What does it feel like to teach students who are too young to remember 9/11?
While September 11 will always possess that “current event” feeling for me, it’s interesting as a teacher to view it from a student’s perspective: as a “historical” event. While it remains a sensitive and complex topic, it is also an extremely valuable opportunity to get students to start thinking like true historians; while this event is history, I feel that it is much more relevant to our students’ than teaching the World Wars or Vietnam because it’s easier for them to make tangible connections to their world (although don’t think for a second that the World Wars and Vietnam aren’t important!). I think a good way to accomplish relevancy is to first connect them to the event through an adult (parent/extended family member) to receive a personal account and attempt to bridge these accounts to the larger lesson of how 9/11 has impacted U.S. and global history from 2001 onwards. What I consider most valuable is to dig into how September 11 as an event (along with the lead up and aftermath) has shaped the world that our students’ have grown into, and help them to understand why the world is this way. I read one article over the weekend in the New York Times that said the “ghosts of 9/11 still linger”. This is a great platform to make connections to Iraq, Afghanistan, Islamic extremism, collective security vs. individual freedom and even things like airport security.
As a history teacher it feels strange to now be old enough that something I lived through, and remember so vividly, is now part of my class. I can usually teach my subject without being clouded by my personal emotion, but when teaching September 11 I find I can’t separate my emotion from the event. Knowing that students no longer share that emotion because they weren’t alive for the event makes me feel a true generation gap.
I’ll answer this question with my own questions:
Can you imagine a time when the United States was not at war?
Can you imagine only needing 30 minutes at the airport to go from the counter to the seat of your plane?
Can you imagine a time when “large-scale terrorist attack” wasn’t part of our lexicon?
I don’t have to “imagine,” but now I know that all of my students can only imagine. Nonetheless, they live in a world where the impact of September 11 has shaped, shapes, and will continue to shape their lives.
Teaching students who don’t remember or weren’t alive on September 11, 2001 reminds me yet again of what ‘history’ really is. It’s personal. It’s emotional. It’s stories remembered and stories told. It’s stories recorded and stories interpreted through specific lenses. It’s stories applied to present realities for multiple – and at times conflicting – purposes. I’m reminded how important it is for students to consider multiple sources as they try to understand a seminal event in our recent past.
September 11 does not really feel like history, like for example, the fall of the Berlin Wall which I also remember vividly. The fall of the Berlin Wall, bookended the Cold War and consigned it to history. However, we’re still watching the effects of September 11 play out – there are far more questions than answers now and I think we still have to see what happens to study it as history.
Moving to a new city. Graduation from high school. Getting married. The death of a parent. When we look back at the course of our lives and think about how we developed as persons, we automatically look to events that serve as markers between periods. Things before the event were more similar to one another than things after the event. When we look back over the history of the world, some events serve as similar types of markers: Columbus’s voyage across the Atlantic, the start of World War I, the use of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima. The attacks of September 11 are the most recent of these, marking fundamental changes in what is most important on the world stage. And if you lived through the experience, history becomes real and personal at the same time.
Photo courtesy of Yann Forget