This fall’s incoming college freshmen were only toddlers when planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Kyle Ward, author of History in the Making and director of the social-studies education program at Minnesota State University, Mankato, characterizes their recollections of that morning and its aftermath as “shadow memories.” They probably had a sense something was wrong, he explains, but wouldn’t remember many, if any, personal feelings. Students born on September 11, 2001 are starting tenth grade and likely have what Ward calls “textbook memories,” as I do of JFK’s assassination. I can recount facts about the weather in Dallas, the motorcade, and a small boy’s heart-wrenching salute at his father’s funeral.
But even with these poignant details, it’s nearly impossible to grasp how it felt in America on November 22, 1963. Invariably, there is a psychological gulf between my generation and a national trauma experienced by our parents— but one we only studied in school and absorbed through cultural osmosis. Learning about any historic tragedy, emotional gaps between those who were there and those who came later are inevitable.
Yet for September 11, educators are attempting to close the disparity, showing students what it felt like in America that fall, and what they can learn emotionally from the weeks that followed. Teaching children the compassionate side of 9/11 is an incremental process. Fifteen years later, students across the country, from elementary grades to college campuses, are learning about the day in large part through public service and remembrance—a form of instruction that is fundamentally different from how other historic moments are taught. This approach makes “goodness” the core lesson of a day that spawned so many political, religious, and economic consequences.