The received wisdom is that September 11 is to the millennial generation what the Kennedy assassination was to baby boomers. In 1963, I was sixteen and going into my junior year of high school when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. On September 11, 2001, today’s college freshmen were eight years old.
When I joined the History Department at Montclair State five years ago, I drafted a proposal for a course I wanted to teach called “America in the Post-9/11 World.” The course was a response to what I’d been reading about how “maybe it’s time to move on” and “stop commemorating” the tragic events of five years past.
I worried that the millennial generation might forget the implications of that day and its aftermath. And I felt that it was part of my responsibility as a professor to revisit this historical moment and discover why it was transformational.
As part of this process, I asked entering freshmen in my fall 2006 Introduction to American History class to talk about “their 9/11.” They could remember a teacher making a tearful announcement; parents coming to pick up their frightened kids and drive them home; turning on the television and witnessing the devastation at Ground Zero; or not knowing what the World Trade Center was, or even what the word “terrorist” meant.
“Until September 11, I never knew about any American affairs in the Middle East,” one of the students wrote. “When I think about my education in the South Jersey schools, I hardly remember any discussion about Middle Eastern affairs.... But now, I've come to the conclusion that you need to get the facts and research the possibilities before you take action in life. And also, we need to pass on our knowledge to others so that their emotional ignorance does not push them to think and act irrationally.”
Over time, 9/11 has inevitably become more “historicized,” coalescing from the shards of personal memories into a vast, supposedly objectified Master Narrative. But as Joanne Meyerowitz, professor of American Studies at Yale, told The New York Times, “For historians, history is never set in stone. It’s written and rewritten in each generation. The events of the present, of the contemporary age, always help us reframe the events of the past. And the events of the past always help us to reframe the age we're living in.”
As the years go on, iconic images of billowing smoke and gashed concrete remain in the forefront of my mind. It’s not just because as a writer I have come to believe that when you live through a global drama of epic proportions you need to memorialize it. And it’s not just because I am compelled by a pedagogical obligation to “teach the conflicts.”
I hope our students will take some time this season to stop and reflect upon 9/11/01 as a conduit to historical consciousness in general. To this end, a public symposium, “The Uses of the Imagination in the Post-9/11 World”, has been scheduled for October 12, 2011. It will provide an opportunity to get together as a community on and talk about how we can draw upon the violent lessons of the past to help us recognize and appreciate the redemptive qualities of the present—and help prepare us for an uncertain future.
Neil Baldwin, PhD, Professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance, and Director of the Creative Research Center (montclair.edu/creativeresearch), is the author of many books of biography and nonfiction, most recently The American Revelation: Ten Ideals That Shaped Our Country from the Puritans to the Cold War.