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!