Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

Reaching the 9/11 Generation

By Christopher L. Doyle — September 11, 2012 7 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

What does it mean to belong to the 9/11 generation?

When Vice President Joe Biden applied this label to this year’s graduating class at West Point, he noted that the cadets were “young enough that that tragic day need not have shaped your lives.” Indeed, we may have moved on from 9/11 and, for many Americans, the war on terror registers as all but invisible. My high school students, however, fit the vice president’s criteria for membership in the 9/11 generation—those old enough to remember the day, in elementary school on the day. They have been shaped perniciously by events traceable to September 11, 2001.

I came to the idea of teaching 9/11 and the war on terror in 2005 after realizing that my upper-middle-class public school students knew very little about either. Seven years on, a trend has emerged: Opinion polls show diminished enthusiasm for the war, and my classes’ moral outlook has hardened.

The tough-mindedness of these kids shows in their comments: Civilian death in war is inevitable, justifiable collateral damage. It is acceptable to kill disarmed, nonresisting captives in the war on terror. Competition between people and nations is good because it sorts successes from failures and improves the species. (“By the way,” one high achiever added, “I don’t want to go to school with those failures!”) Turning the other cheek to violence, or using Gandhian civil disobedience, is pointless and not applicable today. International tribunals of justice are futile. Accused captives might just as well be summarily executed. It does no good to protest an unjust war because those in power would be unresponsive or would punish dissenters. Such protest is also unpatriotic.

Students articulate these ideas stridently. The occasional outlier who challenges them is in for a lonely fight.

BRIC ARCHIVE

A recent encounter with this kind of thinking came as my “war on terror” class read journalist Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War. In his account of the war in Iraq, Filkins describes two U.S. Marine snipers making snap judgments about shooting insurgents hiding among noncombatants. “We dropped a few civilians,” one of them admitted, “but what do you do?” Ecstatic over his insurgent body count, the other shrugged off a civilian’s death saying, “I’m sorry, but the chick got in the way.” No one in class saw that woman’s death as avoidable. Asked if it would have been better to let the guerrillas go and not put civilians at risk, no one thought so.

In an essay invoking the scene, a student compared the war to “a violent video game. Players [like the sniper] want to test their skill, and sometimes they make mistakes.” This metaphor typifies a generational outlook. Prone to connect killing with gaming, the 9/11 generation engages violence in different ways than did the baby boomers. They ingest violent imagery more frequently on a subconscious level, and they encounter it more systematically in daily life.

Recent scholarship on childhood and adolescence has linked a proclivity to violence with rampant consumerism, video games, computers, social media, and the contradictory messages American popular culture sends young people. “Virtual” violence is unprecedented for blending visual intimacy, realism, and interactivity accompanied by the emotional distance of electronica.

Sure, expert study of kids and violence can sound alarmist, but almost none of it has inquired into the war on terror’s effects. Yet, as one student told me, that war has been the “background noise” of the 9/11 generation’s formative years. This includes graphic images of torture, mutilation, death, and humiliation: from Abu Ghraib to recent YouTube videos of U.S. Marines urinating on Afghan corpses. It also involves American leaders publicly promoting the use of torture, including simulated drowning or “waterboarding,” and celebrating the killing of an unarmed Osama bin Laden. Young people absorb all this, and it desensitizes them.

Undismayed about violence, the 9/11 generation finds competition bracing. Some of their sentiments about the value of competitive struggle can be chalked up to middle-class anxiety. Getting into the right college has become an adolescent rite of passage consuming immense familial energy and money. My students are high school juniors and seniors running flat-out toward that goal; they learn to see classmates, and the world generally, as rivals. After all, how many times have they been told they are being groomed “to compete in the global economy”?

Sometimes imbibing the cultural cocktail of graphic gaming, academic competition, and desensitization to violence can be lethal. It is suggestive that several of the shooting rampages in the news over the past few years, including the recent Colorado-theater debacle, were perpetrated by young people who either washed out of higher education or imagined themselves at a competitive disadvantage. Their perceived failure apparently triggered a downward spiral from reality, eroding the boundaries between movies, games, and real life. Of course, these constitute extreme cases, but they emerge from a context of callousness.

In my classroom, I have found ways to make headway against such callousness: The right questions challenge students. I ask about civilian deaths in previous wars and how the perpetrators are judged historically, whether killing civilians advances U.S. interests in counter insurgencies, what my students know about the Geneva Conventions and the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, and about my kids’ personal morality and its sources.

Guest speakers who have seen combat offer a terrific antidote to kids who sound blasé about killing. I have had veterans visit my classes repeatedly; they never fail to challenge stereotypes about war. Whether talking about an Afghan boy run over and killed by a U.S. military vehicle, his grieving parents, or their own post-traumatic-stress disorder, the vets put the humanity back into war’s victims. My school has hosted survivors of the Holocaust and Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge who do the same, while invariably expressing reverence for life.

Recent scholarship on childhood and adolescence has linked a proclivity to violence with rampant consumerism, video games, computers, social media, and the contradictory messages American popular culture sends young people."

Getting different perspectives on violence matters, too. My classroom went quiet when a vet’s wife said that going to war had “sucked out his soul like what dementors do to people in Harry Potter"; the simile hit kids perfectly. They peppered another guest, a clinical psychologist who treats victims of torture, with questions. She had traveled to Guantanamo Bay and evaluated two detainees held there since they were teenagers and subjected to “enhanced interrogation.” My students were also moved by a field trip they took to the 9/11 Tribute Center near Ground Zero. They were bowled over by docents who lost loved ones on 9/11, but refused to succumb to hate.

Films also work. The Errol Morris documentary “The Fog of War” shocks my classes, especially when former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara talks about the need for proportionality of violence in war and admits that his role in the firebombing of Japanese cities during World War II was a war crime. As an old man, McNamara appeared in the movie looking for ways back to his humanity.

To succeed, my questions, the speakers, the literature, and the films have to break through kids’ tendency to detach. These techniques must also engage this generation’s unique moral potential. Many of my students are enthusiastic about community service, sensitive to ethnic and sexual diversity, and committed to anti-bullying efforts and animal rights. Some are creative artists, actors, and musicians. They often reveal playful senses of humor, and they have a high capacity for candor. Quite a few have traveled widely and have heightened regard for cultural differences. They do not incline to ethnic stereotyping, and they evince a cosmopolitan awareness. I respect their honesty, am amazed by their talent, and I like them. The dissonance between what they say in class and how they behave generally shows how varied their influences are and how difficult it is to pigeonhole them.

I believe we adults must work to reorient their moral compasses while facing up to the fact that a war culture has existed for over a decade. It has coarsened us and shaped the 9/11 generation. Over that same decade, we have obsessed about “leaving no child behind” and “racing to the top” educationally. But what good is academic success if it comes coupled with moral vacuity?

A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2012 edition of Education Week as The 9/11 Generation: An Exit Strategy for Moral Hardness in the Classroom

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
When SEL Curriculum Is Not Enough: Integrating Social-Emotional Behavior Supports in MTSS
Help ensure the success of your SEL program with guidance for building capacity to support implementation at every tier of your MTSS.
Content provided by Illuminate Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Profession Webinar
Professional Wellness Strategies to Enhance Student Learning and Live Your Best Life
Reduce educator burnout with research-affirmed daily routines and strategies that enhance achievement of educators and students alike. 
Content provided by Solution Tree
English-Language Learners Webinar The Science of Reading and Multilingual Learners: What Educators Need to Know
Join experts in reading science and multilingual literacy to discuss what the latest research means for multilingual learners in classrooms adopting a science of reading-based approach.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Alex Jones Ordered to Pay $45.2M More Over Sandy Hook Lies
A Texas jury has ordered conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay $45.2 million, adding to the $4.1 million he already has to pay.
6 min read
Alex Jones attempts to answer questions during a trial at the Travis County Courthouse in Austin on Aug. 3.
Alex Jones attempts to answer questions during a trial at the Travis County Courthouse in Austin on Aug. 3.
Briana Sanchez/Austin American-Statesman via AP
School Climate & Safety Shouldn't Classroom Doors Lock From the Inside? Here's Why Many Don't
Lack of money, logistics, and fire safety regulations are keeping schools from changing door locks.
7 min read
Fifth grade teachers Edith Bonazza, left, and Patricia Castro teach their students at Oak Terrace Elementary School in Highwood, Ill., part of the North Shore school district, on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020.
Twenty-five percent of U.S. public schools lack classroom doors that can be locked from the inside, according to the most recent data from the National Center on Education Statistics.
Nam Y. Huh/AP
School Climate & Safety Opinion How Do We Collaborate When Tensions Are Running High?
Conflict is all around us these days, but don't despair. Education and DEI leaders offer their ideas to foster collaboration.
Sean Slade
5 min read
Screen Shot 2022 07 24 at 3.15.30 PM
Shutterstock
School Climate & Safety Texas School Principal Disputes Findings on Uvalde School Shooting
Mandy Gutierrez argues there was not a “culture of complacency” over safety at Robb Elementary School.
2 min read
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden comfort principal Mandy Gutierrez as superintendent Hal Harrell stands next to them at a memorial outside Robb Elementary School on May 29.
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden comfort principal Mandy Gutierrez as superintendent Hal Harrell stands next to them at a memorial outside Robb Elementary School on May 29.
Dario Lopez-Mills/AP