithms, game theory, and data crunching. Indeed, in a time of mounting global terror, the very nature of combat is shifting from geographic to electronic battlefields. While a diminishing number of ground troops remains necessary, modern weapons systems enable the unleashing of massive power and the infliction of vast damage while placing ever fewer troops in harm’s way.

Not only does more sophisticated weaponry require commensurately greater technical knowledge on the part of those who use and maintain the instruments of war, but the shifting nature of warfare in an age of terror requires the cultivation of minds capable of conceiving and developing new generations of weaponry, in the broadest sense of the term. Waging an effective war against the threat of terrorist attacks will require not only better firearms and missiles, but superior explosives detection devices, new systems for delivering mass antidotes in the wake of chemical and biological attacks, new means of surveillance, and whole new information analysis and management systems. Such innovations will save vast numbers of innocent lives, including innocent lives lost by ‘collateral damage’ suffered during military strikes.

This is not to suggest that we ought to be primarily concerned with educating a generation of warriors. The innovations noted above will likely emerge as a result of other breakthroughs in the general fields of science and technology. Therefore, one of our principal challenges lies in preserving America’s leadership in those fields. And schools must lead the charge.

At the same time, the mounting pressure and anxiety that serve as a principal goal of terrorism present a growing challenge to safeguard many of the core values upon which our society rests. These include the presumption of innocence until proven guilty in a court of law, freedom of speech and religious expression, the right to peacefully assemble, and others. Preserving democracy, respect for persons, and the rule of law in an age of terror will require our schools to redouble their commitment to the shaping of character and the inculcation of values necessary to uphold and strengthen a civil society governed by the rule of law.

All around us we see signs of mounting fear and anger. We cannot afford to delay an educational response to the forces that threaten to tear us asunder from within – forces that will only be exacerbated with each new act of terrorism. Our schools represent the best line of defense against such disintegration. It’s high time our leaders said so.


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