Student Well-Being Commentary

Inventing the Future, Post 9/11

By Nicholas O'Han — October 02, 2002 6 min read
Students have a role to play in civic renewal.

Along with 5,000 other New Yorkers, I attended “Listening to New York,” an extraordinary “town meeting” designed to elicit the public’s views on rebuilding Lower Manhattan and designing a memorial to commemorate the victims of the terrorist attack on New York City. It was a bracing object lesson in the possibilities of participatory democracy. As a citizen, I admired the willingness of our civic and political leaders to open up the process and to value the opinions of all New Yorkers. As an educator, however, I was struck again by the absence of students in the remarkable citywide conversation that has been taking place since last fall. Now that the city and the nation have commemorated the first anniversary of those tragic events, my colleagues and I feel more strongly than ever that it is critical to include students in this conversation. We must and will rebuild our city, but ultimately the revitalization of our civic culture will be the most powerful response to terrorism. Our young people must be a part of it.

In the days following the attack on our city, New Yorkers shared, as the urbanist Michael Sorkin eloquently put it, a “citizenship of common loss,” but also—and increasingly as time passed—of common hope. Nowhere was that loss and that hope more intensely and collectively experienced than in New York City’s classrooms. Our teachers thought only of the children who were their responsibility, and in turn, our students inspired the best in us. None of us will ever forget those first hours, first days, and first weeks. I remember driving home the last of my students, who had no other way to get uptown, late on the afternoon of Sept. 11. I finally returned to my own apartment after what seemed like an eternity. I hadn’t seen my wife all day, although she is the lower school principal at our school. I told her what it was like at the high school that morning. She looked at me and said simply that she had stood with a class of 5- year-olds watching the towers fall. There was nothing more to say. We all have such haunting, indelible memories, which will stay with us forever.

But we have other memories, equally indelible. If the opening days of school in September 2001 were different from any others, so was the school year that followed. It was a time of uncommon civility and generosity and of a collective search for meanings. At first grieving and shaken, my students were soon bursting with an unquenchable determination to understand what had happened and to be a part of the healing process. At our school, not far from what we were soon calling Ground Zero, they organized a moving candlelight ceremony, and a few weeks later, a community sing with local police officers and firefighters. Throughout the year, they wrote essays and stories, they painted bold images, they mounted theater productions, and they engaged in countless classroom discussions and debates—all in an effort to grapple with the meanings, the consequences, and the implications of Sept. 11. An art history class installed a mural in the school’s common room, weaving from the shards of individual memories a powerful, collective expression of what it was like to be there that fateful day. In the spring, I taught an urban studies seminar in which students examined the city with newfound passion. Colleagues from other schools have told me of similar outpourings of creativity and serious engagement with the entire gamut of unprecedented issues that suddenly confronted the students and educators of New York last fall.

The story of New York City’s comeback, the rebuilding of our infrastructure, but also the renewal of our civic spirit, must be written in collaboration with our students. Our schools, though all too often we seem to have forgotten, should be the laboratories—indeed, the shrines—of our democracy. They should provide students, as John Dewey would have it, with the instruments of self-direction and civic consciousness. But most civics education is formalistic, abstract, and distant from the issues that affect the lives our students lead. The public environment in which our students find themselves growing up is dauntingly complex. The media saturate youth culture with messages of commercial manipulation. It should come as no surprise that young people often feel overwhelmed by the magnitude and complexity of issues of public policy and governance. One of our primary goals as educators should be to reverse that equation, to place young people in a position to understand how government and civil society operate, empower them to feel they can have an impact, be agents of their own destiny, and make a contribution to the collective destiny of their communities.

One of our primary goals as educators should be to place young people in a position to understand how government and civil society operate.

Sparked by work done at the Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School, New York City’s educators have begun this important process. The Urban Citizen Project creates strategic partnerships that bring together educators and community leaders to design experiential, problem-based, and student- centered learning that prepares students for active citizenship and informed civic involvement. The Urban Citizen Project proceeds from three basic principles. First, students learn when they are personally invested in the subject matter, when formal concepts are embedded in meaningful contexts, and when they work alongside adults who care about them and have wisdom and expertise to share. Second, civic education must build on firsthand experiences of local governing mechanisms, political structures, and critical issues—these should provide the “core content” of meaningful education for democracy. Third, their educational experience must provide students with opportunities to develop and apply the civic skills, knowledge, and values that democracy requires of its citizens—in real-world situations that resonate with meaning for their own lives and the life of their communities.

This winter, the Urban Citizen Project will host a conference titled “Re-Imagining New York.” Its objective will be to involve students actively in the process of rebuilding, renewing, and revitalizing the city. Students from public and private schools across New York City will work alongside political and civic leaders, scholars, community activists, architects, and urban planners. They will learn from experts in economic development, environmental impact, housing, education, and transportation. They will meet with residents of Lower Manhattan, who have the largest stake in the plans to rebuild on the World Trade Center site. Conversely, they will also study the ways other cities around the world have recovered from their own cataclysmic events. Ultimately, they will develop their own ideas about what a new downtown—indeed, what a future New York—might become, and they will work on designs for a memorial that ensures that we will always remember and learn from the past even as we imagine and invent the future.

The New York City our civic leaders have pledged to listen to must include New York's students.

Perhaps the most important legacy of the fateful time we have lived through will be the revival of civic culture that last year’s tragic events have spurred. Our schools must be partners in that revival.

Today’s students are tomorrow’s citizens and civic leaders. They must understand—not only here in New York, but also across the nation—how democracy works and be motivated to become actively involved. As Dewey, and Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann before him, told us long ago, American schools have a special responsibility to provide our young people with an education in democracy.

The New York City our civic leaders have pledged to listen to must include New York’s students. There is a lot to learn. But if given the opportunity, they also have a great deal to offer those whose responsibility it is to leave them a better place in which to live. New York’s teachers know. They’ve been listening to them.

Nicholas O’Han is the high school principal at Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School and the director of the Urban Citizen Project in New York City.

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