Don't Know Much About History...
The first hint I got about the gaps in my students' background knowledge came early on in my teaching career. In a homework assignment a student wrote that Aristotle had quoted Shakespeare. Another thought that when that Greek philosopher mentioned a theater, he was talking about going to the movies.
I wasn't surprised that those students knew little about ancient Athens; there's no reason to expect them to arrive at college versed in Greek philosophy. But something far more basic was missing: a sense of the sweep of what Americans call "western" history -- a chronological grid on which to pin the key movements and events that shape today's world. I soon found myself putting a giant timeline on the blackboard on which the students would try to place the authors we were reading. Then we'd fill it in with other world events.
Even the relatively short history of the United States occupies a strangely flattened state in many of their imaginations. In their minds, for instance, all of the country's wars -- especially those of the twentieth century -- seem to run together, making it hard to understand how one war can lead to another.
My pre-collegiate history education was not really much better than theirs, but it was somewhat different. I grew up in Washington, D.C., in the days when Congress ran the city directly, including defining the curriculum for elementary and secondary school students. We were required to take three cracks at American history (in fifth, eighth, and twelfth grade). Repeatedly, we spent so much time on the 13 original colonies that, by the day school let out for the year, we had barely reached World War I. I never did find out what happened after that, not in school anyway. Nowadays, schools have speeded things up a bit and the war they never get to happened in Vietnam.
I'm certainly not the first person to discover that, for new generations, foundational events in her own life -- the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the women's liberation movement, even the first Gulf War -- are, to the young, history almost as ancient as the Civil War. Why should they know about such things? They weren't even born yet .
But here's a surprising development -- surprising because this last decade and a half seems to have flown past so quickly. I'm now encountering students who have no memory of an event that has shaped their lives, this country, and much of the world for the last 16 years: the 9/11 attacks.
The Early Years
The first undergraduates I taught were already in their teens on 9/11, which meant that those attacks formed a historic dividing point in their lives. For them, as for the coterie of men who would lead this country to the "dark side" (to use Vice President Dick Cheney's admonitory phrase), there was a "before 9/11 and an after 9/11."
After 9/11, they lived in a nation "at war." The United States was suddenly fighting an enemy that, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told "Meet the Press" less than a month after the attacks, "is not just in Afghanistan. It is in 50 or 60 countries and," he added, "it simply has to be liquidated." Little did they -- or the rest of us -- know that the liquid this protean enemy most resembled was a blob of mercury, which multiplies into hundreds of separate droplets when you hit it.
Recently, former CIA director and retired general David Petraeus admitted to Judy Woodruff of the PBS NewsHour that the war on terror's first battlefield, Afghanistan, has become the locus of a "generational struggle," one that more than a decade and a half later is not "going to be won in a few years."
I've watched that generational struggle as it developed in the classroom. My first students had friends and relations fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. One young woman's uncle, a man in his late forties, was a surgeon who had been "reactivated" and sent to Iraq years after completing his active service. In fact, it turns out that everyone who joins the military signs on for eight years, whether they know it or not. Any of those years not spent on active duty or in the "drilling" Reserves still leaves you in the "Individual Ready Reserves," as many were surprised to discover when the U.S. Army ran short of personnel to fight two simultaneous land wars.
A few students had partners fighting overseas and their worry was painful to observe. Soon enough, I had women students whose male partners were returning from those wars as changed -- and dangerous -- men. Several confided (either to me privately or to an entire class) that they'd had to move out because they feared for their safety.
And soon one of our school's graduates, Jennifer Moreno, died in combat.
Every September, the Army would appear on campus. Arriving in gleaming Hummers, they'd erect a portable climbing wall and pass out glossy recruitment literature, encouraging students to join ROTC. Once, I was stunned by the courage of four young women, who stood off to the side of the show holding up homemade antiwar signs. Then one fall, the recruiters didn't show up at all. I never knew whether it was because the wars had fallen out of favor with the board of my Jesuit university or because troop drawdowns had eased recruitment pressure. All I knew was that it probably wasn't thanks to those brave students with their hand-drawn signs.
In the early years, more than one ROTC member admitted to me (or our class) that he or she doubted the Bush administration's rationale for the war in Iraq. One young man from Guam explained that, having accepted a scholarship ("my ticket off the island"), he was duty-bound to fight in Iraq despite his doubts. "I know that in basic training, they try to take you apart as a person and then put you back together as a soldier," he told me. "I want you to know that I'm not going to let that happen to me." I've often wondered what did happen to him.