For many adults in the United States, Sept. 11 is a day that needs no explanation. But what about the next generation of Americans -- those who were children or not even born when the Twin Towers fell? How is Sept. 11 being taught to them?
It’s a question that Jeremy Stoddard, Spears Distinguished Associate Professor at the William & Mary School of Education, has been researching for eight years now. He and Professor Diana Hess of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education have been looking at how the attacks on 9/11 and their aftermath are incorporated into secondary school curriculum, textbooks and, most recently, state social studies standards.
“Given the importance of 9/11, we wanted to know how the attacks and what has happened in response to them are described in the curriculum materials and textbooks written for high school students,” Stoddard said. “Because students in high school today are too young to remember what happened on 9/11, the curriculum they encounter will shape how they view these events as part of history.”
Stoddard became involved in the research in 2003 as a graduate student working with Hess, who began the study. He, Hess and several other graduate students examined the curriculum that was created in the first year after the 9/11 attacks, looking at the goals of the curriculum and how 9/11 was treated in the text.
They also examined how terrorism was described and what examples were used, “which is something we were really interested in,” said Stoddard. “Was it all going to be just about terrorists from the Middle East or did they also include the Oklahoma City bombing? That’s a theme that’s continued through the different steps of (our research).”
In 2005, Stoddard and Hess became co-directors of the study, and began examining best-selling high school history and government textbooks published after 2001.
“A few of them rushed to production quickly and added a special section in the back on 9/11, but the texts we studied were the first editions where 9/11 was more incorporated throughout the books and in the narrative of the text,” Stoddard said.
Stoddard continued this line of research when he became a member of William & Mary’s faculty in 2006. As more recent editions of the same texts and curriculum were published, Stoddard and Hess tracked how the 9/11-related content changed.
“We wanted to know how 9/11 had changed in terms of how they were treating it in the text and what were they doing with the more recent war on terror and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the civil liberties issues that arose from domestic policies in response to 9/11, like the Patriot Act,” Stoddard said.
Stoddard said they have made some interesting finds in their research so far. For instance, they noticed that, except for in a few supplemental materials, little detail about the attacks is included in the texts.
“That has really held true across all of the pieces of the study that we’ve done,” he said. “Now, we’re talking about books for kids who were six or seven years old when it happened. The texts don’t really have many details about the attack. In fact, the textbooks, because they are limited in space, have actually taken some of those details out in the newer editions we looked at.”
Additionally, many of the texts treat terrorism as a “closed concept, meaning there’s a specific definition for it,” said Stoddard.
“They would give this definition, but then would use examples of terrorism that didn’t fit their own definition,” Stoddard noted. For example, some texts would define terrorism as attacks on civilians but would then include examples like the bombing of the USS Cole.
“Or they would say that only non-state or non-governmental actors could be terrorists and then they would include the Lockerbie Scotland bombing (which has been attributed to Libyan intelligence agents),” he said.
The researchers also found that it’s very difficult to develop accurate texts while events are ongoing.
“They were putting these things into production in 2004 and 2005 and they were writing things about the Iraq war that then turned out not to be true,” he said. “It’s really hard for a textbook to do recent history.”
Stoddard noted that in the case of ongoing events, supplemental curriculum could be especially useful for teachers because they don’t have the same space and time limitations as textbooks. They also don’t have to go through the same state approval processes that textbooks often have to go through, he said.
Stoddard and Hess also found that curriculum producers use the events of 9/11 for different purposes, matching the goals of the organizations that produced them.
“For instance, there’s a group called Facing History and Ourselves, they do a lot of Holocaust and tolerance curriculum, so they really focused on tolerance, especially toward Muslim Americans, and understanding religion whereas Choices for the 21st Century really looked at 9/11 from a foreign policy perspective. Another group called Constitutional Rights Foundation focused on issues of civil liberties related to the US response to 9/11, especially with the Patriot Act and other government policies,” he said.
That also held true for textbooks, Stoddard said. Government textbooks used 9/11 to illustrate different concepts such as executive power, and history textbooks mostly included it in sections at the end or in the section on the Middle East.
“It was really interesting to see how malleable 9/11 and the war on terrorism were to the different purposes that were there, both ideologically but also to the curriculum goals of the organization,” Stoddard said.
With the 10th anniversary of the attacks approaching, Stoddard isn’t sure how curriculum will continue to change. However, he is seeing more curriculum asking students to “look at things from multiple and competing perspectives.”
“I think the further away we get, and now that there is a new administration and a different tone, we’re seeing more things that are open to questioning,” he said. “Especially when issues with the Patriot Act came out in the news and was recognized as really stepping over the bounds in some areas, the curriculum producers seem much more open now in terms of asking students to question what happened.”
Stoddard is now directing the most recent phase in the project, an in-depth analysis to identify which state social studies standards include content about 9/11 and terrorism more broadly, and the nature of how this content is included. Preliminary findings from this analysis were released by Stoddard and Hess today on the website of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.