A generation of young Americans has grown up under the shadow of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but experts say the lack of a nationwide curriculum on the topic makes it little more than a footnote in history books for many students.
While most adults remember where they were on the day when terrorists crashed planes in New York City, Virginia, and Pennsylvania 20 years ago — killing nearly 3,000 people and plunging the country into a protracted war against terrorism — the nation’s collective memory doesn’t extend to children who weren’t yet born.
Jeremy Stoddard, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has researched how the Sept. 11 attacks and its aftermath are taught in schools, says the country isn’t doing a stellar job of teaching kids about the events.
“In U.S. history classes we’re supposed to learn about the past so we can understand the present and make better decisions in the future,” he said. “That’s something we unfortunately don’t do very well.”
There are no national guidelines that states are required to follow in teaching the subject, so lessons vary depending on the teacher or school district, he said.
Stoddard surveyed about 1,000 middle and high school teachers in 2018 to find out how they were teaching about the Sept. 11 attacks and the war on terror.
He found that most schools surveyed focus on 9/11 victims, the heroism of the firefighters and other first responders on that day and the military response that followed, glossing over broader events that preceded the attacks.
That narrative is enshrined in textbooks and curricula in states that have adopted Sept. 11 teaching guidelines, as well as documentaries used by many teachers.
While honoring the victims and helping kids understand the significance of the event is important, Stoddard said there are risks in teaching a simple narrative.
“If we’re not placing it in a broader historical context, or talking about some of the more controversial elements of the response to 9/11, we’re not doing a very good job of teaching history with the goal of having informed citizens,” he said. “It’s just reinforcing the simple good-versus-evil narrative of the day.”
What’s more, the Sept. 11 attacks are often taught out of historical context, given that the anniversary arrives at the beginning of the school year when most U.S. history courses are still in the Colonial or the post-U.S. Civil War era.
“Teachers think 9/11’s important to teach about it, but they don’t feel they have the time to get into the historical context or related events,” Stoddard said.
And some teachers avoid the topic altogether, researchers found. Of those Stoddard surveyed in 2018, at least 130 middle and high school teachers said they had never taught students about Sept. 11 attacks or related subjects.
Massachusetts is among a majority of states that don’t have a set curriculum on the Sept. 11 attacks, leaving it up to individual school districts decide how to teach the subject.
But the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has included the event as a topic in its framework for teaching history and social sciences.
In addition to teaching about the attacks, the framework suggests segments on the rise of international terrorism, including the emergence of Al-Qaeda, the Taliban in Afghanistan and ISIS, among other topics.
Nonprofit groups and educational organizations provide suggested curriculums and free online resources for teachers about the Sept. 11 attacks.
But Noorya Hayat, a senior researcher at Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, said teaching about the attacks to the 75 million Americans born after Sept. 11 has become more complicated amid a politically divisive climate.
Many children have misunderstandings about Sept. 11 because of inaccurate information from family or conspiracy theories from the internet, she said.
“Talking about current or controversial issues in the classroom is becoming increasingly difficult,” she said. “Teachers don’t feel they can bring up a loaded topic in classrooms.”
Cheryl Lynn Duckworth, a professor of conflict resolution at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, said only about 15 states include anything in depth about the Sept. 11 attacks in their curriculum and mostly through a narrow lens.
“The narrative about 9/11 that students are getting is really thin and ahistorical,” she said. “It lacks context.”
She said many of the narratives on the Sept. 11 attacks continue to reinforce political rhetoric that has painted Muslims as potential terrorists.
Duckworth interviewed middle and high school teachers for her 2015 book, “9/11 and Collective Memory in U.S. Classrooms: Teaching About Terror.”
She found some teachers who are doing “heroic work” to educate students but face myriad barriers, including the lack of a national curriculum on the topic.
“There’s some impressive work being done in individual classrooms but we’ve got a long way to go,” she said. “We need some sort of a national curriculum.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.