Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Should Kids Study 9/11?

The Atlantic asks, "What should American schoolkids learn about 9/11?" Offering yet more proof of the stunning effectiveness of the American public school system, increasingly, it seems, US school kids are not entirely clear what happened on 9/11/2001. "When Ms. Engelhart asked her class what happened on 9/11, eight out of 24 of her students knew that something bad occurred but were not sure what, while the rest of her class did not know the day is significant." Ms. Englehart: teacher of the year.

The memory hole is widening quicker than the ozone hole at this point. General knowledge about history seems to go something like: "1. The Life of Jesus, 2. America kicked some Nazi ass!, 3. I was born." It's not just kids either. Last year, a director of our university's general education program ended a meeting by telling us, "The next meeting is on November 22nd. So, everyone remember November 22nd, although honestly, I have no idea how you could remember that date!" And, trust me, she was absolutely 100% serious about that.

The problem with 9/11 is that teachers aren't sure what lessons students can take from the event. Ms. Englehart wonders if the event has a "teachable moral" that students can "take away" from it. How about "Even psychotics, if they work hard and sacrifice, can accomplish their dreams"? People are still unsure what the attacks meant in the long run. Was the War on Terror an appropriate response, or even a decent reading of 9/11? Did the US mistake a group of criminals' psychotic reaction for a military action? Has anything that happened, before or since, made any sense, in any sort of context? Does history make any sense? Are our historical narratives works of interpretive genius? Or are they workable delusions?

Of course, though, we don't study the past looking for portable life lessons. We study the past to understand the present, and the world today is different than it was in August, 2001; that's a good argument for studying 9/11/2001. Sometimes random and senseless acts of violence have unforeseeable but sweeping consequences. But, here's the thing: every event has unforeseeable consequences. History can be fleshed out and understood, but still be meaningless. For the most part, we're stumbling around about 95% of the time, which is a good argument only for stumbling as slowly as possible. But, perhaps, that's the lesson worth learning. Just a suggestion.

Postscript: Poor Ms. Englehart! It occurs to me that she might have been asking that question as a way of introducing the subject, in order to teach her students about 9/11. And here I am kicking the poor woman!


Holly said...

I had to look up Nov. 22. Dates are an especial failing of mine, I've never had a history teacher who didn't want to hit me with a stick or something.

And you. YOU are a history expert. Granted, Nov. 22 isn't in your field of expertise, but your brain has been trained around remembering what/when combinations.

This is a valid point (about the devastating failure of oral tradition in the modern age, I think) but at least Engelbert is using the Socratic method? Partial credit!

It's not even 5 a.m. I'm going back to bed. Sorry if it doesn't make sense.

Rufus said...

I realized after posting it that Kennedy getting shot on November 22 is sort of like our parents' generation's 9/11. Most people who were alive at the time will remember it, but it's not common knowledge for anyone born later. Similarly, I'm not sure that December 7th really lives in infamy anymore.

So, it's entirely plausible that Sept. 11th will be forgotten for the generation born after 2001, as strange as that seems to us.

I guess I was just annoyed with her suggestion that we can still teach historical events, so long as they can impart totally decontextualized but functional moral lessons. There was something self-helpish about it. Like those pop history books you see at Barnes & Noble that tell you what you can learn from the life of Julius Caesar about how to run your business.

I could be a bit too opinionated about history.

Holly said...

yeaaaah. The Art of War for Sales, Attila The Hun For Managers. What a crock.

I could be wrong, but the lesson has already been imparted by the time a person is capable of comprehending what sponsored it.

To make a concrete example: Sunday school teaches children a lot about why the family goes to church and what is meant when people say Christmas isn't about the presents. But by that age, those children have already learned that moral behavior, or they have not. They're now just learning the WHY.

Same with 9/11. Kids might learn why their parents cross the street when they see an arabic type complexion on someone, but they won't learn their OWN moral lessons from that.

The 7 December probably has a few more years of infamy, at least until our parents generation is gone.

Rufus said...

There's also just the lesson that the past is a different country and they do things differently there. I know when we have them read the Iliad (maybe not the best example, since it's myth), the point isn't to teach them general lessons about bravery that they can apply to their football games. It's to give the idea that there are common human problems that different civilizations have solved in very different ways. So part of it is easily transferable and the other part is about learning cultural/historical context. I guess that's what irks me when people suggest they read the great books and get tips on how to be better people. In a sense, knowing your place in any larger context makes you better, or at least more humble. But, no, I definitely wouldn't study Alexander the Great and "ah, now, I know how to ask for that promotion".

Holly said...

Indeed. Alexander didn't *ask* for shit. :)

Rufus said...

I've always wondered if historians who are experts on those subjects scream aloud when they see those books.

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