Depriving our children of 9/11’s vital lessons


By Marsha Sutton

Those of us out of high school will never forget Sept. 11, 2001. But what of those 18 years and under, who were at most 8 years old on that tragic day? What of the children who were babies or not yet born? How do we teach them about 9/11?

An article in the Aug. 31 issue of Education Week discusses how states and school districts approach the teaching of 9/11 to children in grades K-12, and the answer is that most don’t.

Two scholars – Diana E. Hess of the University of Wisconsin Madison and Jeremy D. Stoddard of the College of William and Mary – examined each state’s standards and how 9/11 is incorporated into high school social studies curricula. Their findings, according to the article, show that two states of the 50 have not even revised content standards since 2001, and California is one of the two (Montana is the other).

Of the 48 states and the District of Columbia that have revised standards in the last 10 years, 20 specifically mention 9/11, 15 mention terrorism or an aspect of the war on terror, and 14 fail to mention 9/11 or terrorism.

From the article: “It is, for better or worse, one of the defining moments of contemporary history,” said Clifford Chanin, the acting education director for the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City, which has developed many resources for schools. “I think it is essential that the event be studied and understood. ...

It’s now a factor in what the world has become and what it will become. You’ve got to prepare students for some relationship with 9/11 and its consequences.”

New world-history standards in Texas, according to the article, “call for studying the ‘development of radical Islamic fundamentalism and the subsequent use of terrorism by some of its adherents.’ New Jersey’s standards say students should ‘analyze the reasons for terrorism and the impact that terrorism has had on individuals and government policies.’”

But far too few states address the issue in any serious depth, and many not at all.

Robert A. Watterson, West Virginia University assistant professor of social studies, identified in the story three primary reasons why the topic is not fully covered in schools: “inadequate time in an already-crowded curriculum, teachers’ feelings of being ill-prepared to probe the complex issues, and fear among some teachers and administrators of taking on matters with the potential to generate classroom conflict and upset parents.”

So how do we teach about this pivotal event in recent American history, one that shattered our sense of security and invincibility, redefined people’s views of the world, and changed the political landscape forever?

On this 10th anniversary, schools will not even have an opportunity to ask students to remember the event, pay tribute to the dead, and honor our country, since the day falls on a Sunday. Perhaps we may see a memorial observance here or there in schools on Sept. 9 or Sept. 12, but without lessons taught in classrooms, we risk losing the chance to inspire our youth with the patriotism, heroism and respect for fellow citizens the 9/11 attacks generated.

Moreover, 9/11 lessons mean engaging in deep thought and extended discussions about religious dogma, revolutions, geopolitical challenges and the causes behind the attacks and their profound implications locally and globally. These are conversations we must have with our children, if we are serious about helping them become world citizens.

When state standards keep teachers too busy to make room for issues of such magnitude, we have lost sight of the point of teaching. When we are afraid to discuss complex, heated topics over worries of offending segments of our society, we have given in to fear.

Because all the terrorists on 9/11 were Muslim, how do we teach our kids that not all Muslims are terrorists? What is the relationship between U.S. foreign policy and an anti-American climate in parts of the world? How has the pervasiveness of Western culture and values affected more conservative countries ruled by regimes guided by religious doctrine? And a thousand other questions.

Besides all these infinitely difficult issues, perhaps most of all kids should know how the horrific 9/11 attacks brought Americans together, united with a sense of pride, honor and determination.

The tragedy of 9/11 should be not only a mournful occasion of loss and remembrance, but also an opportunity to celebrate the accident of birth that allows all of us to live freely under our unique American system of democracy. We must find ways to teach this to our children.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at: