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Opinion
Social Studies Commentary

9/11/01 and 4/18/06

By Edwin J. Delattre — January 23, 2002 8 min read
Two cities, two centuries, one tale of coping with catastrophe

The philosopher William James spent half of the spring semester of 1906 as an acting professor at Stanford University. James and his wife, Alice, were in their beds in their small Palo Alto apartment early on the morning of April 18, 1906, when the San Francisco earthquake shook the area for 48 seconds. James was able later in the morning to make his way by train to San Francisco. He arrived at about noon and left to return to Palo Alto at about 4 in the afternoon. James went to San Francisco again eight days later. Six weeks after that, James’ article, “Some Mental Effects of the Earthquake,” appeared in the June 7, 1906, edition of the Youth’s Companion.

The article is precisely the sort of reading that teachers and middle and secondary school students should be doing now. They will find included in James’ account of 4/18/06 and its aftermath the very same kinds of human character, responses, and achievements that all of us have witnessed during and since 9/11/01. The James article is literature, not mere journalism, and it offers students a glimpse of history with a far more insightful and reliable understanding of human nature and conduct than they get from today’s media-driven accounts of current events. The James article also provides an opportunity for comparison, where students may suspect or discern differences between what James witnessed and what they have witnessed.

Having served as an assistant to the naturalist Louis Agassiz during an expedition to Brazil 40 years earlier, James had learned that nothing can be understood in any depth without knowledge of facts and details. He had formed over the years the acute powers of observation and logical inference by which he wrote the two greatest works of his career: Principles of Psychology (published in 1890) and The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (James’ Gifford Lectures of 1901-1902). Today’s students, many of them having been taught contempt for facts and details, need to learn the same lessons James learned. They will not do so by looking at current events without attention to history. Without living as students in other times and places, they will not, as C.S. Lewis put it, be in any “degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of [their] own age.”

In his Youth’s Companion article, James offered brief but spellbinding descriptions of behavior and conditions in San Francisco on the morning of the earthquake and of visible progress during the next eight days:

In recent months, our daughters and sons have heard from one incompetent talking head after another the pronouncement that 9/11/01 was the worst day in American history.

By midday, when we reached the city, the pall of smoke was vast and the dynamite detonations had begun, but the troops, the police and firemen, seemed to have established order, dangerous neighborhoods were roped off everywhere and picketed, saloons closed, vehicles impressed, every one at work who could work. ... Every horse and everything on wheels in the city, from hucksters’ wagons to automobiles, was being loaded with what effects could be scraped together from houses which the advancing flames were threatening . ... I saw no one eating. There was no appearance of general dismay, and little of chatter or inco-ordinated excitement. ... Every one seemed doggedly bent on achieving the job which he had set himself to perform. ... Physical fatigue and seriousness were the only inner states that one could read on countenances.

James went on to describe, in retrospect, his two most striking impressions, “both reassuring as to human nature":

The first of these was the rapidity of the improvisation of order out of chaos. It is clear that just as in every thousand human beings there will be statistically so many artists, so many athletes, so many thinkers, and so many potentially good soldiers, so there will be so many good organizers in times of emergency. In point of fact, not only in the great city, but in the outlying towns, these natural ordermakers, whether amateurs or officials, came to the front immediately. There seemed to be no possibility which there was not some one there to think of, or which within 24 hours was not in some way provided for. ... In Palo Alto ... within 24 hours, rations, clothing, hospital, quarantine, disinfection, washing, police, military, quarters in camp and in houses, printed information, employment, all were provided for under the care of so many volunteer committees.

The second thing that struck me was the universal equanimity. ... Surely the cutting edge of all our usual misfortunes comes from their character of loneliness. We lose our health, our wife or children die, our house burns down, or our money is made away with, and the world goes on rejoicing, leaving us on one side and counting us out from all its business. In California every one, to some degree, was suffering, and one’s private miseries were merged in the vast general sum of privation and in the all-absorbing practical problem of general recuperation. The cheerfulness, or, at any rate, the steadfastness of tone, was universal. Not a single whine or plaintive word did I hear from the hundred losers whom I spoke to. Instead of that there was a temper of helpfulness beyond counting.

James cautioned against supposing these virtues, these dispositions and actions, to be exclusively Californian, or somehow limited to Americans:

In our drawing rooms and offices we wonder how people ever do go through battles, sieges, and shipwrecks. We quiver and sicken in imagination, and think these heroes superhuman. ... But mental pathos and anguish, I fancy, are usually effects of distance. At the place of action, where all are concerned together, healthy animal insensibility and heartiness take their place. At San Francisco the need will continue to be awful, and there will doubtless be a crop of nervous wrecks before the weeks and months are over, but meanwhile, the commonest men, simply because they are men, will go on, singly and collectively, showing this admirable fortitude of temper.

In recent months, our daughters and sons have heard from one incompetent talking head after another the pronouncement that 9/11/01 was the worst day in American history. I would not venture any such pronouncement, although in terms of human costs and in moral, intellectual, civic, military, and economic catastrophe, a number of alternative candidates come readily to mind: the day slavery first landed on the American continent, the day Abraham Lincoln died, the days of the stock market crash in 1929, the day we decided to fight a war in Vietnam without real justification and without deciding to fight to win, the day we abandoned the detailed study of historical facts in school curricula and condemned students to the massive ignorance of a frail grip on a few isolated current events, all the days put together since 1979 when we have looked the other way after terrorists have murdered Americans in foreign countries and inside the United States.

‘Every one seemed doggedly bent on achieving the job which he had set himself to perform. ... Physical fatigue and seriousness were the only inner states that one could read on countenances.’

Obviously, the horror of slavery is not of a day, but of generations. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln is an act that informs the postbellum history of the nation. The crash of the stock market marked long-term mistakes and indulgences and precipitated years of Depression and suffering. Political cowardice, educational incompetence, and civic indifference do not come or go in a day. All this, students should learn, lest they, like talking heads who know little or nothing of the past, suppose history to be no more than the episodes of one or another day.

Still, many days 4/15/65; 10/24/29; 12/7/41; 8/5/64; 11/4/79; 8/7/98; 9/11/01— should be etched in the memories of our daughters and sons, and with them chronicles of human infamy, failure, and depravity. Our children should read as well narratives of days by the likes of William James that describe human hope, resolve, and courage: 7/4/76; 4/30/89; 1/1/63; 12/18/65; 3/30/70; 4/18/06; 8/26/20; and, again, 12/7/41 and 9/11/01.—4/15/65; 10/24/29; 12/7/41; 8/5/64; 11/4/79; 8/7/98; 9/11/01—should be etched in the memories of our daughters and sons, and with them chronicles of human infamy, failure, and depravity. Our children should read as well narratives of days by the likes of William James that describe human hope, resolve, and courage: 7/4/76; 4/30/89; 1/1/63; 12/18/65; 3/30/70; 4/18/06; 8/26/20; and, again, 12/7/41 and 9/11/01.

With such study our students have the prospect of acquiring a sense of historical proportion and of gaining the independence of mind that only factual knowledge can make possible.

Editor’s Note: The dates cited in the final paragraph of this essay include, in order: April 15, 1865, Lincoln’s death; Oct. 24, 1929, Black Thursday of the stock market crash; Dec. 7, 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor; Aug. 5, 1964, passage of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution; Nov. 4, 1979, seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran; Aug. 7, 1998, bombing of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam; Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

July 4, 1776, signing of the Declaration of Independence; April 30, 1789, inauguration of George Washington as first U.S. president; Jan. 1, 1863, issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation; Dec. 18, 1865, declared ratification of the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery; March 30, 1870, declared ratification of the 15th Amendment guaranteeing the franchise irrespective of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude"; April 26, 1920, declared ratification of the 19th Amendment prohibiting denial of the right to vote “on account of sex.”

Edwin J. Delattre is a resident scholar at the Center for School Improvement and a professor of philosophy at Boston University in Boston.

A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2002 edition of Education Week as 9/11/01 and 4/18/06

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