9/11 and The Enlightenment--Christine D. Myers

“Learning Enlightenment After September 11th”

By Christine D. Myers



In the fall semester of 2001 I was hired to teach two sections of the History of Modern Europe, 1700 to the present. I was on my way to the third day of class when the first tower fell on September 11th. Despite the fact that my classroom had a TV, VCR, and cable hook-up, I had no access to actual television stations, so I quickly made the decision to take my students to the university center (union) to watch the events unfold. I did the same for my second class later in the morning. As we, like most of the nation, tried to find out what had happened, I was asked numerous questions on any manner of topics. Because I have a Ph.D. I was, of course, supposed to know all the answers: “Where do you think they’re taking the President?…Well, I’d guess somewhere in the middle of the country so they’re sure he’s safe.” “Who do you think did it?…Well, it certainly looks like terrorism, it’s unlikely that three planes crashed into buildings on a perfectly clear day….” Our next class period on Thursday was spent answering more questions, going over a brief history of the religion of Islam (what surprise when predominantly Christian students find out the religions have the same roots), and trying to place the events in historical perspective…was the news right to compare it with Pearl Harbor? Or Hiroshima and Nagasaki?? The class was also a chance for the students to start to process some of what they were thinking and feeling, as very few of their other professors were even allowing them to bring the subject up.

When we returned to “normal” class material the following week, our first topic of discussion was the Enlightenment. Although French, German, and Scottish philosophers of the eighteenth century seem as far removed from the events of September 11th as possible, the result in class was far from typical. In previous (and subsequent) semesters, the day we “do” the Enlightenment is usually one of the least enjoyable by myself and my students alike. Intellectual history tends to be the most mystifying, and most difficult for students to grasp. Considering most of my students were in their first or second year, with a limited world view, it is often a challenge to make the Enlightenment seem relevant to them. After September 11th, however, the Enlightenment provided the students with a way to comfortably discuss, and at least partially understand, the events of the previous week.

The main reading we had for the day was Immanuel Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” While we only read excerpts, the key ideas are clear. Student debates over whether or not mankind is immature and lacks reason were marked by a heightened sense of awareness. Normally obscure concepts like freedom, liberty, and reason now had new light shining on them. Kant argues that “It is because of laziness and cowardice that it is so easy for others to usurp the role of guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor!”1 While many historians and philosophers can see how appropriate this statement is to college-aged students, they often do not see it themselves. But in a time of national crisis, when they wanted answers and wanted “the truth” about what was going on in their world, they began to realize how much more there was to know in order to try to get at those answers for themselves.

The topic that got the most time and attention was the line society draws between freedom and security. While the concepts may have, on the pages of Kant, still seemed fuzzy, the practical implications being played out in America at the time were easy to debate. Should we have the freedom of curbside check-in at the airport, or does that make us unsafe? What about access at the borders? What type of restrictions should we place on foreign exchange students who come to university in America? All of a sudden, Kant was talking about things the students could understand, and teaching the Enlightenment became easy, even enjoyable, not the teeth-pulling it usually was.

The other unexpected benefit of September 11th on my classes was the “bonding” opportunity it provided for me and my students. As a new faculty member at an institution it can take a considerable amount of time to build trust and respect with your students. Helping them through a crisis situation brought each of my classes together to a significant extent. For the remainder of the semester I set aside time at the start of each class for students to ask questions about or discuss new developments in the “war on terror”. The only negative side effect from my own perspective was a good deal of over-exposure to the news coverage. I felt obligated to try to sift through as much information for my students as possible, but wound up watching far too many replays of the footage, and far too many interviews with loved ones than anyone should have. Still my students did appreciate my efforts (as evidenced in comments to me or on their evaluations), so I do not regret the extra stress I placed on myself.

At the end of the semester I gave my students one last, organized opportunity to vent about September 11th if they wanted to. On the final exam they had a cumulative essay to write, based on a quote I supplied them with. The basic topic was for them to determine whether or not they felt civilization has been progressing from 1700 to the present. They were supposed to use three main examples from European history to defend their answer and, if they liked, they could add their thoughts on September 11th for extra credit. The essays I received were often surprising, as I honestly would have expected more students to argue that as a civilization we are not progressing. Many answers also showed a great amount of maturity, to use Kant’s term, in assessing America’s role in the world today, as well as their own place within the history they had been studying.

My first section had to base their essay off this somewhat amusing quote from former Vice-President Dan Quayle in 1989: “I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy – but that could change.” The inherent problems with the quote aside, it does provide a useful question in a way Mr. Quayle presumably did not intend. Student responses focused mainly on the idea that civilization, as a whole, takes a step back sometimes in order for it to move forward, and September 11th fit this pattern well. Another main theme was the new sense of unity in the country, and at that point in the world, brought on by the attacks. As one student put it: “This event has brought most of the world together in a fight to make sure that our freedom will not be taken from us. Almost all the countries are working together to stop terrorism and help liberate Afghanistan from the Taliban, which oppressed its people very cruelly.” Clearly one of the first assessments I had of my students, that they had a limited world view, was beginning to change. They were on their way to some enlightenment of their own.

The responses were not all positive about America’s role in the world, however. Many students also pointed out that the United States’ past and current actions in the Middle East led directly to the attacks. One student wrote: “For years the U.S. had been intervening in foreign policies without having any problems on our own soil. The terrorists were trained right here in the good ol’ U.S.A. and hijacked airplanes to use as vehicles of destruction.” Another student discussed this intervention also, saying that our country has done it “one too many times and now the American people are going to pay the price of the government’s meddling.” Again the connection to the Enlightenment ideas learned previously, even if unconscious, was remarkable to me in reading the essays.

My second section was presented with the following quote from Friedrich Engels: “…we men and women are unfortunately so stupid that we never pluck up courage for real progress unless urged to it by sufferings that seem almost out of proportion.” The historical examples chosen by the students in this essay almost certainly included the Holocaust, along with both world wars. In terms of September 11th the positive responses from students focused again on the resulting unity in the country, with some comparing it to the divisiveness over the Presidential election the year before. I also received comments such as “we have realized that there are people that exist outside of Europe” and “people in our country started to open their eyes to other things and people around the world. All is not well in other places.” Again, some students were finding similar benefits in the events to those I had in teaching them. Previously “foreign” topics, like the Enlightenment, or the plight of those living under the Taliban, now had relevance to the “average American”.

A final type of response on the essays was the one I initially expected – that the world is clearly not progressing if something like September 11th could happen. Interestingly enough, only two students (both female) had answers that completely held this opinion. Both focused on the response to the attacks as something that will “hinder” the progress of civilization because it is focused on revenge or retribution: “Instead of looking at our past and wondering why someone would hate us that badly, all we care about is revenge.” Another student expressed concern that we are now in “a war against a nationless enemy” and our counterattacks will only “enrage the youth of the country [Afghanistan]” and perpetuate the cycle of hatred and violence. Once more my students were impressing me with their desire to question the events of history, with a new understanding of what consequences might result from them.

I certainly wish that the events of September 11th had never happened, but I could not be entirely disappointed with the beneficial results it had brought into my classroom (something I will always feel guilty about). I have had great days in the classroom before, but the day we learned about the Enlightenment after September 11th will always stand out for me. My students probably did not appreciate the experience as I did, but it became clear to me during the rest of the semester, and on the final exam, that they had soaked up many of Kant’s teachings, just as they had many of my own. The final essay was cathartic for both the students and myself, along with being an effective way to assess whether or not the class had learned the required material for the semester. I have tried to analyze my teaching from the fall semester of 2001 and it still surprises me that tragic current events in America would have such an impact on teaching European history from centuries before. It also troubles me that colleagues did not share the same success, but I attribute much of that to the fact that European history was a safe place from which students could discuss the terrorist attacks. One student, in discussing the strength and unity in the country, summed it up best: “People argue, perhaps in search of the positives of this tragedy, that September 11th was a good thing…however, it shouldn’t take such extreme suffering for it to happen.” The same could just as easily be said for learning enlightenment in the modern world.




1 From Sources of the Western Tradition, Volume Two: From the Renaissance to the Present (4th edition), edited by Marvin Perry, Joseph R. Peden, and Theodore H. Von Laue (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999), pp. 55-56.
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