Based on the research I've been gathering for the past year, presented in my new book, oral history emerged as the most prominent and popular, as well as arguably the most effective, way teachers engaged their students in learning about 9/11. Several aspects made this a good fit for teachers wanting to engage their students beyond surface, inadequate or in fact nonexistent explanations of the events of 9/11 in most textbooks.
First oral histories are a strong fit for the goals of peace education in general. As I note in my new book, the use of oral histories helps students imagine themselves as participants and agents in the unfolding drama of history, not just readers or students. From the stand point of a peace educator’s commitment towards social justice, this is key. Otherwise students are less able to imagine themselves as powerful actors capable of bringing about change. Too often students understand history as something they are removed from that is either irrelevant to today or which they don’t really have access to. Howard Zinn seminally warned against this elite top-down approach to history, calling attention to the dangers of such an approach for the health of a democracy.
Oral history is a much more engaging approach for students than the average history textbook as well. By asking students to gather oral histories of 9/11 from parents, other relatives or neighbors, students connected with the obviously painful emotional content of the material. Oral histories thus allowed students to view history something as directly relevant to themselves, addressing a constant concern of history teachers.
Pragmatically speaking, oral histories also meet state and local curriculum requirements for writing, research, critical thinking and oral presentation. In an era (at least in the US) of standardization and “objective” testing, teachers are typically required to demonstrate a direct connection between what they do and a particular state objective. 9/11 is not “on the test” in many cases so teachers wishing to address it must be creative and sometimes even subversive when addressing it, especially if doing so in a perceived non-orthodox manner.
Oral histories also helped address some challenges specifically regarding teaching 9/11, according to my qualitative data. Because the 9/11 era remains such a controversial and politicized topic, teachers needed way to allow students to access multiple historical views and narratives of what occurred. Oral histories provided for this multi-vocality as students were bound to encounter a variety of views in their interviews.
Oral history in the classroom can also be thought of as a collective methodology. Students learned in community with the family members or others that they interviewed. They also strengthened/built community in the classroom as most teachers using this lesson asked students to present what they had found in their interviews. Oral history also helped students understand the gravity and emotional power of 9/11, its massive significance to US history, since it allows students to access primary sources (i.e. the people they are interviewing). Hearing the memories of the terror and shock of that day directly from people who experienced it in the course of gathering oral histories also allowed students to access what educators call the “affective domain”, that is, the realm of emotion rather than mere intellect. This is a much more powerful and long-lasting type of knowledge. For these reasons, asking students to gather oral histories regarding the experiences of older friends and family on 9/11/2001 proved to be one of the most popular lessons by those few teachers who did decide to implement a full lesson or unit on the 9/11 era.