Monday, September 26, 2011

My 9/11 Was Not My Students’

John Gardner

We have recently commemorated the tenth anniversary of 9/11. All of our entering college students were old enough for that to register in some way 10 years ago. But given that many of them were still children, it may or may not be their generation’s 9/11. I remember where I was ten years ago: in Provence, a most beautiful part of France, with my wife and a retired British academic couple, on holiday. That was a good thing because when we turned on the television late that afternoon our friends understood and spoke French and we didn’t.  We could only let the horrible pictures speak for themselves. I hate to admit that I couldn’t help but wondering what will be the “9/11” for the students who enter this fall, 2011. Our second thoughts turned to the realization of who was in the White House and what in his previous life as an ex fraternity boy at Yale could possibly have prepared him to lead us forward.

This suggests to me an exercise of sorts for use with beginning undergraduates. Have them reflect on what they recall from the actual time period surrounding the attack on the United States by Al Qaeda. Ask them what they understand about the US response to this in terms of the more immediate invasion of Afghanistan, leading to now the longest war in US history; and then the voluntary war against Iraq. See what they understand about the financial consequences of the combination of increased expenditures for these two conflicts combined with a reduction in government revenues through lowered tax rates. Make sure they understand how these events influenced the presidential election of 2008; and what have been the successor administration’s responses to many of these continuing challenges.

This could easily be combined with a discussion of other events in US history that are most often compared to 9/11, namely, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. And I think it is very important to add to those two, the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1986 (and to be complete in this tragic litany, the assassination two months later of Robert Kennedy, whom most of our new students will have no knowledge of).

For my generation, it was, of course, the assassination of President Kennedy. Just as my father told me repeatedly that he could remember where he was, what he was doing (watching a football game in a stadium), and how he felt when he first received the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. In his case he wanted to volunteer for active duty but because he was managing a factory that made war materials he was deemed essential to the national defense as a non-combatant. I cannot recall all the times he told me how much he regretted that determination. More than I will ever be able to fully appreciate, I fear that lack of military experience shaped the rest of his life, particularly how he felt about it.

And then directly to me, on a beautiful late November Friday, I was sitting in a class in a course in political philosophy. I remember where the class was(what building—one my alma mater in subsequent years converted to a student union, but failed to get student input and the result was  a colossal brick elephant largely unused by students!), and who my professor was. I remember him vividly as he had already had quite an influence on me. Two years earlier he had gotten me into a lifetime adult habit:  reading the daily New York Times. I didn’t realize then because our country really didn’t have such antennae as we do now---but he was really very, very conservative. In fact, as I later learned, he had done his graduate work at the University of Chicago and been one of Leo Strauss’s students, Straus being the intellectual idol of the so called “neo-con” movement of the first decade of the twenty-first century, a group who collectively influenced the policy formulation in the Pentagon and the White House that brought us the invasion of Iraq. Our class was discussing its reading of Plato’s Republic (one of the most influential books I read in college), and we were just at that juncture where Plato was going to reveal his answer to the question of “who should be king?” (i.e. philosophers). As I had learned this was really about a much more universal and eternal question: what is justice? It was so warm that afternoon in southern Ohio,  that the classroom windows were open and we could hear a commotion of people outside on the campus. We soon learned that these were the bell ringers sounding the death knell for our dynamic, young president, who had inspired so many of my generation, particularly affluent children of privilege such as me. The class broke up in quiet confusion and shock. I left the building and wandered across the street where I talked to other students congregating. But I soon left them for my own solitary meditation, not prayer; I was not a praying kind of college student. Several days later when the decision was announced that the following Monday would be a class holiday in observance of the national day of mourning, to my utter dismay and astonishment, there was actual jubilation in my residence hall when my fellow student realized that the cancellation of classes for Monday meant only Tuesday classes remained before the Thanksgiving holiday began for 1963 and so, “might was well”, cut the Tuesday classes and go home much earlier for an extended Thanksgiving holiday. My reaction to my fellow students was one more of a growing number of messages I was getting from my college experience that I was going to grow up and somehow be different—I didn’t know how yet—from the conventional pack.

So on this occasion I thought of all these memories and much more. And I am still thinking about them. I hope you will engage your students in reflection on what all this meant, and means.