9/11 Leaves Its Mark on History Classes: New York Times
By JANNY SCOTT
Published: September 6, 2006
The present has a way of changing the way that historians think about the past. The trauma of Sept. 11, 2001, is likely to be no exception: Five years after the attacks on New York and Washington, many historians say 9/11 and its aftermath are leaving their mark on how American history is written and taught.
American history is being studied less as the story of a neatly packaged nation state and more in a global context, as part of something much larger, many historians say. The idea of America as an empire, too, is in vogue. And historians are giving new attention to topics like the turbulent history of civil liberties in the United States.
There is growing interest in the history of terrorism, of Muslims in America, of international cultural conflicts and exchanges. The history of foreign policy is being rethought, some historians said, with less emphasis on the cold war and more on post-colonial politics. The Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis from 1979 to 1981 seem like significant turning points in ways that they had not before.
“For historians, history is never set in stone,” said Joanne Meyerowitz, a professor of history and American studies at Yale who edited “History and September 11th” (Temple University Press, 2003), a collection of essays. “It’s written and rewritten in each generation. The events of the present, of the contemporary age, always help us reframe the events of the past. And the events of the past always help us to reframe the age we’re living in.”
Some of the shift has come in response to strong interest from students. In vivid detail, professors recalled classes they taught immediately after the attacks — their students’ hunger to understand, their sense of 9/11 as a watershed in their lives, their sudden sense of vulnerability. In the days and months that followed, historians said, they found themselves using history to shed light on a baffling present.
“For our students, it is quite clear that in everything — from what it feels like in an airport, or dealing with Muslim neighbors in school or college, or what they think about when they think about going abroad for junior year — there is that sense that their Americanness is not safe from the rest of the world, or is deeply influenced by the United States’ role and its relationships to the rest of the world,” said Melani McAlister, an associate professor of American studies and international affairs at George Washington University.
Scholars disagree on the direction of the reframing of American history, sometimes along ideological lines. While many historians say 9/11 accelerated a push toward “internationalizing” American history — looking at what Thomas Bender, a professor of history at New York University, called “a common history with common causes for central events in American history” — some others said 9/11 had renewed their interest in an almost opposite idea, that of American exceptionalism.
American exceptionalism, the view that the United States is fundamentally different from other developed countries and has a special role in the world, fell out of favor around the time of the rise of the new social history in the late 1960’s, said Stephan Thernstrom, a history professor at Harvard who describes himself as a neoconservative. But since 9/11, he said, he has found himself increasingly drawn to the idea.
He compared his reaction to the current moment to the way “the massive conflict with fascism and then the cold war focused attention on what is our civilization, why is it different from others. With that came a certain sense of heightened attachment to our civilization and a desire to defend it and protect it.”
Historians often find that contemporary events influence the study of history. Disillusionment with World War I inspired a revisionist interpretation of the Civil War, that the war was unnecessary, said Professor Bender and others; that view was then challenged in the aftermath of World War II. The Reagan revolution brought new interest in the history of American conservatism; the women’s movement helped make women’s history a field of its own.
In the 1990’s, globalization encouraged what is known as the internationalizing of American history, with a growing emphasis on comparative and transnational approaches. For example, some historians said, they began to see the American Revolution as the result of widespread fiscal pressures brought on by a contest among imperial powers, not simply as a product of British taxation.
“We’ve been a little backward in recognizing how important the outside world has been to our domestic life,” said Joyce Appleby, a past president of the American Historical Association. “It requires a change of consciousness. You’re not just telling the story of American history and where it links up with another country; you see America in the world, affecting the world.”
That trend has accelerated since Sept. 11, 2001. Jan Lewis, a historian at Rutgers University in Newark who is writing a book about American history between 1760 and 1830, said she has been working on several chapters about the French and Indian War and the origins of the revolution. She found her attention drawn to the story of European soldiers sent to North America “to fight one episode of a huge international war.”
“I don’t think I’d have been as attuned to that dimension of the history a few years ago,” she said. “I realized that what I found particularly interesting was the conflict among British officials between those I would have called idealists and those who were realists. Certainly, similar issues come up with the Iraq war.”
Since late 2004, a half-dozen books on aspects of America as an empire have been published. Amy Kaplan, a former president of the American Studies Association, said American imperialism, once seen as a preoccupation of the left, has become a subject across the political spectrum.
“Are we an empire? If we are, in what sense?” said Michael H. Hunt, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, describing the debate. “Is it comparable to other empires? Is it like Rome?
“Tangled with that empire question is the hegemony question: Do you understand empire only in formal terms of control or is it more global and systemic and maybe not territorial necessarily?”
Mary L. Dudziak, a professor of law, history and political science at the University of Southern California Law School, said that her students demanded that their professors pay attention to the place of the United States in the world. They were suddenly interested in Islam. When Professor McAlister of George Washington University started teaching in 1996, she said, “You kind of had to make an argument for why someone in an American history class would have to think about global issues.”
The history of civil liberties, too, has attracted new interest. Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia University who describes himself as a liberal, said the years since 9/11 have focused attention on what he called the “up and down in the history of liberty in our country. It’s not a constant feature in American society; respect for civil liberties is really rather recent, and it’s fragile.”
Thomas L. Haskell, a Rice University historian who calls himself independent-minded politically, uses excerpts from Alexis de Tocqueville’s writings about tyranny of the majority in his course on American intellectual and cultural history. After watching media coverage of the attack on the World Trade Center, he recalls going immediately before his class and making a prediction that civil liberties would “take a beating.”
He based his forecast or declaration on the past — the Haymarket episode in Chicago in 1886, the “first Red scare” after World War I, the incarceration of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. In an interview, Professor Haskell said he disapproved of professors propagandizing but believed they owe it to their students to identify their values. So, he said, he had made a point of bringing the issue of torture to his students’ attention.
Having spent 11 months in Saigon as an adviser to the Vietnamese navy during the Vietnam War, he said he believed he was in a position to challenge the Bush administration’s suggestions that the nature of the terrorist threat justifies loosening the rules on interrogation methods. He said he has looked for opportunities in the material he teaches to raise that issue.
He said he had experienced something of a turnaround in his own thinking.
“The appalling crudity and brutality involved in the settlement of Virginia back in the 17th century does take on a new relevance,” he said. “I think all those episodes of majoritarianism run amok do begin to fall into a pattern that has to make us wonder: What is it about American culture that puts us into this position time after time?”
Also: see ideas for teaching about 9/11 on the Ed Justice blog site. Simply click on the link.
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