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Teaching 9/11 in schools as an academic critical thinking case study

The following is my best academic approach for how academic professionals interested in controversial current events and history can teach them.

What happened on 9/11 is a such a controversial current event.

When I teach history courses, I open the conversation with a challenge to students: "If you could know anything in history, if you could learn what really happened, what would you want to know?" I have them think, reflect, and then offer to have supplemental teaching units on whatever the class votes as their topics of greatest interest as a "reward" if their academic progress in the regular curriculum is on-pace and meets our academic target for class GPA (economics of incentives in action).

The purpose of this assignment is to teach the tools of history of who, did what, when, where, and the approach to learn additional facts of the preceding for students to make their own analysis to respond to the subjective question of “why” on topics with strong intrinsic interest for students.

Historically, high school students most want to know the following, in mixed cases of highest interest, but with votes accumulated on these topics and general ways of posing the questions:

1.Is Christianity historically true? What really happened with Jesus? Who was he really?
2.Was 9/11 an “inside job”? What is our government lying about 9/11 and why? What really happened on 9/11?
3.Who assassinated President Kennedy? If the government is lying about the assassination, why?

I've asked this question for close to twenty years now. The 9/11 question has been a leader since ~2004. Because the answers to Christianity are in my understanding non-controversial, as Jesus is the most-studied individual in history by professional historians, I simply provide the source material we have for this individual's recorded life and allow students to discuss, and draw their own interpretations and policy positions (what each should do with this information). The basic information is in the article I wrote, Christmas: a paradox of sources about Jesus, ancient myths, astronomy, and winter solstice.

For 9/11 and JFK, I’ve created a lesson that allows readers to examine what I’ve constructed in good faith as best evidence for both counter-government and pro-government positions. Here is that lesson; anyone is welcome to use it in classrooms. Feel free to e-mail me for the Word version: Carl_Herman@post.harvard.edu. It is also attached.

Critical Thinking Skills and Case Studies

“Critical thinkingis an on-going concern with the problems inherent in human thinking. It leads to the historical art of analyzing and evaluating thinking with a view to improving it. It includes, but is not exhausted by the mental process of analyzing or evaluating information, particularly statements or propositions that people have offered as true. It includes, but is not limited to, a process of reflecting upon the meaning of statements, examining the offered evidence and reasoning, and forming judgments about the facts.”

- Wikipedia entry on Critical Thinking

“The critical habit of thought, if usual in society, will pervade all its mores, because it is a way of taking up the problems of life. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded by stump orators ... They are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence, uninfluenced by the emphasis or confidence with which assertions are made on one side or the other. They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices and all kinds of cajolery. Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens.”

- William Sumner, former Chair of the Political and Social Science Department, Yale University

“This Framework proposes that critical thinking skills be taught at every grade level. Students should learn to detect bias in print and visual media; to recognize illogical thinking; to guard against propaganda; to avoid stereotyping of group members; to reach conclusions based on solid evidence; and to think critically, creatively and rationally. These skills are to be taught in a context of a curriculum that offers numerous opportunities to explore examples of sound reasoning and examples of the opposite.” History – Social Studies Framework for California Public Schools, pg. 8. (http://www.cde.ca.gov/re/pn/fd/documents/hist-social-sci-frame.pdf ).

“This Framework encourages teachers to present controversial issues honestly and accurately within their historical or contemporary context. History without controversy is not good history, nor is such history as interesting to students as an account that captures the debates of the times... Students should also recognize that historians often disagree about the interpretation of historical events and that today’s textbooks may be altered by future research. Through the study of controversial issues, both in history and in current affairs, students should learn that people in a democratic society have the right to disagree, that different perspectives have to be taken into account, and that judgments should be based on reasonable evidence and not on bias and emotion.” History – Social Studies Framework for California Public Schools, pg. 22.

Using critical thinking skills to evaluate policy in government and economics are central to our American way of life. Democracy only functions when citizens are responsible for understanding and speaking for our most important policies. In addition, voters, juries, and consumers all have to use critical thinking skills to consider “expert” testimony and evidence with the understanding that the information claimed to be true might be misleading or an outright lie.

This assignment has three specific objectives for your learning:

1.Discern fact from spin. Facts are measurable, independently verifiable, objective, and do not change no matter what is said about them. Spin is subjective, exists only when someone languages it into existence, and may or may not closely conform to factual analysis.
2.Participate in civil conversations based on facts. In order to ethically disagree with a position, one must be able to accurately state that position. Students will apply classical and conservative skills from the art of argumentation to hold people accountable for accurate factual information and to identify and destroy spin not based on fact.
3.Engage in policy decisions. Policy (what to do) is the end result of conversation. In American democracy, dissenting opinions are often as important as the majority opinion, as time and further evidence often shift our understanding. Diversity of opinion provides multiple perspectives and depth. Democracy honors all policy positions that respect factual accuracy in their premises.

We’ll examine the tools of critical thinking used for the evaluation of evidence in professional and scholarly work in law, science and history. We’ll then apply those tools to three case studies, the most widely believed “conspiracy theories” of the American public. Each theory claims that the United States government is covering-up crucial information and/or complicit in:

•the assassination of President Kennedy,
•the attacks on the US on 9/11,

In each of these case studies, I’ll present both sides’ strongest arguments. This evidence has been compiled with the contributions of colleagues, parents and students over the years. I welcome additional submissions of best evidence in any of the case studies. I will not provide any analysis of my own, but play devil’s advocate to challenge students’ thinking to support their analyses and conclusions with compelling evidence. I’ll encourage students to discover logical and factual errors in each other’s analyses. Above all, I will focus students to the point of the lesson: to demonstrate the above three skills in critical thinking and civic competence.

Critical Thinking Tools: Classical and conservative scholarship has over 2,000 years of developing tools of thinking and the art of argumentation. In the evaluation of evidence, physical evidence is the most reliable. Physical evidence is reliable because its data conform to immutable laws of science. The academic fields of physics, chemistry, and biology can provide independently verifiable and replicable data that will support some hypotheses/claims, while falsifying others. Simply, physical evidence cannot lie. Legal documents have language that can vary with interpretation, but are generally written to convey specific legal meaning. Case law (past legal rulings) evolve to clarify ambiguity in legal interpretations. The least reliable evidence is testimony. Testimony only exists because of what people choose to say. This can be inaccurate from faulty observations and/or reporting, along with the possibility of deliberate misrepresentation. However, we often rely on testimony, with their strongest contributions coming from multiple, independent, and reliable primary witnesses. In discerning fact from spin, we should note that political “leaders” can support a policy that is “politically correct” while their voting record and/or executive actions will undermine that policy. You’ll consider this issue in your next assignment on specific policy analysis.

The consideration of policy often includes competing factual allegations. The scientific method can be adapted to evaluate the probability of truth in competing explanations. Simply put, explanations supported by compelling evidence are rational. Explanations/hypotheses that do not have strong evidence and/or have strong evidence that falsify that explanation are rationally dismissed. When people embrace a hypothesis unsupported by evidence, there are several possible explanations. From our own experience, we know the most likely reason is that someone is lying to protect their personal interests. Also within our personal observations is that people are often quick to say they “believe in” something even when they have no idea what they are talking about or even when the facts seem to make their belief impossible to be true. Another factor is that human beings can deny facts that are too challenging to their most valued beliefs. The psychological theory of cognitive dissonance[1] states that people can reject the facts rather than destruct their belief system. I encourage you to recognize and champion the idea that a person’s belief system does not meet any academic or professional standards for evaluating reality. We can create a spectrum to show these ideas:

Falsehood Truth

(less) EVIDENCE (more)

Ignorance Knowledge

Denial Embracing the facts

Cognitive Dissonance Realist

Psychosis Sane

Lying Honest

When people deliberately misinform, there are rhetorical tactics that scholars have studied for literally thousands of years. Among the most likely you’ll encounter: ad hominem (character attack), straw-man (lying about and/or distorting an opponent’s argument), cherry picking (choosing only the evidence that supports one’s argument while ignoring competing evidence), and appeal to authority (trusting experts rather than examining the evidence).

Ad hominem is rejected in academic, scientific, legal, and professional consideration when evidence can be evaluated on its own merits. As stated, I require students to accurately represent an opponent’s argument before disagreeing, thus eliminating straw-man arguments. I’ll encourage you to identify cherry picking, and to understand your power to demand full disclosure of important information. An appeal to authority can be helpful as expert testimony, but only when that testimony walks us through the evidence to improve our understanding. An invalid application is when the speaker asks the audience to merely believe the “expert” or if the expert’s work obfuscates rather than clarifies.

A recent contribution to our understanding of fallacious reasoning is from Professor Harry Frankfurt of Princeton, one of our nation’s most respected philosophers. His 2005 New York Times’ bestseller, On Bullshit and his follow-up 2006, On Truth are poignant.[2] Frankfurt advances a classical academic argument: when we are unaware of something (in this case, BS), we are unable to intelligently respond in its presence (literally “irresponsible”). When we can clearly distinguish BS, we can artistically and effectively respond (literally “responsible”). Frankfurt defines BS as manipulation to herd people into supporting a particular policy, and ubiquitous in government. BS will use facts when they support its policy goal, but its purveyor has no regard for the facts; only for the public to believe and follow what the BS-artist is dictating. BS does not use facts to help people’s comprehensive understanding and democratic choice of what to do. BS selectively uses partial truths to thwart comprehensive understanding and eliminate people’s democratic choice based on the facts. Its purpose is to control what people do. If lies serve better than partial truths, lies will be used. If lies are revealed, the BS-artist will continue to say whatever’s necessary to keep pushing people toward their policy goals. In political theory, the manipulative control articulated by Frankfurt as BS is categorized more as dictatorial government rather than a democracy. Voting without the facts does not count as a choice. When the information to choose is controlled, one is being dictated to without freedom of full choice.

Importantly, factual consideration of current government and economic policy is from a different framework than factual consideration in the study of history. Historical research and analysis understand that current events will benefit from future factual disclosures and time to consider the meaning of events. In government and economic policy, our professional time frame to consider and act on issues is necessarily limited and initiates on prima facie evidence. Prima facie means that if the best current evidence is found to uphold the alleged facts and not successfully challenged, it’s held as legally reliable. Policy and legal actions embrace historical research, often leading up to the present. Because the limitations of accurate understanding of current events is understood, the process of prima facie welcomes any challenge to the evidence and/or alternative evidence, considers expert testimony from multiple perspectives, and then debates the issue to sufficient degree to best inform a policy choice. This process is repeated with every policy proposal and is mirrored in our legal proceedings.

Prima facie is an essential concept for government and economics; we’ll continuously refer to it. The idea, in other words, is to lay one’s cards on the table for all who are interested to see. If any of the alleged facts are proven to be false, those cards are removed from the table. If other revealing facts are discovered, they are put on the table. In our work of studying government and economics we will honor prima facie evidence as sufficient to establish facts in question unless rebutted.

Honest scholars in history, government, and economics never claim to command the complete set of facts. We’re quite clear that discussion of policy move forward on the best available evidence, is entirely open to the submission of new evidence and correction of existing evidence, welcomes diverse perspectives on the meaning of the evidence, and honors democratic choice for policy.

I encourage you to embrace the classical education idea of dialectics[3], whereby competing claims are considered, discussed, and appreciated from their contributions to clarify complex issues. Multiple contributions often lead to a synthesis or unimagined discovery. No individual knows all and sees all. Each of us has only some of the virtues of being human, and even then only in relative strength. It’s only from multiple points of view that we achieve our best approach to comprehensive understanding. To illustrate, the following drawing of happy faces show individuals’ limited perspectives viewing a complex issue (represented by the polygon). We can only understand the whole when good people from diverse perspectives report what they see of the facts and their analysis of those facts. Without others’ contributions, any individual is limited in understanding. Please note: the most informative facts and analysis come from the point of view directly opposite from one’s own! This also means that the more students contribute to our class discussions, the better all of our learning will be.

Part of the political climate you enter as young adults is public ambiguity as to what the facts are concerning important political actions, irrational and vicious argument, and disengagement from public participation in policy decisions. I suggest that what’s needed from you as adults is leadership to:

•Discern fact from spin.
•Participate in civil conversations based on fact.
•Engage in policy decisions.

Master the above three skills! We will help each other do so in our class discussions. A note about “controversy:” the etymology of this word is a Latin compound that roughly means talking against each other. To “converse” means to be talking together. In democracy, talking against each other, controversy, is predictable and welcome. Policy consideration begins with people of intellectual integrity and moral courage helping each other get the facts. Facts are the same for everyone, objective, and independently verifiable. We then welcome multiple points of view as to the meaning of those facts; in other words, controversy. Controversy allows the entire audience depth of discussion and multiple policy options. Therefore, we embrace controversy. With your mastery of critical thinking, you will be a voice of reason for the facts, encourage rational discussion with diverse views, support a democratic vote, and respect the losing policy as a possible future option should the winning policy not perform to expectations.

The etymology of “diverse” is to intentionally separate. Encouraging diversity adds depth, unforeseen perspective, and variety of choice; all good in political discussion when based on factual accuracy.

In our consideration of critical thinking, we will embrace controversy and diversity. We will use prima facie evidence and help each other clarify facts. We welcome multiple views based on fact.

Parents and students are welcome to participate in the development of this lesson. Please e-mail me if there is information you consider important to include in this brief lesson on critical thinking that is missing, could be better communicated, and/or if information is in error. As always, I encourage students and parents to discuss and research issues they find important that this lesson may have sparked. Feel free to contact me if I can be of service to your learning.

9/11: Conspiracy of Terrorists or an Inside Job? In three national polls from 2006, about one-third of Americans reported that 9/11 was orchestrated by the US government,[4] while up to 84% state that our government is at least covering-up key facts of what happened. A CNN poll topped-out at 90% reporting that our government is covering-up elements of 9/11.[5] In a 2004 Zogby poll, half of the residents of New York City reported that our government at least knew of the attacks and consciously did not prevent them, and two-thirds want a new and independent investigation.[6] This “9/11 Truth Movement” is growing: over 1,400 people with impressive professional backgrounds in engineering, architecture, intelligence, military, government, and various Ph.D credentials publicly refute the official explanations.[7] Professional scientists have published literally dozens of peer-reviewed papers in argument that the three World Trade Center buildings were destroyed by controlled demolition rather than fire-induced structural failure.[8] This credible collection of expert witnesses is remarkable, with their conclusions reflected in the polling. An example of this expert testimony is Princeton professor of International Law Richard Falk, who poignantly refutes many aspects of the government’s explanation of 9/11.[9] The rationality of this counter-government position is also reflected in the prestigious literary guide, Publisher’s Weekly, selecting a 9/11 Truth book as its “Pick of the Week” in November, 2008.[10]

For background, I’ll show portions of “CNN Tribute - America Remembers.”[11] I’ll explain the purpose and conclusions of the 9/11 Commission.[12] In support of the government explanation, I’ll remind students that this version is what they’ve learned from mainstream media and history books, show portions of the DVD from NOVA, “Why the Towers Fell,”[13] consider and discuss MIT Professor Thomas Eagar’s academic paper on the topic, along with an update published in the December, 2007 issue of “Journal of Metals, Minerals and Materials.”[14] We’ll discuss the academic and professional standards of peer review and publication for scientific claims. We’ll look at film clips of Senator John McCain, and Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly interviewing “Popular Mechanics” Editor, James Meigs, for typical government and media responses to counter-government claims, and Presidents Clinton and Bush’s responses.[15]

For the government “inside job” argument, we’ll see the first 5 chapters of the DVD, “Loose Change 2nd Edition,”[16] review photographic evidence from Shanksville, PA,[17] review the flight recorder data from flight AA77 into the Pentagon,[18] consider and discuss Dr. David Ray Griffin’s academic paper,[19] consider the aforementioned expert testimony from over 2,000 professionals in related fields including a 10-minute condensed video of Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth,[20] and examine the current status of peer-reviewed papers on scientific analysis.[21] We’ll consider a compendium of the evidence from professional journalists.[22] We’ll also watch the last scene from the DVD, “Fahrenheit 9/11” and President Bush’s press conference after his 9/11 Commission testimony,[23] about 5 minutes of President Eisenhower’s Farewell Address commenting on the “military-industrial complex,”[24] and about 5 minutes of President Kennedy’s speech to the press against secrecy in government. We’ll also view testimony in Japan’s Parliament where the leading opposition party leader questioned their Prime Minister regarding the lack of evidence the US has presented to support their war on terror and Japan’s funding for refueling US warships.[25] A worthy video that we will not see is a 2008 documentary that was shown on national television in Italy and Russia, “Zero,” available for viewing on the Internet.[26]

After the presentations of both positions’ arguments and class discussions, students will have a choice of assessments. One is a test where I’ll assign five of the following short-answer questions. We will discuss these questions and answers, and students will have opportunity to take notes:

1.Explain the 9/11 Commission’s purpose and conclusion. Explain two criticisms of this report.
2.Explain the 9/11 Commission version of why the three WTC buildings “collapsed.” Explain a criticism against this argument.
3.Explain two details of the photographic and/or film evidence that challenge the 9/11 Commission findings. Explain a criticism against each of the two details.
4.Explain two details of the circumstantial evidence that support US government involvement in the attacks. Explain a criticism against each of the two details.
5.Explain two details of the individual terrorists, Al Qaeda, and/or Osama bin Laden that challenge the 9/11 Commission findings. Explain a criticism against each of the two details.
6.Explain 2 details of the argument that elements within the US government had the means, motive, and opportunity to cause the 9/11 attacks. Explain a criticism against each detail.

Students may also choose to respond to the following essay topic or create their own, give a talk to the class, give a PowerPoint presentation, or create some other project (see me for my approval). The essay or alternate assessments are due within one week of the written test. Students may do more than one assessment for extra credit. Essay topic:

Explain how the 9/11 attacks happened with at least three details of independently verifiable evidence. Choose the opponent’s strongest argument and refute it.

Assassination of President Kennedy: Polls indicate that two-thirds to three-fourths of Americans believe that the US government is covering up key information about President Kennedy’s assassination, and/or that elements within our government were participants.[27] For the government’s position, I’ll present the purpose and conclusions of the Warren Commission Report[28] and show portions of the DVD, “ABC News Presents the Kennedy Assassination: Beyond Conspiracy” (2003 UR).[29] For the government conspiracy position, I’ll show portions of the DVDs, “JFK: A Case for Conspiracy” (2003 UR) by Robert Groden[30] (consultant to the House Select Committee on Assassinations), “Proof” (2002, UR) by Jim Marrs (author of Crossfire, the most sold book on the topic[31]), and “Dark Legacy: George Bush and the murder of John F. Kennedy” (previous version is “JFK II: The Bush Connection” by John Hankey[32] (2003 UR).

After the presentations of both positions’ arguments and class discussions, students will have a choice of assessments. One is a test where I’ll assign five of the following short-answer questions. We will discuss these questions and answers, and students will have opportunity to take notes:

1.Explain the Warren Commission’s purpose and conclusions. Explain two criticisms of this report.
2.Explain the ABC News’ argument that supports the Warren Commission findings. Explain a criticism against this argument.
3.Explain two details of the photographic and/or film evidence that challenge the Warren Commission findings. Explain a criticism against each of the two details.
4.Explain two details of the circumstantial evidence that support US government involvement in the assassination. Explain a criticism against each of the two details.
5.Explain two details of Lee Oswald’s life that challenge the Warren Commission findings. Explain a criticism against each of the two details.
6.Explain two details of the argument that elements within the US government would benefit from the assassination of JFK. Explain a criticism against each of the two details.
Students may also choose to respond to the following essay topic or create their own, give a talk to the class, give a PowerPoint presentation, or create some other project (see me for my approval). The essay or alternate assessments are due within one week of the written test. Students may do more than one assessment for extra credit. Essay topic:

Explain how JFK was assassinated using at least three details of independently verifiable evidence. Choose the opponent’s strongest argument and refute it.

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This is most useful...

Thanks. I hope many teachers pick up on it.

Side note: There surely is a psychological oddity one must deal with here. In my younger days I think I found it necessary to trust the innate goodness of at least a few great politicians of the day, and of the system itself. What will students be left with, once this 9-11 issue is uncovered? The scope of this atrocity is vast.

Students will be left with 9/11 Truth...

and opportunity to understand our entire world history of vicious antagonism. Yes, there have been a few good people in history, and the driving forces have been psychopathically destructive.