The differences between engaging the past as either “heritage” or “history” crystallized earlier this month around the 10thyear anniversary of 9-11. As expected, there were numerous events and symbols memorializing, a process central to heritage studies, “what happened” that day. Arguably the most prominent commemoration happened during the NFL
Memorializing 9-11: a synthesis of Hollywood, NFL, and Nationalism
Sunday night pre-game ceremony between the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys. This included a brief homage by actor Robert DeNiro opening the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. DeNiro, in his speech, noted a pledge by the NFL and Americans “to never forget” emphasizing the importance, meaning, and value of marking an historical event part of national memory.
In conjunction with 9-11 memorializing, a variety of institutions shared lesson plans and resources for teachers to use with their students, typically in history and social studies classes. These tools impact what was to be remembered, shaping narrative, memory, and meaning, under the auspices of “history” not as “heritage”. Simply put, what is emphasized in curriculum resources highlight content and a process of how students should engage knowledge about the past. Let’s look at four of these 9-11 sources, specifically around how they engage a fundamental historical thinking skill, “causation” – why something happened.
History.com: The resources, titled “9/11 Attacks – 102 Minutes That Changed America”, include interactive technology , photo galleries, audio casts, and documentary videos about personal reflections, heroes, and the construction of the 9-11 memorial.
The accompanying two page curriculum study guide is designed to help sort out the impressive resources above. Most noteworthy are the series of questions and activities. Despite a warning to teachers regarding the use of their material and the maturity of their students, there are no questions exploring “why” or “causation”. Instead, History.com notes that their material “fulfills several
guidelines outlined by the National Council for History Education including: (1) Values,Beliefs, Political Ideas and Institutions; (2)Conflict and Cooperation; and (3) Patterns of Social and Political Interaction. Considering the centrality of establishing “cause” in history course, it absence it these tools is a disappointing silence.
Choices Series from Brown University: “Choices Program uses a problem-based approach to make complex international issues accessible and meaningful for students of diverse abilities and learning styles.” Their 9-11 material focuses on a two day oral history project that seeks to:
- Explore the human dimension of the September 11 attacks by conducting an interview.
- Consider the benefits and limitations of using oral history to learn about the past.
- Assess their own views on September 11.
The work sheet has no questions related to causation or implied conversations about “why”. Interviews ask their sources questions about memories an demotions related to that day. Unfortunately, like History.com, Choices choose the heritage route as well. A more apt title for this project is “Reflections”.
9-11 National Memorial: Under the FAQ of this site, is the question “Why did the terrorists attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? ” Causation is presented as a neat ,simple explanation and historical agency is one sided in the memorial’s explanation: “Al Qaeda hoped that, by attacking these symbols of American power, they would promote widespread fear throughout the country and severely weaken the United States’ standing in the world community, ultimately supporting their political and religious goals in the Middle East and Muslim World.”
This answer carries no citation, lacks complexity, and entertains no other causal explanation. It fails as a historical explanation but fits the needs of a national heritage.
The memorial’s New York lesson plans, categorized under four headings, Historical Impact, Community & Conflict, Heroes & Service, Memory & Memorialization, do not address causation.
Foreign Policy Research Institute: The Philadelphia based think-tank offered videos and lecture notes for the 10th year anniversary under the title: “What Students Need to Know about 9/11: Ten Years Later”
Moreover, the FPRI maintain a large library of resources accumulated over the decade. The programming done on September 8th, 2011 offers the most balanced explanation of causation around 9-11 and explores historical roots. In one section, FPRI Senior Fellow Edward A. Turzanski claims, “The American nation was, and still is, not rallied to action with a clear explanation of who the Islamists really are and why the American culture is better than theirs… In somewhat typical American fashion, the terribly messy work of clarifying ideas and redressing deficiencies in strategy has instead led to the creation of large, expensive structures”
Unfortunately, FPRI has produced no lesson plans around the recent program, but has some dated from previous years. One lesson plan from 2005, presents this goal:
Objectives: Students will be able to trace the events leading up to 9-11.
This is a starting point and has potential to flesh out varying narratives, perspectives, and explanations addressing “why” 9-11 happened.
Secondary Education and 9-11:
I am interested in how and when high school history textbooks explain the causes of 9-11. I feel the official historical narrative isn’t complete and am not sure when it will be. EdWeek noted in an August 2011 article that “fewer than half the states explicitly identify the 9/11 attacks in their high school standards for social studies.” The ones that do emphasize what happened , the U.S. response, and how the attacks affected U.S. domestic society. But where is the “why” question?
High school schools students are expected to identify causes for major events in U.S. history. The Civil War, Great Depression, World War II, etc, all carry expectations of student knowledge around cause. Separating this aspect of 9-11 will cement it in heritage studies. One approach would be to explore global explanations of 9-11. This is a pedagogical move beyond the heritage paradigm. DeNiro was clear to point out that the victims of 9-11 came from other nations; 9-11 is a global not a national event.
Engaging 9-11 as an historical event has recently places 9-11 a “book end” in historical thinking. Attempts at eriodization places the Berlin Wall’s fall (11-9) and 9-11 as the temporal framework for the post Cold War-U.S. Hegemony era. Another
Orlando Lagos won the 1973 World Press photo award for his iconic shot of Salvador Allende moments before his death.
outcome of exploring 9-11 as an historical event frequently takes students and educators to Chile and the overthrow of Salvador Allende by a U.S. supported General Pinochet. The “Original 9-11” as it as become to be called, broadens student understanding of international relations and its connection to how we understand the past.
Historian Richard Overy reminds us that history “at its best is critical, exciting, thought-provoking, frustratingly ambiguous and uncertain. It is the reflective element of the collective mind. If history becomes just heritage studies, the collective intelligence will be all the poorer.” Causation around 9-11 needs to be explored not as a balance to memorialization, but as complement to our, and our students’, understanding. I take it that the information here will still be useful to teachers who will engage students with this topic later in the school year.
History is not heritage. Both engage our memories and conceptualization of the past, but with two different goals in mind. The resources for 9-11’s 10th anniversary largely fulfill a need for memorialization. We will never forget what happened. But do we have the resolve to investigate “why”?