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Civic Education and 9/11

On the anniversary of the September 11th attacks, we look at how states have incorporated teaching about it into education standards.

The purpose of civic education is to prepare students to be informed and engaged citizens. Schools should help young people acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes to prepare them to be responsible, thoughtful citizens. They can do this by providing students engaging and relevant curricula, as well as interactive opportunities to deliberate.

Last year, CIRCLE released a fact sheet entitled “9/11 and the War on Terror in Curricula and in State Standards Documents” which described findings from research by Jeremy Stoddard and Diana Hess about the representation of 9/11 and terrorism in curricula, textbooks and state standards. As Stoddard and Hess say in their article on the subject, 9/11 is the “Ultimate Teachable Moment;” for this reason, we wanted to review this research on the 11th anniversary of the attacks.

As Stoddard and Hess’ research finds, the way 9/11 is being taught varies greatly based on pedagogical and curricular goals (for example, it may be taught differently in a world history course or an American government course). Furthermore, the way the event is depicted has changed over time. Closer to 2001, texts included personal stories and a narrative format with a strongly nationalistic tone. With more distance, the presentation has become more analytical.

How Septemer 11 is taught is perhaps more important than whether to require it through state standards, as CIRCLE Director Peter Levine points out in today’s CNN op-ed, entitled “My View: How schools should handle 9/11 in class.”

According to Hess and Stoddard, many textbooks offer authoritative definitions of terrorism (despite the fact that it is a concept that is still contested), and in some cases, the definitions do not align with the examples cited in the texts. In general, the textbooks do not ask students to analyze issues related to terrorism and 9/11, and students lack opportunities for higher-order thinking (including critical, logical, reflective or creative thinking).

Civic learning opportunities can affect the development of a commitment to civic participation. Currently, there is no research about whether and how the teaching of 9/11 and terrorism impacts civic dispositions and behaviors, but it may be an interesting question for further research.