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Teaching 9/11

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

As the 10-year anniversary of the 2001 September 11 attacks nears, and as we begin to remember and commemorate that day, it becomes important to reflect on how we as a nation will pass down to future generations such remembrances. Seniors in high school this year were 7 or 8 years old at the time of the attacks. Though they have since grown up in a world radically transformed by that day, even these seniors were too young to remember the particular events well—and many of those in younger grades have no memory of the attacks at all. They must be taught. Just like December 7 still retains significance and poignancy for Americans born after 1941, September 11 will be remembered by more than those who were alive in 2001. Memorial traditions, to be traditions, must be handed down.

This is precisely why new research by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) on how 9/11 is taught in schools is so interesting, and important. Their report finds that the first textbooks and curricula that appeared following 9/11 were all very much alike in their presentations of the events: they “presented America as the victim of a uniquely devastating attack and presented rich personal stories of the victims and iconic images of rubble, firefighters, and the American flag.”

With time, though, that view has changed. Textbooks now include briefer, more dispassionate assessments of the events, and many non-textbook curricula invite students to consider deeper level questions relating to the relationship between liberty and safety, how we define  ‘terrorism,’ and what role 9/11 has had in shaping our world since then.

The report and the accompanying fact sheet are interesting in themselves, but are important because of the larger questions they raise: How do we teach and pass on the importance of events like 9/11 to tomorrow’s students and citizens?