Exactly 21 years ago, Americans watched in horror as a jet crashed directly into the north tower of the World Trade Center, killing everyone on board and hundreds more in the building. Over the course of the morning, they were forced to relive that same grief as three more planes were hijacked and forced to crash into the second tower of the Trade Center, the Pentagon and a small field in Pennsylvania – the last jet was intended to hit the US Capitol, but was stopped when passengers overthrew the hijackers and took control of the plane.
To this day, September 11, 2001, more commonly referred to as 9/11, remains the deadliest terrorist attack in history, killing 3,000 people and injuring close to 9,000. After the event, the grief-stricken nation turned to each other for comfort, rallying around the words, “Never forget.”
But two decades later, it seems that we have forgotten.
For Americans who were alive to witness the attacks, the memory of 9/11 is still fresh, with 93% of those over 30 remembering exactly where they were at the time. However, according to a 2015 Census Bureau study, more than a quarter of Americans have no recollection of 9/11 as they were either too young or had not been born yet. As a result, the later generations have had to rely on what is taught in school rather than their own personal experience.
Currently, 14 states are required to teach about 9/11: Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and New York. Most have very minimal requirements, preferring to leave it up to individual schools and districts.
A report issued by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute argues that even though these states do include 9/11 lessons, they often miss the point of the event, giving “too little information about the history.”
Just four states mention bin Laden or al-Qaeda by name: Georgia, Louisiana, Montana and Texas. Only Louisiana, Massachusetts and Texas specifically mention Islam while discussing the context of the attacks.
9/11 fundamentally shaped the course of America’s history. After that fateful day, the country underwent massive changes. Just a month later, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was founded and a year later Congress would go on to create the Department of Homeland Security.
Nine days after the attacks, President George Bush addressed both Congress and the nation, famously stating, “Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”
What followed was an international military campaign, referred to as the “Global War on Terrorism.” After the Taliban refused to hand over al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, President Bush launched Operation Enduring Freedom, officially sending troops into Afghanistan and kicking off what would go on to become one of the bloodiest, most costly wars in American history.
Yet the vast majority of schools do not mention the war, choosing to state general facts about 9/11 and offering a limited explanation of what exactly happened.
One major issue with this curriculum is that it does not invite students to reflect on the disaster. Rather than mentioning the war or providing the context behind the attacks, they simply state a few basic facts or play a short video clip.
Instead, schools should go further. For example, teachers can show live news footage from the day of the attack so students receive the opportunity to observe the attacks first hand. They can also present interviews with 9/11 survivors to help students understand the real-life experiences of those who lived through the tragedy.
Students should also learn about the impact that the attacks had on the country. Everything, from tighter airport security to the nearly one million lives lost in the war, is essential to understand when studying 9/11.
Students should be encouraged to ask questions such as why and how the attacks happened. What were some of the events leading up to the assault, and how did al-Qaeda manage to infiltrate the country and hijack the four planes?
There are also various resources including interviews, articles and videos that focus on Muslim and Sikh Americans. It is important to understand their perspectives regarding the tragedy, as so often, they are either left out of the discussion or pitted as the villains.
Ultimately, the goal of every history class is to ensure students receive factual information, to avoid making the same mistakes that previous generations did. We need students to learn from 9/11 and the war on terror, not just about them.
Social studies teacher Mark Gruskin is one teacher who supports this idea. As a native New Yorker, he worked in the north tower of the World Trade Center for two years as an intern, before moving to Florida.
Each year, he dedicates an entire day of teaching to 9/11, showing videos and speaking about his own feelings regarding the event. He also invites Dean John Briano, who was a first responder living in New York at the time of 9/11, to speak about his personal experience. “When you hear the personal stories of people who went through it, then it resonates a lot more,” Gruskin said. “It’s important to not forget. To keep it alive.”
Dean Briano was a first responder during 9/11 and he shared his story with students. He spoke about his initial reaction and the shock he felt, as well as the effects the event had on him and his family. For him, telling his story helps keep the legacy of the attacks alive. “It’s been 20 years and we need to think about what all has changed,” he said. “From the TSA to the war, we can’t be naive. We have to realize that this was more than just a random attack.”
9/11 is more than just another chapter in a textbook. It is a real-life tragedy that impacted not just politics and foreign policy, but actual people. By expanding our coverage of it within the classroom, we broaden the next generation’s minds and ensure that the legacy of September 11 will never be forgotten.
To pay tribute, I invite you to stream today’s 9/11 memorial ceremony here.
Read more about 9/11 here.
If you would like to hear more about Dean Briano’s story you can read his 2019 interview with Heritage alumnae Kristen Quesada here.