The horror of Sept. 11 hasn’t diminished 20 years after the fact, and neither has our resolve to “never forget.” Still, how we teach our children, especially those born after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, is inadequate to ensure future generations don’t forget, either.
The attacks, the conflicts that preceded them and the War on Terror that followed, including the 20-year U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, get short shrift in Massachusetts’ basic roadmap to teaching social studies, U.S. history and world history. In New Hampshire’s official guidelines for educators, they are hardly mentioned at all.
Clearly this is something education leaders in both states need to address. These standards should be revised — or in New Hampshire’s case put down on paper — to reflect not only the expectation that students will learn details of these attacks, their victims and how the U.S. responded, but also appreciate their context and aftermath. The risk of not doing so is to raise children with a superficial understanding of what’s intuitive to most adults. By some accounts, it may already be happening.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Education, Dean Diana Hess and Jeremy Stoddard, a professor in the school’s Department of Curriculum Instruction, have studied how 9/11 is taught pretty much since first responders were sifting through the rubble in lower Manhattan. Three years ago they surveyed 1,047 high school teachers across the country to see what they’re teaching. They found their lessons to be reductive.
What high school students learn about 9/11, in other words, is usually packed into a single day’s lesson near the anniversary of the attacks, which means it’s taken out of place in the narrative of U.S. or world history. This leaves little opportunity to talk about anything but the shock and tragedy of 9/11 and an overview of U.S. response. Increasingly teachers themselves are too young to remember the attacks or life before a global terrorist movement killed 2,731 people in the United States.
The fact teachers address it at all is remarkable given the brief treatment of 9/11 in state education guidelines. And as Statehouse reporter Christian M. Wade notes, Massachusetts and New Hampshire are hardly unusual in that regard.
Fifth-graders in Massachusetts, for example, get a survey of U.S. history stretching from the colonies through civil rights, with some mention of efforts to win equal rights for women, people with disabilities and the LGBTQ community. But the American story, as guided by the state’s History and Social Studies Curriculum Framework anyway, pretty much ends in the late ‘70s.
The War on Terror doesn’t come into play in any meaningful way in the state’s framework until the very end of U.S. history and world history taught in high school, and in both cases, it’s tacked on at the end.
It wasn’t always so. The state’s retired framework for social studies gave the 9/11 attacks a more featured spot in U.S. history. And the world history framework at the time devoted 141 words to the topic of Islamic fundamentalism and major events in the Middle East in the 20th century, leading to the 9/11 attacks at the start of the next century.
A rewrite of the state world history curriculum three years ago instead summarizes how students should analyze “events, people and conditions that have given rise to international terrorism” in 39 words. It does not specifically mention 9/11.
New Hampshire’s framework for social studies references the attacks only in passing, as an example of a major event that third- and fourth-graders might contemplate in terms of impact on everyday life.
Twenty years later, the Sept. 11 attacks exist somewhere in our consciousness between the realm of recent events and actual history, at least as it’s defined by state roadmaps that guide what children are taught in school.
It’s time to be more diligent in prescribing how 9/11 and the War on Terror are taught. These events and their consequences are far too important to be afterthoughts or, in the worst case, the topic of a one-off lesson that teachers roll out every year in the middle of September.