It is easy to look at the students in today's classrooms around the world and see them as existing in an entirely new age. There is particularly a sense among Americans that, in many ways, the events of September 11, 2001 removed the oceans - that the conceptualized shield which had seemed to surround the nation since its founding had disappeared.
This would present a new call to understanding and contextualizing events such as September 11. And while that, in itself, is a great thing for students, it is not enough. For before history can be understood in multiple contexts, students must understand how and why history is written.
Very little is new. In 2001 we, in the United States, might have felt the security of our vast surrounding oceans disappear, but the experience might have been different for those who lived through the blackouts and dimouts on America's east and west coats during World War II - or even those who grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s with air raid drills in school.
American History, however, has, to a large extent, forgotten those events. World War II is told as a triumphal march marred by internment camps for Japanese Americans and perhaps controversy about the Atomic Bomb. The 1950s are taught as prosperity and highways marred by McCarthyism and racism. But neither history appears in classrooms in a way which might let us look back through the eyes of a child in a dark 1942 Times Square with submarines torpedoing our ships just ten miles offshore, nor to see the 1950s from a viewpoint of a child hiding under a school desk while sirens wailed.
Our history, our collective memory, is selective. And to understand history we must understand how, and why we, as a society, a nation, an ethnic group, or an individual, make the selections that we do.
On March 8 of this year The New York Times ran a story about US Congressman Peter King, a politician who has spent much of this year investigating "Muslim terrorists." Yet, as The Times pointed out, had been for much of his career, a major supporter of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, a terrorist group active in the United Kingdom. He had been labeled an "obvious collaborator" by a judge in a British terror trial, and a "security risk" by the United States government.
Congressman King's ability to differentiate so clearly between organizations which attack the United States and its allies is not necessarily a political stunt. It is far more likely that King has learned very different kinds of stories about different moments in history. The PIRA which the Congressman has supported admits to killing 650 civilians over 30 years and, with sympathizing and associated groups, probably killed 2,000 people during that time. It is a group which has thrown bombs into restaurants, market squares, and busses, killing many children, and most of its attacks have been aimed at the British, America's strongest global ally. Predecessors of the PIRA may have even been involved in sabotaging US ships in New York Harbor during World War I.
Given those facts today, it would seem unlikely that those seeking complete Irish independence from the United Kingdom through violence would be seen as heroes by an American leader, yet, we tell certain stories one way, and we tell other stories in other ways. Some stories we forget, others we make into historically mythic moments.
If you were to bring the story of Congressman King to your classroom, how would your students investigate this? Is it, in today’s world, acceptable for a leader to say, “The fact is, the I.R.A. never attacked the United States. And my loyalty is to the United States,” as the Congressman did? Would he say that to the survivors of I.R.A. attacks at Harrod’s Department Store in 1983 or the Bishopsgate bomb of 1993 or the Warrington “trash bin” bombings of 1996 which seemed aimed at children? If Al Qaeda had attacked only London and Madrid, would that be unimportant? UK and Spanish troops joined the US in Afghanistan after 9/11, should they have?
How would students delve into the stories which form these histories? How would they look at the purposes of the authors, or the repeaters, of the stories? How would they understand how these stories impact their lives? (Impacts big and small: There are no public trash bins anymore in British cities, and your students may have older relatives in Iraq or Afghanistan now. Your high school students may end up there themselves. If they fly they must take their shoes off, if they take out a library book the US government may know about it.)
So, as your students begin to investigate the meaning of 9/11 ten years after it occurred - more than half of any of their lifespans - we can, through the use of critical learning strategies, explore not just those events but, much more importantly, how history is constructed, and why.
This understanding is vital to citizenship in an era when students can literally see history being constructed - in many ways and for many purposes - all around them. They can watch Wikipedia entries being edited as events happen. They can switch between cable channels are see/hear radically different versions of history. They can easily see how “front” page coverage of any event varies around the nation, and the world. They can watch films and video which offer contradictory visions of both current events and history on their computers or phones.
All this gives them far more responsibility for the construction of community history than any recent generation had. In this century we are all historians, researching, comprehending, assembling, reporting. We can all spread the stories as we build them.
The struggle over how the past is remembered is not merely an academic exercise. As an example, Hollywood’s films about World War I produced in the 15 years after the war’s end usually portrayed a brutal and pointless war which left veterans physically and emotionally crippled. Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, The Big Parade, All Quiet on the Western Front These began to be replaced in the late 1930s and early 1940s by much more “heroic” and “noble” film versions, led by Sergeant York. In a few years World War I was converted from being a worthless battle which produced “The Lost Generation” into the heroic crusade for democracy it had seemed in 1917 and 1918. In the years after the end of the Vietnam War, the American film industry produced a number of films, including the Rambo series, which seemed to refight that war with a more heroic ending for Americans. Other highly popular entertainment, from Wilson (1944), JFK (1991) to Inglorious Bastards (2009) have been seen as altering history with political intent. The same is true for books, video games, television shows and numerous websites.
Our students cannot continue to learn history by recalling dates or simply remembering names of leaders. That form of school history has too often produced a public, in the US and elsewhere, unable to see through the misuse of history, or a too specific view of history. It is also not enough to present “two sides to a story” as if the structure of history is bi-polar. Rather, our students must learn how to look deeply and critically into the stories which are the building blocks of our community understanding of history.
September 11, 2001, recent enough to have happened in the lifespans of many of today’s students, subject to multiple forms of “telling” almost since the day itself, and so essential to Americans and their relationships to both their own government and the world, is an important place to begin this work.
“What stories do we tell and hear about “Nine Eleven” today? How do “Nine Eleven” stories differ? How does where you live affect the “Nine Eleven” stories told today? Why do we tell these stories?”
2011 theatrical retellings of 9/11 - Generation 9/11 Falling Man The War at Home WTC View The Art of Justice
Film retellings - World Trade Center United 93 Reign Over Me Fahrenheit 9/11
Book retellings - American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center by William Langewiesche (Alternate Review) 110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11 by Ulrich Baer The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright
Storytelling as a national issue which reaches all the way to the US Constitution:
Ground Zero Mosque - http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/09/nyregion/09mosque.html