Institutions struggle with 9/11 debate

By Riley Roberts

On the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11, a struggle to understand its importance and impact as a historical event is taking place in classrooms throughout the country.

In the college classroom, the effects of the terror attacks are ever-present.

“I had to change a class as a result of what happened on 9/11,” said Scott Althaus, associate professor in Political Science. “In my ‘Politics and the Media’ course, I devoted about a third of the class to political communication in times of war. Sept. 11, 2001 provides an important context for understanding this, and the attacks made the topic relevant.”

Still, Althaus points out, the impact of the attacks on course material is probably more indirect than direct. “(Sept. 11) isn’t really a discrete topic in (the classroom),” agreed Dr. Joseph Hinchliffe, director of Undergraduate Studies in Political Science.

“It’s used as an example of one kind of phenomenon or another, but we don’t teach a class about it.”

In fact, there is no department at the University that offers a class based exclusively around the Sept. 11 attacks, though there are several that focus on the broader issues of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism.

“Certainly, our perspective has changed since 9/11, and we know more about the attacks today than we did at the time,” said Hinchliffe. “As the immediacy of their emotional impact has faded, we’ve had more time for reflective consideration. But they didn’t change the way we teach.”

Bringing 9/11 into the classroom can still be controversial, however.

Professor Derrick Frazier teaches a class called International Conflict at the University and is well-acquainted with the controversies involved in teaching 9/11.

In his experience, much of the trouble stems from conflicting approaches to the topic.

“First you have a U.S.-centric approach,” Frazier said. “Something happened to us on Sept. 11 to which we must react . . . and then there’s the U.S. responsible approach, that we got what we deserved. These competing schools of thought can make it difficult.”

While the marketplace of ideas found on a college campus makes it hard to teach such sensitive subject matter in Dr. Frazier’s, view controversy is not exclusive to education at the University level.

The new ABC-produced miniseries, “The Path to 9/11,” lies at the center of an explosive debate regarding secondary education. The docudrama, scheduled to air in part Sunday and in part Monday evening, has been accused of misleading viewers with regard to events that preceded the attacks.

Many charge that the TV special, which contains dramatized scenes of events based on material taken from the 9/11 Commission Report, represents a partisan view and should not be treated as historical fact in the classroom.

Scholastic, one of the nation’s largest publishers of educational material, has released a “discussion guide” to help high school teachers reference the miniseries as an educational tool.

As of press time, Scholastic has rewritten the discussion guide, according to their Web site, with the hope that “[people] will find it helpful in understanding the relationship between facts and drama and the background of the different views about 9/11 in the U.S. and around the world.”

Five years after the terrorist actions, it is difficult to measure the true legacy of the attacks. In the classroom, though, 9/11 has had a pronounced impact and will continue to do so.

“Thirty or 40 years from now, we will have a clearer perspective on how to teach these issues,” Dr. Althaus said. “I’m sure Sept. 11 will continue to be seen as a landmark for many things.”

Dr. Hinchliffe expressed a similar sentiment.

“It’s one of those events you remember where you were when it happened,” he said. “It has that kind of importance in people’s memories. At the moment, though, its importance is hard to gauge, as a political event or otherwise. It’s still too soon to tell.”