A traditional undergraduate entering college this fall was probably an infant on September 11, 2001. Across my courses, most of my younger students no longer remember the day itself. They remember fragmented impressions of its aftermath, as seen through the eyes of older family members and teachers. Or they remember only the impression that something really bad had happened. They summon up images of adults in tears, holding mysterious school assemblies or sending them home early, trying vainly to comfort themselves by offering comfort to uncomprehending kids.
September 11, which I do remember vividly, now occupies the same role for many of my students that the late days of the Cold War had for me. It was a moment of tectonic power, causing frequent aftershocks ever since, that defines their lives without their really being there for it. But there is a difference.
Many of my college peers were only dimly aware that the Cold War had ever happened. New young college students today are all too aware of September 11.
An eighteen-year-old this autumn was in diapers when an American war began that is still happening in Afghanistan—and, depending on how you define it, in dozens of other countries as well. She may be an ROTC cadet or a service member herself. She may be taking classes alongside older students who have seen combat there, the students who aren’t quite sure where they belong, on campus or in America, the students my age with PTSD and an extremely complicated relationship with the phrase “Thank you for your service.” Or she may be a refugee, or a friend of refugees. Friends of mine now have children who are old enough to be thinking about colleges but who were not alive when the Iraq War began. Those children will be taking our college courses soon.
And the oldest traditional undergraduates in college today, if they’re citizens, may have voted two years ago in their first U.S. presidential election, after a campaign defined from beginning to end by unfiltered terror of religious, racial, and national others, and by the throbbing hangover of imperial decline—a campaign that cannot be explained even in part without reference to its wartime context.
There’s another thing my undergraduates often tell me. They tell me that their high school U.S. history classes never covered anything beyond the Vietnam era—or sometimes World War II, or sometimes a completely arbitrary point before that.
Young undergraduates today didn’t get a vacation from history the way I did when they were growing up. But they did get a vacation from having it taught. They were told, implicitly, that after a certain point history fell silent in the United States.
They were subjected to the fatal complacency of their elders, the same complacency that explains so many things about how the history they’re living through came to be.
Teach September 11. Teach what it was like to witness it—that impossibly clear blue sky, the eerie silence of the airways afterward, the flags and pins and bumper stickers and approval polls and blood drives—but teach as well its contexts. Connect. Explain. Evaluate.
Don’t let the one world-historical moment your students know intimately be the only one they never examine historically.
Image: Detail from Smoke Rises from the Site of the World Trade Center, taken by Paul Morse, Sept. 11, 2001. National Archives and Records Administration/George W. Bush Presidential Library. Public domain.