Beyond Memorializing: Teaching 9/11

World Trade Center Memorial, photo from Jennifer Vannette

World Trade Center Memorial, photo from Jennifer Vannette

By Jenniffer Vannette

When I was in high school, the usual oral history assignment was to ask your grandparents about their experiences in the Great Depression. Yes, I just aged myself. What I discovered at the time was that my grandparents were quite young and so it was harder to compare what they remembered to broader historical patterns. My high school history teacher acknowledged that it was likely the last year of the project, but he never did say what another project might be. Being a typical high schooler, I passed the class, moved on, and didn’t really think about whether the oral history project continued with another event or if it just faded away.

But it came to mind again as I read a U.S. News & World Reportarticle on teaching 9/11. It occurred to me that we are at a point where it would be a useful exercise to have students interview their parents (or other adults) about the tragic events that unfolded seventeen years ago. We are now at a point where students, including college students, will have no memory of the event. Sari Rosenberg, a high school teacher in Manhattan, has her students conduct interviews with an adult of their choosing about their memories of 9/11. After the students share their work, Rosenberg then gives them a lesson about the events, putting it all into context. She says this helps her students learn how to think like a historian. 

Last year when I wrote for [Re]collectionabout this topic, I discussed how 9/11 teaching can suffer both from a lack of desire on the part of instructors to relive the experience through teaching and from the tendency to get mired in commemorative aspects. Thankfully, many nonprofits including museums and other trusted education and media sources are working to craft resources to aid teaching – especially in K-12 schools. Many of these resources can be adapted to the college level.  

No matter the grade an instructor teaches, but especially in college, we need to be careful to not just examine the specific events of one day, but teach the context. Like any other historical event we need to make sure to integrate the event into broader historical understanding: what policies and/or actions led to the attacks? What were the reactions, not just personal and military, but in policy and law? How did the event shape and continue to shape our domestic polices and social reactions? What were the dynamic changes on the world stage, and what effects are still evident? We need to address the hard topics such as the rise of radicalization of Islam, with an understanding that, despite sensationalism, it’s an outlier.  Furthremore, we ought to study the U.S.’s general willingness to overlook freedom of religion when it comes to Muslims. We need to address civil liberties along with the interesting growth of the Tea Party’s individual-freedom rhetoric that virtually ignored the erosion of civil liberties in the Patriot Act. Finally, we need to encourage to students to examine how these elements fit or are different from other traumatic events in U.S. History, and even how we have historically approached memory and memorialization, which would tie nicely with an oral history project. 

Terrorism and its ugly aftermath, the ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the outgrowth of ISIL, radicalization and Islamophobia, use of torture and the closure/non-closure of Guantanamo Bay, civil liberties and the questions of legal rights for terror suspects under the Constitution are just a few of the issues still floating out there in our everyday parlance. Issues that are devoid of context unless we make it a point to teach 9/11 in a comprehensive way.