When Homeland Security goes to school

Assistant professor of social foundations of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago

In 2015, the FBI launched the controversial website Don’t Be a Puppet: Pull Back the Curtain on Violent Extremism. Through interactive games, the playful website intends to prevent young people from embracing extremist beliefs. Don’t Be a Puppet also offers resources for parents and teachers to “educate teenagers on the destructive and deceptive reality of violent extremism and to strengthen their resistance to self-radicalization and possible recruitment.” Although some support Don’t Be a Puppet as a proactive approach to thwarting homegrown extremists, others warn that the website promotes the stereotyping and criminalization of Arab and Muslim Americans.

Screenshot from the FBI’s Don’t Be a Puppet website.

Don’t Be a Puppet is part of a larger cache of educational programs and practices organized around fighting the global war on terror. From spy camps for children to high school homeland security studies programs to college degree programs in violent extremism, the global war on terror has ushered in a new set of educational policies, practices, and programs in the name of national security. In this approach to the global war on terror, schools train young people as the next generation of national security workers, cultivate youth as vigilant citizens who report and respond to perceived threats, and dissuade students from joining extremist groups.

In 2008, for example, Milton High School installed a specialized Homeland Security program. Located in the greater-DC metropolitan area, the program trained poor and working-class students of color for low-level work in the national security industry. Dozens of local national security experts, agencies, and corporations supported Milton’s Homeland Security program. These national security partners provided resources and curricular guidance to instill in Milton students the technical skills, durable dispositions, and habits necessary for vocational national security work. Algebra teacher Ms. Simmons, for example, detailed a “power lunch” with a Northrop Grumman employee. This consultation led Ms. Simmons to infuse eight lesson plans with national security logics, from calculating the probability of a terrorist attack at a local international airport to determining the parabolic force needed for a sniper to find and shoot a target in North Korea. Through specially designed Homeland Security courses, electives, field trips to national security hubs, national security guest speakers, and internships, Milton prepared its “rough” and “rowdy” students as future “military grunts,” cybersecurity technicians, Border Patrol agents, and NSA workers. Branded as the “vo-tech of the 21st century,” the Homeland Security program sought to improve the struggling school while providing a “pipeline” of diverse workers to the national security industry.

A Curriculum of Fear traces my journey through my yearlong participation in Milton’s Homeland Security program alongside the school’s hardworking teachers and its vibrant students. My experience at Milton was complicated, as my days in the Homeland Security program revealed the complexities, contradictions, and contributions of these new educational arrangements calibrated to the global war on terror. Despite my concerns about how this national security schooling shaped students’ understanding of the world and their place in it, I often found myself swept away by the program’s hands-on learning opportunities, its provocative topics, and its riveting guest speakers. I, for example, was captivated by a high-level NSA agent’s accounting of the “hackers, criminals, terrorists, and nation-states” who posed a threat to the United States. Like students, I listened attentively as a US Army Corps of Engineers representative described the haunting search and rescue missions in the smoldering rubble of the World Trade Center towers after 9/11. I leaned in with curiosity as he detailed his subsequent deployment to “primitive” and “backward” Afghanistan to “support our warfighters” and prevent “another September 11.” Armed with a police training gun, I enthusiastically pursued students in a home invasion simulation at the State Police Academy. With what seemed like minimal effort, I acquired much national security knowledge, a clear indication of how effective the Homeland Security program was in teaching young people (and me) complex information in accessible and engaging ways.

A Homeland Security-focused classroom at Milton High School.

It was easy to understand why teachers viewed the program as an innovative way to improve the school while securing the financial futures of its poor and working-class student body. The Homeland Security program offered students a course of study anchored in a thrilling topic they valued, pathways to obtain stable jobs in a booming industry after graduation, and opportunities to protect their nation as vigilant citizens and national security workers. Guided by neoliberal pressures to run schools as job-training sites, intensified fears of resurgent terrorism, and a pulsating sense of national responsibility, Milton teachers and students alike argued that the Homeland Security program was a laudable effort to secure young people’s futures and the nation.

As exhilarating as I found it, I often worried about the effects of a program so narrowly focused on the problem of terrorism and the militarized solutions it offered. The more time I spent at the school, the more concerned I became by the fears students expressed, the militarized approaches to national security the school advanced, and the Orientalist worldview the program promoted. Eleventh-grade student Tiffany, for example, detailed how her participation in the Homeland Security program cultivated deep fears of a terrorist attack in her community. Her new knowledge, infused with palpable fears, compelled Tiffany to adjust her own corporeal engagement with the social world to ward off danger and ease her fears:

I’m not gonna say because of Homeland Security I’ve been alert, but we learned that people like terrorists look like normal people….On the bus, I just be like, “This looks a little suspect, I’m gonna walk away.” You could be suspect. They’re normal people and I would just sit there and just like, you know, when I’m the bus now, I just say, you know, don’t react. Like I don’t say “Hi” and talk to everybody ’cause you never know. I was so friendly before Homeland Security. I’m not gonna say I’m not friendly, but I was just so open to talk to anybody, anything, didn’t really care, didn’t really think about it and then [our teacher] made us realize, “Look, everybody not your friend. People are crazy out here. You need to watch out.” . . . So this class made me more of knowing to the outside world ’cause I was really just like cool with everything. I never thought, like I thought everybody’s good. I don’t think everyone’s bad or suspect. I just definitely watch how they act, their body language when nobody’s right there to see what they’re doing. ’Cause you never know. People crazy. So this class has definitely shown me that.

Tiffany’s new national security knowledge informed her fears of a terrorist attack while riding the bus. Through rehearsals of catastrophic attacks infused with haunting references to “another September 11,” fearful yet patriotic Milton students came to imagine the United States as under constant threat and thus demanded a matrix of national security practices, from armed police to war. Given these fears, students diligently studied the skills, knowledges, and procedures necessary to act as “good citizens” who defended their homeland from the “bad guys.”

Milton students briefly observed as police recruits learned to respond
to mass demonstrations on a field trip to the State Police Academy.

My daily participation in Milton’s Homeland Security program revealed, firsthand, how the global war on terror seeped into and reconfigured the public school, particularly for its poor and working-class youth of color. Although Milton school staff supported this remaking of their school, Homeland Security program coordinator Mr. Hopkins and Principal Young balked when I asked if their children would someday participate in the program. Prompted by their hesitation, I began questioning how a military-infused national security schooling became what one teacher called an “obvious choice” for Milton’s struggling students, but not the children of white, middle-class teachers. Informed by this contradiction, A Curriculum of Fear explores the social, political, and economic contexts that shaped how Milton school staff came to establish a Homeland Security program that, by design, funneled Milton’s non-dominant youth into the global war on terror, as “military grunts,” low-level national security workers, and vigilant citizen-soldiers. In doing so, A Curriculum of Fear calls into question the relegation of poor and working-class youth of color to a militarized education that nourishes fear, advances dangerous assumptions about who and what is “suspicious,” and pushes students toward war. Although teachers sought to improve the school for their struggling students, these good intentions often masked the underlying racialized and militarized assumptions, logics, and effects of a high school program organized around advancing the global war on terror.

As the FBI’s Don’t Be a Puppet website suggests, the global war on terror continues to usher in new institutional arrangements that align US public schools with military exigencies, especially in communities of color. This historical moment defined by the global war on terror demands a new political imagination that creatively works toward countering the militarization of public education in the United States. This imagination must articulate other forms of belonging, security, and national responsibility in US public schools outside of dominant tropes of terrorism, war, and violence. As I argue in A Curriculum of Fear, Milton’s Homeland Security program serves as a clarion call for a different kind of public education that nourishes the critical thinking skills necessary to solve today’s most pressing social problems and to contribute to a participatory democracy. The work toward the public education, and political future, we want for our children begins today.


Nicole Nguyen is author of A Curriculum of Fear: Homeland Security in U.S. Public Schools. She is assistant professor of social foundations of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

A Curriculum of Fear offers unique and engaging insight on the intersections of education, securitization, and militarism in the United States. It makes an important contribution to research in each of these fields.”
—Emily Gilbert, University of Toronto
“A valuable contribution to the literature on the militarization and corporatization of schools, situating the topic in terms of the broader ideological and economic constellation of neoliberalism and militarism.”
—Kenneth Saltman, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth

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