UW–Madison’s Stoddard, Hess suggest new approach to teaching about 9/11

How do you teach about 9/11 to schoolchildren who weren’t even born when the attacks happened?

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sep. 11, 2001, teachers across the country are — as they do every year — figuring out how to commemorate the anniversary for today’s schoolchildren who have no living memory of it.

In an article they wrote for The Conversation — titled “What schools teach about 9/11 and the war on terror” — UW–Madison’s Jeremy Stoddard and Diana Hess propose a different approach to teaching about the events of that day.

Dean Diana Hess and Jeremy Stoddard
Dean Diana Hess (left) and Jeremy Stoddard have conducted nearly 20 years of research on teaching about 9/11.

Since 2002, Stoddard and Hess have studied how the events of 9/11 and the global war on terror are integrated into secondary level U.S. classrooms and curricula. Stoddard is a professor and chair of the secondary education program in the School of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Hess is the dean of the School of Education and the Karen A. Falk Distinguished Chair of Education.

What they have found, they write, is “a relatively consistent narrative that focuses on 9/11 as an unprecedented and shocking attack, the heroism of the firefighters and other first responders, and a global community that stood behind the U.S. in its pursuit of terrorists.”

“While honoring the victims and helping a new generation understand the significance of these events are important,” they add, “we believe there are inherent risks in teaching a simple nationalistic narrative of heroism and evil.”

In a survey that Stoddard and Hess conducted among 1,047 U.S. secondary school teachers in 2018, they found that a majority of history teachers teach about 9/11 primarily on the anniversary every year, and often their discussion of the events focuses on their own recollections of the day.

Though the surveyed teachers view the events as 9/11 as significant, they described challenges with making time to discuss the events — as they are not a part of standard curricula, or are only included at the end of the school year. For this reason, lessons are often limited to one class session, and taught out of historical context.

Stoddard and Hess note that “(t)eaching 9/11 as a memorializing event on the anniversary … generally avoids deeper inquiry into the historic U.S. role in the Middle East and Afghanistan.”

They add that “simplistic narratives do not help students reflect on the many controversial decisions made by the U.S. and their allies after 9/11,” and they potentially reinforce “political rhetoric that paints Muslims as potential terrorists.”

Stoddard and Hess recommend teachers instead take a more in-depth approach, and “help students learn from 9/11 and the war on terror, and not just about them.” To aid them in developing lesson plans, they share a resource guide to draw from that includes the perspectives of veterans, Afghan and Iraqi interpreters and refugees, Muslim and Sikh Americans, and others not often included.

They conclude: “To ‘Never Forget’ for students today may start with teaching them about aspects of 9/11 that seem to have been overlooked, erased, or forgotten.”

Stoddard and Hess’ article in The Conversation was picked up and shared out by several media outlets, including the San Antonio Express and Westport News. Similarly, their research into teaching about 9/11 was highlighted in many additional news stories, including in The New Yorker, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Associated Press, the Wisconsin State Journal, Chicago’s WGN, the Denver Channel, Madison’s WMTC – NBC 15, Milwaukee’s WUWM 89.7 FM, and the Patriot Ledger, among others.

To learn more about this important issue, read the full article in The Conversation.