Friday, September 11, 2015

History According to Jim, Vol. 1, No. 17

     On this anniversary of the cowardly attack by terrorists in New York City in 2001 and the incredible gallantry and courage of the men and women from the agencies that were involved in the actions of that day, I sought to find something to post that would not be a repeat of everyone else's tributes and thoughts. Finally after much searching I have chosen to write about how an event that is seared in our minds fades over time until it becomes history.

     As a professor at a community college I go over 9/11 in some of my classes. While I can tell you exactly what I was doing that day and what I did, very few of my students can. Consider that an 18 year old student in their first semester of college was four on the day of the attacks. Few of the students can recall what they were doing that day. The older students in their thirties can, but from what I can tell, unless the student was in the seventh or higher grades, most have no idea what took place that day.

     In the years following the attack, the people of the United States embarked on a war on terror and a war in Iraq. The students usually do not have a strong connection to these wars unless a direct member of the family was involved. Very few of them have that direct connection which indicates to me that even though a substantial number of men and women participated in the conflicts, they were a small percentage of the overall population.

    Each year another class of students arrives. In 2019 I will start to have students who were not alive when the attacks occurred. For them the events will be history while for me it will still be just yesterday. I will be teaching history for them, a history I played a part of. This is not an uncommon happenstance. The men and women of each war have become teachers and at some point in their lives began to teach a past they had experienced that their students had little to no connection to.

     I can tell you who in my family served in the military and who went to what war. Part of those memories involve the fact that the draft existed for 33 years for most Americans. Military life was a common theme for many families. Following the end of the draft in 1973, Americans and their connection to the military began to decline. The draw down from the Vietnam War meant a smaller military. Today I ask students who in their family served in Vietnam. Almost none of them know. The same goes for Korea, WWII, WWI, and even the Civil War and American Revolution. Most don't know when their families arrived either.

     In short, I find myself teaching history to students who have little connection or association to the events of history. That makes it difficult to build a personal interest between them and the past. One thing I have noted is that students who know their family history to a greater extent than most have a vastly increased interest in history. The past figures importantly in their minds because they feel a connection to it. This is why I find 9/11 to be something unique that I teach. To do it well, I need the help of the student's families.

      Some people do not want talk about this event or the events that followed it. I wish they would take the time to to do so with their families regardless of their connection to the event. Eventually this event will be nothing but history as time marches on. Soon there were be teachers talking about the event like I talk about WWII or the Civil War. They will have no memory of it and it will be an event they have no connection to. Sharing the tales of what took place that day is a way to maintain the connection and place the event in a context that lives on.

     Eventually a break in the chains that link us together occurs. Often that break is found within the family unit. Today we see our students display a horrible sense of historical understanding. A lot of that can be corrected through conversations at home. Family history is a very important part of everyone's understanding of the past. If people want the past preserved, a big part of that has to be done at home. I as an instructor cannot teach family history. That is part of the family roles. What is interesting is that many cultures kept alive their family history over centuries through oral history alone. We see this in Native American cultures, African cultures, and several others with a strong oral tradition.

     The crazy thing is we have the ability to write our history down. We have the ability to record history on paper, video, audio, digitally, visually, and so forth. Yet, every year I ask students about 9/11 and they have no idea what it was beyond a terrorist attack. I ask about Vietnam and they don't know. And we wonder why students do poorly on history and have done so for a century. There is a failure to maintain the personal connection to the events of the past and that is not the fault of the instructor. This is a fault that begins at home.

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