Are we gonna learn about 9/11?
Yeah, we gon’ talk about that like everybody is right now?
In the first week of school my students were answering the question I had put forth to them: What do you need to know to develop a historical context. At first they were unsure what the question even meant. I explained that remembering names and dates, while tremendously helpful in pub quizzes, would probably not serve them in the same way understanding the cause and effect elements of history might. I said, “You have to make meaning out of the things you learn in History, so what do you need to know to do that?”
The answers started to come. Where stuff is, like maps and stuff. Check. Who has all the money and how come. Check. Why people in one part of the world hate the people in the other parts so much. Check. Where did religion come from anyhow because it seems like it is messing everything up. Ch- uhhh… wait, did I just hear that correctly? And you are how old?
And then one of the girls asked if we would be learning about 9/11. The group had mixed responses from “Oh man, not again…” to “Yeah, are we going to learn about that?” And I looked at these kids – sophomores who were in their first week of kindergarten on September 11, 2001 – and considered it.
So would we be learning about 9/11? The question brings up a lot of stuff for me. I remember the day, the images, Dan Rather, my high school seniors suddenly feeling vulnerable in a way that teenagers never should, #4’s dad screaming about blasting – blasting who? – back to the stone age, how everyone almost seemed to want a direct connection to the tragedy as if that was a requirement for the emotional responses they were having.
It is okay to be sad for humanity, I wanted to say. It doesn’t have to be your friend, relative, colleague, for you to feel broken inside, I wanted to tell them.
I did not say that because I was in Nevada. And in Nevada the belief that holding libertarian ideals makes you nearly existential in your relationship to the world is very popular.
But the kids let their emotions show.
When these Berekely sophomores, born in 1996, asked me if we would be learning about this event, an event they clearly have learned the when and where details of, I asked them what they meant. Some of them had logistical questions, how can something like that happen? Some had more hypothetical questions, did I think something like that would happen again? Where? When? They seemed to avoid the questions of why: Why did this happen?
I asked them to raise their hands if they thought the attacks on that day had been completely random, like just some renegade people who were really angry and had had enough. No hands went up. Okay then, so why? Why did something like this happen?
There are moments in teaching when there are no wrong answers. I would have to say, this was one of them. I said that this was why it is imperative that we understand the context that surrounds the events we study in history. (What does imperative mean, they asked. Very important, I said. Oh, yeah, right, they nodded.)
So, if this was not random and it clearly took years of training and planning to carry out, to really understand something like 9/11 we need to know: Who? What? Why? People do not do this sort of thing just because they wake up pissed off one day. There are deep, deep seeded reasons that underlie the sentiments that can lead to this kind of catastrophe. What kinds of emotions might these be, I asked.
I looked across this motley crew of 14 and 15 year olds. It seems to me they have a pretty solid understanding of what might be behind the actions, even if they don’t fully understand how one goes from understandable rage to incomprehensible actions. It made me feel better in the face of a national politic that has consistently and aggressively forced an agenda of fear and division upon its people. Maybe we can be better than our government policies suggest.
The fear mongering has not made us safer. It has not helped heal wounds, which existed long before that day in 2001 and will exist until we truly work to understand and address the issues that underlie the story, the history. Neil Howe, who with William Strauss wrote Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, said of these kids that they fear “strange people with motives we don’t understand could be lurking among us.” I sure as shit hope I am misunderstanding his context (I have not read the book) because the perpetuation that it is “strange people” who we do not understand threatening us seems to be precisely the problem.
On January 6, 1941 Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his annual State of the Union address. Amidst a world at war, while America had remained opportunistically isolated, FDR addressed what he called the “immature” and “untrue” belief that this kind of intentional separation was acceptable in any way. In so doing he outlined the responsibilities of our government:
The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:
Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.
Jobs for those who can work.
Security for those who need it.
The ending of special privilege for the few.
The preservation of civil liberties for all.
The enjoyment — The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.
These are the simple, the basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.
It seems noteworthy to consider that we are still struggling to achieve these ends – but that the reactions to their enumeration have inspired such different responses: where FDR was lauded, Obama has been crucified. Still more importantly than an executive comparison, I would encourage people to consider the significance in the remaining need to achieve these aims.
FDR went on to articulate what he described as four essential human freedoms. And as he described these freedoms, which are indeed essential, he emphasized that he spoke not only for America and Americans, insisting with rhetorical repetition that these freedoms were due ALL people, EVERYWHERE in the world.
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.
Thinking about my students and imagining what it must be like to be growing up in this time, I can see no better way to honor those who we have lost, not only in New York on that sunny September day, but everywhere around the world on so many days, than to encourage our nation to take the lead in achieving the goals FDR spoke of 70 years ago.
Act with compassion.
Be better than you think you can be.
Top image: shot by me, fall 1978.
Bottom image: From Urban Peek.