s I write these words the United States and France are presenting forceful arguments in favor of an attack on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s assets, claiming that they have confirmation that he used poison gas on Syrian citizens. By the time you read this column we will know whether those words were a prelude to, say, a cruise missile launch or a strategy designed to force the Russians to reconsider their support for Assad. Why should all of this jockeying far from our shores matter in your library?
Your students may choose to volunteer for military service; they will certainly become voters and taxpayers. As educators, it is essential that we teach them how to become informed citizens–to examine evidence and argument related to the issues that shape political opinion and decisions.
Missiles launched at Syria are likely to provoke a response that spills over into a future conflict. However, if Assad’s government is not forced to face the consequences of banned weapon use–assuming that it has indeed used them–we are deciding that the immoral and impermissible is acceptable. In the 1930s, in both Spain and Czechoslovakia, we saw that not standing up to dictators only encouraged them and lead to larger, more horrific, conflicts.
To attack Syria is to increase the chance that the rebels–many of whom are the sworn enemies of the United States– will win, or carve out a toxic territory of their own, a haven for global jihadists. This is what the Russians claim. Assad is secular leader, while the forces fighting against him include extreme Islamic militants. Yet to allow this president to murder with impunity is to continue the bloody family business; his infamous father slaughtered tens of thousands of his Muslim Brotherhood opponents.
Which is the world we want to live in? One in which Syria is a failed state, where Al Qaeda cells flourish close to Israel and Turkey, or a world in which we accept the deaths of tens and even hundreds of thousands of civilians?
It seems to me that this is the topic and debate that our students should be reading about, learning about, and having right now. Evaluating evidence, point of view, and argument is as Common Core as it gets. As global citizens, our students must be able to get beyond headlines, read a variety of complex texts, and form opinions based on evidence. What should the role of the school librarian be in sharing information about current issues? Librarians can lead students to articles from international papers such as The New York Times; news sources such as Al Jazeera that present insights and perspectives that aren’t often visible in American coverage; and the websites of groups that are on the ground, for example, Doctors Without Borders.
How can we tell if chemical weapons were used? A perfect science assignment. Why would Assad use poison gas when he was winning the war and United Nations’ inspectors were about to arrive? A great question for social studies classes. Could the rebels have staged an attack on themselves in order to get international powers to attack Assad? Every child who has an older sibling understands that strategy: provoking the bigger kid to lash out so that s/he will take the blame.
Syria is not so far away–what we decide to do there will directly affect every student in your school. Right in front of our eyes events that may well have decade-shaping consequences are playing out. Librarians can provide the resources that allow students to parse the arguments and find their way to reasoned answers. We cannot stumble into war blindly, nor can we ignore the need for strong responses. We must take the sober, adult, responsibility of making hard choices. By providing students with evidence, librarians can help them to become the responsible citizens our nation requires.
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