Teaching 9/11: A Historical Event and a Lived Experience for Today’s Students

Created: September 10, 2021  |  Last Updated: September 10, 2021  |  Category:   |  Tagged: ,
David Kieran teaching a seminar class
David Kieran, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Chair of History, teaches a class in the The Learned T. Bulman ’48 Historic Archives & Museum September 2, 2021. His 9/11 class is taught in a similar format.

WASHINGTON, PA (Sept. 10, 2021) – When David Kieran, Ph.D. began teaching his “9/11 & the War on Terror in U.S. Culture” class in 2010, his students had been 13 years old on September 11, 2001, and so they vividly remembered the events of that day. Today’s students are too young to remember the event, but it’s been part of their lives nonetheless.

“The event itself has receded from students’ lived experience, but the War on Terror and many of the policies that followed those events are experiences they’ve lived through,” said Kieran, who introduced the class at another institution and has taught it at W&J since 2016. “In that way, it exists both as a historical event and an event whose legacies students continue to confront in their daily lives.”

Kieran offers the class every other fall term, and last offered it in Fall 2020. It is structured as a seminar rather than a lecture and is based on in-class discussion, which presents a great opportunity for students to share and learn from their diverse experiences and perspectives.

Kieran said most of his students have an understanding of what events transpired, typically because they’ve learned about it through commemorative events or have visited the memorials in New York City, or in Shanksville, Pa. In most cases though, they’ve never had the opportunity to put those events into a larger historical context.

“The knowledge and the interpretations of the event are much closer to the surface and much more fully formed for students because it is such recent history, so they often come to the class with a set of assumptions and a certain way of thinking about the Sept. 11 attacks and the War on Terror that they don’t have for other events,” he said. “Part of what we do in the class is try to step outside of issues about which we might feel deeply and work to gain the academic distance necessary to think about this as a historical and cultural event. In the end, that might reinforce the things they brought to class, and at other times may challenge them to think differently.”

The course includes a study of the events that led up to Sept. 11, 2001, including U.S. foreign relations at the time and particularly relations between the United States and Middle Eastern countries. Students also discuss how national leaders responded and how perceptions of the event have shaped subsequent policy decisions.

One of Kieran’s challenges as a professor is figuring out where – in the context of the historical narrative – to end the course. When he first taught the course 11 years ago, the last section was about the death of Osama Bin Laden. When he last taught the course in 2020, much more related history had transpired that was worthy of class discussion.

“When you’re designing a history course, you’re always putting brackets around an event and saying ‘for the purposes of this course, this is where we begin and pause our inquiry.’ As more events have happened, those brackets have had to move,” he said.

Another question, and one Kieran looks forward to answering, is this: What will the next group of students bring with them into the course?

“It will not be long before we have the children of people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan in the course,” Kieran said. “They bring with them a set of knowledge and assumptions and experiences. Like anything else, as we go on, we’ll also continue to get better scholarship and more perspectives, and the course will continue to evolve.”

About Washington & Jefferson College

Washington & Jefferson College, proudly located in Washington, Pa., is a historic liberal arts college founded in 1781 that values ethical leadership, professional readiness, and inclusive communities. Our highly customized and intellectually engaging student experience develops professionals of uncommon integrity to lead in an ever-changing world. For more information about W&J, visit www.washjeff.edu, or call 888-W-AND-JAY.