How Do We Teach Students About 9/11?

In the midst of a number of interesting debates over school curriculum in certain states, Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry signed legislation this week ensuring that the state’s public school students would learn about the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. On the eve of the 15-year anniversary of the bombing, how do we begin to teach our children about tragedy and terrorism?

Slated to be integrated into Oklahoma classrooms by the fall of 2011, the curriculum is expected to include field trips to Oklahoma City’s Memorial Museum and Outdoor Symbolic Memorial as well as opportunities to meet with families, survivors, and rescue workers touched by the tragic bombing. With the teaching of the Oklahoma City signed into law in the state, it raises some interesting questions about how we should teach children about domestic terrorism and disaster, particularly 9/11.


Last year, former New York Mayor Rudy Giulani led an event launching a school curriculum that would teach middle and high school students about the events of September 11th, 2001. One of the first 9/11 education programs, the curriculum is being tested in a number of states, including California, New Jersey, Kansas, and Illinois. But with a mountain of archival footage and documents, how do we go about teaching students about the most tragic domestic event of our time?

The subject of the actual attacks are daunting enough for students starting to come of age. But to what degree do we discuss terrorism in the classroom? The Oklahoma curriculum has so far made no mention of teaching about Timothy McVeigh's background although a curriculum being tested in New Jersey includes a discussion about the difference between “terrorists and freedom fighters” and how the rest of the world views the United States.  Still a tough topic, shaping a 9/11 curriculum was a dicey political prospect as early as 2006, when Arizona incumbent Governor Janet Napolitano (now the U.S. Security of Homeland Security) was criticized by candidate Len Munsil over the issue.

For educators, there are a number of 9/11 teaching resources online that attempt to help adopt the events in history books the same way Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination were. But putting together a curriculum hasn’t been easy. The country’s largest teacher’s union, the National Education Association, was forced to remove a lesson plan about tolerance from one of its web sites after a rash of criticisms. That plan for the classroom becomes more elusive as teachers welcome students who aren’t old enough to remember the events. Now that the Texas Board of Education has approved a curriculum criticized for being too conservative, the slippery issue of 9/11 in the classroom could become even more difficult to wrangle. Considering some teachers have come under fire for teaching students about the colonial era and slavery, it might be some time before we see a standardized nationwide curriculum regarding 9/11. Perhaps Oklahoma can set an example to be followed nationwide.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.