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9/11: Ten Years and the Shaping of History

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Date posted: August 25, 2011

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, many of our cable network partners are planning to air commemorative programs, produce curricula, and create online resources that will help children and adults reflect on the causes and impact of that sad and harrowing day. Cable in the Classroom has compiled a list of these resources here. E-School News lists a varied collection of resources here.

It’s worth noting that many of the children now going back to school were not even born in 2001, and many of the rest were too young to understand what was happening. Even today’s high school seniors, who would have been seven or eight at the time, probably have only hazy memories of the tragedy. Where will their understanding of 9/11 as history come from? Where has our own?

National_Park_Service_9-11_Statue_of_Liberty_and_WTC_fireVery few of us were in lower Manhattan, or at the Pentagon on 9/11. Our understanding of what actually happened there, and on United flight 93, has been shaped by media. During the course of that and the following days, television did a remarkable job of keeping us informed as, moment by moment, new information came in from around the world. But even as events were occurring on live TV and it seemed like we were getting an unfiltered look at history being made, producers were still making decisions about what to show, for low long, and in what context. Their choices were constrained by where the cameras happened to be and what reporters and footage were available. For most of us it was a mediated experience, far removed from what the survivors lived through.

Memories fade, even for something so recent and dramatic as 9/11. What becomes our collective memory and the history of that time is largely the product of the media. But that’s nothing new! What we know of the past is rarely from direct experience. It’s been that way through recorded history. The Illiad and the Odyssey are mediated representations of the Trojan Wars. Most of the time what we think of as history is the cumulative effect of photographs, books, articles, television programs, letters, and (more recently) digital artifacts.

Anytime we look at history, it’s good to be reminded that what we’re seeing is someone’s representation of those people and events. It’s not the complete story, nor is it the only possible interpretation. So be a little skeptical and investigate multiple sources, like the ones mentioned above, to get a more rounded understanding of the events of September 11th, or of any other piece of history.

Photo credit: National Park Service, Public Domain