Panelists Advocate for Teaching of 9/11

A panel of education experts and terrorism scholars cautioned Wednesday against teaching the events of Sept. 11, 2001 simply as an attack against America, suggesting that teaching the history of 9/11 offers a powerful opportunity to encourage empathy in students.

At the event—the Graduate School of Education's first Askwith Forum of the semester—the panelists addressed the implications of teaching about the attacks to youth.

Christopher Ougheltree, a social studies teacher from Cranston High School East in Rhode Island who won a teaching award from the Tribute World Trade Center Visitor Center in 2010, said he was surprised by the fact that 9/11 was not taught more widely across the nation.

While attending a seminar with the World Trade Center memorial, he said, “I was amazed that many of my colleagues don’t touch upon it.”

Though Ougheltree was the only panel member to work directly with youth, Rutgers University professor Thea Abu El-Haj invoked her personal experience as a parent during 9/11.

Ten years ago, Abu El-Haj said her young daughter came home from school and told her, “A little girl said, ‘My daddy told me [9/11 happened] because Arabs want to kill Jews.’”

In the aftermath of 9/11, Abu El-Haj said she believes that educating children on the subject requires pushing aside the powerful emotions that still linger and focusing on the facts.

“One of the struggles,” she said, “is thinking about how to teach not just 9/11 but the context before and what has followed in ways that aren’t simply nationalist and patriotic.”

Abu El-Haj added that teaching about the tragedy allows young people to dispel myths and learn to be empathetic—a necessary trait in gaining a full perspective on the consequences of United States foreign policy.

“There’s a global illiteracy in this country about the US’s role in the global stage,” she said.

The panelalso addressed the difficulties of teaching about the attacks to young children—especially to those who have little to no memory of the actual event.

Diane L. Moore, a lecturer at the Divinity School, said these concerns should not be cause for educators to censor discussions about 9/11 in the classroom.

“Often times we hear others outside of education saying, ‘This is too complicated,’” she said, “but in my experience, it’s not only very appropriate, but [children] are also already dealing and engaged with controversy.”

Six of Ougheltree’s former students were in attendance at the event. Carley Rotenberg, currently a high school sophomore, took Ougheltree’s freshman World History course in which he taught about the history and consequences of 9/11 through various forms of media, such as raw videos of World Trade Center employees jumping out of their offices.

“He was probably one of the first teachers that taught it and didn’t sugarcoat,” she said. For Rotenberg, who was in kindergarten when the attacks were carried out, this style of teaching was important for her to fully understand the issues surrounding 9/11.

“Now that we’re growing up, it’s good to know what’s really going on,” she said. “It was pretty shocking to hear, coming from a [previously] wholesome learning environment.”

—Staff writer Michelle M. Hu can be reached at michellehu@college.harvard.edu.

Tags