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Education and September 11: An Introduction

by Nadine Dolby & Nicholas C. Burbules - July 28, 2002

An introduction and overview of the TCR special issue on the response of educators to the September 11th attack on America.


When it happened — when the planes hit the towers and the Pentagon — most U.S. children were where they are on any other Tuesday morning in September: in a classroom. In the immediate aftermath of events, in those first few hours of horror and confusion, teachers were left to comfort and explain. Within hours of the attacks, other pedagogical sites — family homes, the media, churches, mosques, synagogues, community centers, and cyberspace — may have become just as important. But in the beginning, teachers stood, often alone and with no clear guidelines, and they taught: through their words, their actions, their interpretations, and their own feelings of fear, anger, and sorrow.


At other moments of national crisis, teachers, and education more broadly, have moved to the center of debate about what to teach, from whose perspective, and if and how to tolerate (or even encourage) dissent. But in recent years, with the growing discourse of privatization in education, and the weakening of education as a public space, these debates have lessened. Instead, testing, standards, vouchers, accountability, benchmarks, and other discourses and practices grafted from corporate quality control onto schools have replaced essential conversations about democracy, diversity, justice, and the public. What the events of September 11 should have made clear, among many other things, is that the public still matters. Even people who live in gated communities and send their children to private schools still travel public roads, are represented in government, and depend on police, firefighters, and other emergency services in times of crisis. The complete privatization of a democracy is both a myth and a contradiction: the market is not the best arbiter of human relations, nor the best determinant of societal structures and resource allocations.


September 11 underscored that the march of privatization, and its twin, globalization, is neither pre-ordained nor inevitable. Questions about national identity, priorities, values, the bond between government and corporations, international relations, peace, and inequality are no longer closed — they have been opened up again in the most horrible of ways. What has become apparent is that it is okay now — in fact it is imperative — to ask these questions. We do not have to settle for a world littered with palatial high-rises abutting slums; fur coats and diamonds rubbing up against rags; private schools overflowing with computers, resources, and the trappings of wealth blocks away from public schools with overflowing toilets, outdated books, and grinding poverty. James Baldwin’s frequently quoted aphorism, “We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” is a simple, powerful reminder that the world is in the hands of whoever takes action: through acts of terror, domination, brutality, and horror, or acts of peace, compromise, compassion, and justice.


As scholars and intellectuals, one of the most significant tasks that we face, even in the best of times, is the job of asking questions that challenge commonsense logic and reframe public debate. Here is an example of such a question: For many years, in airports around the United States, one could find a prominently displayed, government-issued sign indicating that “The Federal Aviation Administration has determined that the airport in Lagos, Nigeria does not maintain effective security procedures.” Most striking at the time was the singling out of one airport, among the thousands in the world, for particular scrutiny. Having never flown through Lagos, Nadine was always left to puzzle what was happening there that was so extreme as to warrant notice in places as diverse as Kansas City, Missouri; Champaign, Illinois; and Los Angeles, California. The warning about Lagos’ airport was perhaps accepted as “commonsense” by most of the American public (of course African airports are incompetent and unorganized). But it is now apparent that another sign, never posted, would have been more useful: “It has been determined that U.S. airports (including, but not limited to, Bangor, Maine; Boston, Massachusetts; and Newark, New Jersey) do not maintain effective security procedures.” What has been put into question here are the logics and politics undergirding the sign: that the U.S. (here the Federal Aviation Administration) is positioned as the final arbiter of the “truth” about danger in the world, and that the hazards are always elsewhere, never here. Those signs rest, along with their now uprooted logics, in the rubble of the September 11 attacks. One of the legacies of the new globalism is that the easy dichotomies of “us versus them” so often get reformulated as “us and them.”


Probing the undercurrents of September 11 seems especially vital now, almost a year later, as public discourse about the political, social, cultural, and economic fallout of the attacks is narrowing and closing. Bookstores are overflowing with pictorial records of the day — coffee table books that one cannot imagine actually leaving on the coffee table. The definitive video documentaries have been edited and shown on television. We all “know” what happened and why it happened. The U.S. war in Afghanistan continues, but it is barely a footnote on the news (except on Fox, which seems interested in covering little else). The uproar over airport security has lessened, and we have all quickly (perhaps too easily) adjusted to arriving two hours before a flight, taking off our shoes, and submitting to intrusive searches. Unnamed Arab-Americans disappear into federal custody for months on end, and there is only a smattering of protest. Dissent is difficult to find — one has to search for it, underneath the unquestioning patriotism that characterizes the “new normal.” President Bush dismisses criticism of his administration as a manifestation of “old style politics”; and his representatives have asserted that questioning current government policies or leadership is unpatriotic, even vaguely subversive and unAmerican.


Yet we would insist, along with millions of others in the U.S. and around the world, that this “new normal” is nothing to be taken for granted. Far from closure, what is needed now is even more vigorous debate about the central questions that have been opened up (not closed down) in recent months. As Bill Moyers (2001) observed, “Democracy wasn’t canceled on September 11, but democracy won’t survive if citizens turn into lemmings” (p. 142). Democracy certainly will not survive if those who have traditionally raised troubling and difficult questions — including educators — limit themselves only to the private, therapeutic nurturing of children who were shaken and confused by September 11. As important as that function was, it is not enough. Instead, educators’ role must be to contribute to the public life of a democracy, and to raise penetrating, and often unpopular, questions in our classrooms and other forums


But how do we begin to engage the events of September 11 in a way that moves beyond the closure presented to us at every turn? How do we keep open questions that many people want so desperately to lock down as settled, as no longer relevant?


At core, we suggest that what is required is an understanding of the fundamentally political nature of the actions and analyses that have saturated the media and public discourse since that morning. The unrelenting attempt to “frame” the events at the World Trade Center and Pentagon began within minutes of the attacks and was intensified by the end of the day as carefully selected musical tracks shaped our emotions while the video of the crumbling towers played continuously. The events were transformed seamlessly from real-time news, to reconstructed tragic opera, and finally, to spectacle. The race to define what the events meant, and to use them as leverage to advance other social and political agendas, began almost immediately and continues to this day.


Even the very vocabulary in terms of which these events have been described represent political, not natural or neutral, decisions. “Terrorism,” for example, is described as the province of renegade fanatics, not of modern military machines. The “war on terror” has been defined in the U.S. from the very start as a framework for targeting particular enemies in the Middle and Near East, while other “terrorists” (the home-grown militias who helped hatch the Oklahoma City bombing, for example, or the abortion clinic bombers who are still at large) have dropped off the front pages. “Fundamentalism” is, similarly, interpreted and applied in a selective way: Islamic clerics calling for a jihad against the United States and the West are represented as hateful, irrational enemies of freedom. However, in the wake of September 11, when the Reverend Jerry Falwell (2001) launched his own jihad, with the words,


I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say “you helped this happen,”


this was decried more mildly as “inappropriate,” even distasteful, but not called out as an equally vicious form of fundamentalist hatred. Nor, his apologies notwithstanding, did many people want to acknowledge that when Falwell said “I really believe” this, it meant he really did believe it, even if he later regretted having said it. Fundamentalism from outside our borders will never be as great a threat to our freedom as is fundamentalism from within our own society.


In the “new normal,” politics also frame the difficult questions surrounding the racial profiling and mistreatment of Arab-Americans. While the U.S. media has strongly condemned personal violence against Arab-Americans, it has taken a much more neutral and detached tone toward state violence directed against the same people: the incarceration of individuals on flimsy charges, the closure (and seizure of assets) of Muslim charities, and the suspension of civil and legal rights in the prosecution of their cases.


When Nadine returned from South Africa earlier this year, she was often asked what people there were saying about September 11. The answer, of course, is “nothing.” The attacks may have shaken the core of the American psyche, because the myth of American invincibility had crumbled. Meanwhile, as Saskia Sassen (2001) notes, and our own observations confirm, the world outside of the U.S. is much more preoccupied with its own troubles. The question itself is seen as puzzling and disturbing, for it unmasks the unwaveringly U.S.-centric view of the world that, we would suggest, was part of what made us a target of attack in the first place. What is needed, instead, are different questions, both old and new, that can recharge and reframe public debate. As educators, we cannot accept the premature closure of one of the most “teachable moments” to occur in our lifetimes. It is a teachable moment not only for exploring how and why the attacks happened, but also for examining our national responses to those attacks and what they reveal about the challenges of a post-September 11 world.


The Essays

The seven essays that were accepted from among those submitted for this special issue were written independently. Yet, they raise closely related and interdependent themes. Together they offer a valuable set of critical and constructive reflections on the events of September 11, our national responses to them, and what we still have to learn about ourselves as a nation in trying to cope with the anger, sadness, fear, and suspicion engendered by the attacks.


The essay by Patricia Somers and Susan B. A. Somers-Willett documents the new pressures brought to bear upon faculty free speech in the wake of the September 11 attacks. In part these pressures are attributed to popular sentiments against any viewpoint that seems to be taking the side of the terrorist attackers, or that suggests that the U.S., because of its foreign policy, may have deserved these attacks or brought them upon itself. But Somers and Somers-Willett go beyond this observation to highlight how these struggles over faculty free speech carry greater weight in an era of increased university “corporatization.” When publicly controversial views are seen as threatening university fundraising or corporate sponsorship, there is a particular risk to faculty who espouse critical or radically unconventional points of view.


Michalinos Zembylas and Megan Boler highlight teaching responses to the September 11 attacks. They propose a “pedagogy of discomfort” which they distinguish from “critical literacy” pedagogies. For Zembylas and Boler, traditional “critical literacy” is rational and cognitivist, whereas ideological beliefs and commitments often have a powerful emotional component that cannot be displaced simply through smarter critical reflection. Post-September 11, responses of “patriotism” exhibit just such unconscious emotional energies. Educators who want to question how certain discourses of patriotism have shaped public perceptions and responses to the attacks need to “excavate” the often-unspoken emotional investments that underlie the power and appeal of such discourses.  A “pedagogy of discomfort” would entail questioning such emotional responses, interrogating, for example, why the statements of critical and radical faculty described by Somers and Somers-Willett have engendered such virulent hatred and animosity.


On the positive side, Zembylas and Boler argue for a view they call (following Mignolo) “critical cosmopolitanism.” Educators promoting this disposition in students should not only raise questions about the ways in which patriotism seems often to promote intolerant and atavistic impulses toward others, but also should advocate a perspective of moral symmetry in international affairs: for example, that nations which demonize others are often demonized themselves in return.


The essay by Marcus Weaver-Hightower characterizes the September 11 attacks as “a tremendous blow to the national manhood.” In response, the public images representing American reactions to the attack have reasserted the masculinity that was wounded. These images, he argues, skew our understanding of what actually happened in the attacks, and reinforce stereotypical ideas about gender. Weaver-Hightower’s argument reveals how emphasizing masculine responses to the attacks (the police and firefighters, the rescue and recovery workers, the military responses in Afghanistan, and so on) has tended to overwhelm the effects of the attacks, and the responses, that involve women, family members, and teachers.


The essay by David Blacker can be viewed, in one sense, as a kind of extended case study of Weaver-Hightower’s hypothesis — focusing on the construction of “heroes” in the events and the aftermath of September 11. Firefighters, police, and military personnel are emblems of heroism — while surviving spouses, teachers, and many others who also faced risk and self-sacrifice during and after September 11 are largely forgotten. The latter populations, of course, are overwhelmingly female. Blacker constructs this argument in the context of a proposed alternative account of “public servants,” “public professionals,” and “public workers,” broadening our conception of who deserve to be called heroes, and revealing the values of self-sacrifice that underlie public service of many sorts.


The essay by Kerry Burch explores the other side of this coin — the multiple representations of John Walker Lindh (who just pled guilty in court as this special issue was being completed). Burch calls Lindh a “pedagogical text,” a lightening rod of representational practices, especially those revolving around competing images of masculinity and bravery. (Lindh, like all of the Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, is represented as a coward, relying on sneak attacks and subterfuge rather than good honest fighting.) This thesis pairs Burch’s text with that of Weaver-Hightower: Lindh is the “demonic counterexample” through which our own national images of masculinity and patriotism are defended and reinforced. Burch goes on to pose some specific ways in which this “pedagogical text” can be explored and discussed in the classroom.


The essay by Haithe Anderson is a more straightforward investigation in political theory, exploring the idea of “tolerance” in two different traditions, liberal pluralism and multiculturalism. Both frameworks, Anderson argues, are thrown into doubt by the events of September 11 and their aftermath, and this suggests the limits of tolerance as a proposed general political and moral principle. Instead, she sketches what she calls a pragmatic reconstruction of the idea of tolerance, in which we should recognize not only the moral injunction to be tolerant, but the political practices and cultural arrangements by which we construct intolerance — practices and arrangements which are profoundly resistant to change and which, ironically, are often reinforced by the very call toward “tolerance” (such as, in the wake of September 11, the simultaneous pronouncements by the U.S. government that not all Muslims or Arabic peoples were the enemy, and that racial profiling of Muslim and Arabic passengers would be expanded in the name of increased airport security). Extending tolerance toward some always also entails a delineation of those who are not to be tolerated; they are the figure and ground that define one another.


Kathleen Knight Abowitz contrasts two views on the tensions between national identity on the one hand and cultural engagement and respect on the other. Exploring the contrasting theories of Walter Feinberg and Martha Nussbaum, Knight Abowitz advocates a broader cosmopolitan outlook, one that stresses imagining the other (which might support and encourage the perspective of moral symmetry called for by Zembylas and Boler) and promotes a positive account of global citizenship, a viewpoint that acknowledges allegiances which can transcend national interests and identities.



Together these essays pose an important challenge to educators: to raise key questions with students and keep them open as legitimate questions, at a time when there is a tendency to want to relegate these horrible experiences to the past — to lock away the disturbing fears and doubts of that day and its aftermath — to put them in convenient boxes labeled “terrorists,” “heroes,” “fundamentalists,” and “homeland security” — most of all to fix what was broken so that we can “get over it,” once and for all.


As we have noted, these very responses to September 11 reveal their own lessons about who we think we are as a nation and what sort of world we imagine ourselves to inhabit. And these responses have been profoundly paradoxical in that they often undermine the very conditions they aspire to attain.


We have suffered a great public trauma, but at a time when the public institutions, including schools, and other public spaces where we could come together to examine and try to understand these new complexities, are profoundly weakened by recent government policies and popular neglect.


We have witnessed indubitable proof that security cannot be attained solely through military and police powers, no matter how powerful and technologically sophisticated, yet we persist in their use even when they create for us even more numerous and implacable enemies.


We are in the midst of a breathless acceleration of surveillance, government secrecy, and the expansion of domestic police powers, all in the name of security.  But the recurrent, color-coded reminders of vaguely imminent threats necessary to cement public acceptance (if not support) of such growing restrictions have the opposite effect:  of making people feel less secure in the face of an expanded security apparatus, to say nothing of whether they should fear that apparatus even more than the threat.


And finally, we are confronted with a global, highly mobile and interdependent world in which it is more urgent than ever that we pursue understanding, empathy, and co-existence with others not like ourselves — trying to make sense of the fears and grievances that drive their actions against us. Certainly fostering the capacities for such understanding, empathy, and co-existence remains a crucial educational task. Yet at the same time our great national unity seems to have been bought at the price of demonizing our external enemies and excoriating or imprisoning “subversives” within. The politics of difference, internationally and internally, have been made much more difficult at just the time when they have become so much more urgent.


Despite multiple forces that point us toward simplicity and reductionism in understanding the events of September 11, education must be a place where ambiguity and complexity are still possible — even welcomed — and where critical inquiries demand the messy details behind many sides of the story. The essays here each in their own way issue a call for such critical inquiries, and initiate the project by showing how one’s own, and one’s students,’ views of September 11 can be transformed by exercises in imagining others; by critically reading the representations of “fact” in the news, popular media, and government pronouncements; by interrogating the range of emotional responses to the event and its aftermath; and by fostering the standpoints of moral symmetry and interdependence as key virtues of cosmopolitan citizenship. These have always been important educational goals — today they can hardly be taken for granted, if schools fail to foster them.



Falwell, J. (2001). Retrieved at http://www.snopes2.com/rumors/falwell.htm

Moyers, B. (2001). “Which America will we be now?” In D. Hazen, T. Hausman, T. Straus, M. Cihara (Eds.), After 9/11: Solutions for a saner world (pp. 140-145). San Francisco: Alternet.org/Independent Media Institute.


Sassen, S. (2001). Governance Hotspots: Challenges we must confront in the post September 11 world. Retrieved at http://www.ssrc.org/sept11/essays/sassen,htm


For example, see the magnificent special issue of Rethinking Schools on September 11 at http://www.rethinkingschools.org/sept11/

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 28, 2002
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10997, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 2:47:54 PM

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About the Author
  • Nadine Dolby
    Northern Illinois University
    E-mail Author
    NADINE DOLBY is Assistant Professor in the College of Education at Northern Illinois University. She is the author of Constructing Race: Youth, Identity, and Popular Culture in South Africa (SUNY Press, 2001). Her research interests include youth and youth culture, international education, race and identity, and globalization and education.
  • Nicholas Burbules
    University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign
    E-mail Author
    NICHOLAS C. BURBULES is Professor of Educational Policy Studies in the College of Education at the University of Illinois. He is the editor of Educational Theory. His recent articles have appeared in Access, Philosophy of Education, and the Electronic Journal of Sociology.
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