Balkinization  

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Teaching 9/11

Mary L. Dudziak

To mark the 12th anniversary of 9/11, I am posting the beginning of an essay I wrote for a collection of essays on teaching about September 11 as history.  It appeared in a publication of the Organization of American Historians that is unfortunately behind a paywall.  But the most important source for what follows comes from first person narratives posted at the September 11 Digital Archive, an important on-line resource.

In classrooms across the country on September 11, 2001, lesson plans were abruptly abandoned. Students and teachers gathered around televisions, sharing the sense that “history” was being made before their eyes. Patricia Latessa, a Cincinnati high school teacher, turned on the cafeteria television “and watched history unfold.”  She reflected as she watched about how the scenes of airplanes flying into buildings would impact her students.  “The world they knew was bifurcated, cut in half, a time before and a time after.” An unsettling day seemed to require upsetting usual practices.  The British Literature teacher at the Academy of the Sacred Heart, in Omaha, Nebraska, burst into a French class during an exam, and turned the television on.   At another high school, the principal ordered that the televisions be turned off at midday. Colin Riebel later recalled:  “We, the students, revolted. We argued this was a huge part of our history and we had a right to know what was happening to our country. The school complied and let us watch the news again.” 
  
Across the nation and the world, people stopped in front of television screens.  The planes exploding into the World Trade Center towers were, for many, a replay of news footage.  But the burning and falling buildings were viewed by many in “real time.” The footage was broadcast “live.”  Live meant at the same time, so the genuine character of the experience came from temporality, not from proximity.  Stopping together in time led to a sense of simultaneity, the idea of a collective experience.  A different horror, of course, was experienced in lower Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the sites where  hijacked planes crashed that day.  People watching television sometimes felt that the crowds fleeing from the falling buildings were somehow less conscious of “what happened,” lacking access to immediate TV news coverage, an idea that was shared by many at the site of the carnage. As he escaped on foot from Ground Zero, Herbert Ouida, whose son was in WTC Tower 1 but unable to escape, heard that the twin towers had fallen, but later recalled that he “did not believe it until I got to 75th street at my daughter's apartment and saw what happened on tv.”

How has the day that disrupted our lesson plans reappeared in our curriculum as “history?”  Teachers may turn to 9/11's most ubiquitous framing: the idea that this day “changed everything.”  That idea was repeated over and over in 9/11 news coverage, and was a major theme during the somber first anniversary in 2002.... 

“History is in good part the story of catastrophes, but most are not game-changers,” Michael Sherry emphasized.  9/11 generated “nearly universal” shock, in part because the nature of the attack – airplanes flying into iconic buildings – was so unexpected and unprecedented.  There were plenty of changes in the ensuing years, beginning with a reinvigoration of George W. Bush’s presidency, which had gotten off to a difficult start after a disputed election.  But most post-9/11 developments, from the invasion of Iraq to an expansion of executive power, had roots in earlier decades. 
   
After September 11, “homeland” became a name for the United States.  The word was a rhetorical marker, an attempt to build a conceptual line around a domestic sphere that had to be defended from an external, threatening world. 




The rest is here.


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