Visitors at the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City
Visitors at the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City.
Photo provided by Shutterstock

20 Years of 9/11 in the Classroom

E.B. Bartels ’10
September 10, 2021

“I was here in 2001, obviously, and…” Larry Rosenwald, professor of English at Wellesley, took a long pause as he figured out where to begin. Speaking about the events of 9/11 in light of the 20th anniversary of the tragedy is hard enough—how has it been 20 years?—but even harder: How do you speak about 9/11 to a classroom of students who had not yet been born in 2001? How do you teach something that still feels like a current event to many who lived through it, but that is now another piece of history to the young adults on your roster?

To start, it helps to look at the ways that professors approached their classes 20 years ago, on the day of the attacks itself. Rosenwald, the Anne Pierce Rogers Professor of American Literature, recalls hearing about the first plane hitting the north tower and then going to teach his seminar on medieval lyric. He asked his students if they were comfortable talking about poetry—they said yes, eager for a distraction, a sense of normalcy.

Guy Rogers, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of History and Classical Studies, was preoccupied that day worrying about his partner, who was working in New York City at the time, but he too felt it would be best to teach his class as usual. “I remember thinking that there was nothing I could do about what was happening, and it also occurred to me that at least some of the students might be in the same position,” he said. “I still think that going ahead with the class was the right decision. Both the students and I needed to have something to do.”

Other professors couldn’t focus, or thought it would be valuable for students to see what was happening in real time. “During my first class, likely near the start, my professor took us all into one of the larger lecture halls in the Science Center to watch the news with some other students and professors,” said Karen Hutchison ’03, then a junior.

“In my view, the best way to teach about 9/11 is to distinguish the event itself from what it was used for politically in its aftermath.”

Y. Tak Matsusaka, professor of history

In the early months after 9/11, candlelit vigils and poems provided some comfort and solace on campus. In spring 2002, the English department put together a poetry reading as a memorial. “I read a peace poem, of course,” remembered Rosenwald: “Channel Firing” by Thomas Hardy. Rosenwald recalled that his fellow English professor Frank Bidart wrote a poem in response to 9/11, which a colleague shared at the reading, called “Curse”—an angry, vengeful poem from someone whom Rosenwald describes as “gentle and peace-minded.”

For some, in the years immediately after 9/11 it was still hard to view the tragedy through a removed, academic lens in the classroom. After graduating, Hutchison began teaching in Brooklyn. “The attacks were still extremely raw for students and teachers at the school, where they could see the site of the former World Trade Center from some of the classrooms,” she said. “Some students did not come to school on the anniversary of 9/11; the students who did mostly wanted to go about their day as normal.”

Soon, though, 9/11 became synonymous with the U.S.’s subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “People were trying to focus on how much we all had in common as human beings, but that quickly fell apart as grieving became politicized with the wars,” said Rosenwald.

“The war in Iraq became the dominant context in which many of us thought of 9/11,” said Y. Tak Matsusaka, professor of history. “The aftermath of 9/11 overshadowed 9/11 itself, which I think is an injustice to the people who died that day.” Matsusaka also said that the rise of anti-Muslim hate crimes, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the passing of the Patriot Act after 9/11 made him concerned about many of his students: “I do recall comparing in one of my classes what happened to Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor and what was happening to Muslims in America.”

Many professors link class discussions of 9/11 to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or with the ideas of protest and anti-war demonstrations. Craig Murphy, Betty Freyhof Johnson ’44 Professor of Political Science, has his world politics students read Joseph Nye’s Five Truths about Terrorism and information from the Watson Institute’s Costs of War project, which he said “typically leads to a discussion of the U.S.’s disproportional response via the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Meanwhile, Rosenwald is co-teaching a course on protest songs this fall and one on anti-war literature in the spring, and in both he feels it is inevitable that 9/11 will come up.

Often, teachers find talking about 9/11 as a historic event allows them to have more distance and space. “It is in a lot of ways easier to talk to kids who don’t remember or were born after 2001,” said Hutchison. “When I taught in Brooklyn, many students watched the towers fall out a classroom window, and a significant number of them lost a family member. For those students, the pain seemed overwhelming and raw, making most of them shy away from discussions.” Hutchison now teaches physics, so current events, like the 20th anniversary of 9/11, mostly come up in tangential conversations at the start of class, but she tries to give students a chance to ask questions and increase their awareness.

“In my view, the best way to teach about 9/11 is to distinguish the event itself from what it was used for politically in its aftermath,” said Matsusaka, whose former student Rahma Salie ’96 died on Flight 11. Rogers takes a personal approach: “Every year on 9/11 I write ‘343 4 U’ on the board of the classroom I am teaching in. Three hundred forty-three is the number of firemen who gave their lives trying to save others in NYC on that terrible day. Most of the firefighters died walking up the stairs of the towers while everyone else was descending. Many of the firefighters were only a little older than the students I teach.”

“For those who were alive and aware of events at the time of 9/11 it was, and remains, a trauma and a reminder of the fragility of life,” added Rogers. “One of the reasons why we study history is to remind ourselves that anything can happen.”