A couple weeks ago, the internet’s right-wing outrage machine trained its sights on the small liberal arts school in Wisconsin where I teach. Ripon College had banned 9/11 memorials, venues like the Drudge Report and the Federalist Papers declared, because they might make Muslim students uncomfortable. On Twitter, folks who’d never previously heard of the school inveighed against its reputation, suggesting Ripon must be run by anti-American communists. One professor, born in Germany, received an email calling him a Nazi. There were threats of violence, and the cleverest tweets noted, “Ripon must be a Rip-off!”
I teach philosophy here at Ripon, where, in fact, nothing was banned. On Sept. 11, our students will memorialize publicly as they do every year, hanging posters about Islamic terrorism and planting nearly 3,000 small American flags in the grass near the campus’s center. But in the wake of this short uproar, I find myself thinking maybe they shouldn’t.
These campus commemorations aren’t unique to my college. Though student-led, they’re organized and supported by a national organization, Young America’s Foundation, whose website lists more than 200 schools where comparable commemorative events take place. The YAF was around in a similar form 17 years ago, when the towers fell, but my students weren’t. The point of memorials is to remember, but few of these students have memories of 9/11. In fact, some of the youngest didn’t yet exist. What value is there in trying to remember an event that one, in practice, can’t recall?
The pat response to a question like this is George Santayana’s most famous line, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” On his account, if we forget our history, its best lessons will be forgotten too. When applied to a national tragedy, it’s a call to collective remembering, the sort that’s carried out by historians, political scientists, and policymakers, and then enshrined in institutional practice. Some of the lessons of that terrible day still drive the policies of the nation’s governing elites and their national security apparatus. We now have greater international intelligence-agency cooperation, airport body scanners, and secured cockpit doors. But these do not ensure America will never again be attacked.
The average American college student knows these risks well because, like the rest of us, they bear the weight of those lessons each time they pass through a security checkpoint or have their face analyzed by an algorithm. But they also know, from reading the daily news, how unsettled their country and the rest of the world remain and how unlikely it is those security policies will protect them forever from danger. In their international affairs courses, they may be able to remember collectively by learning about the causes of 9/11 and political radicalization, but when it comes to halting global terrorism, solemn collegiate ceremonies—the sort that engender individual remembering—are powerless.
There are, of course, plenty of other tragic moments in American history from before these students’ births. Most campuses don’t hold special ceremonies for Pearl Harbor Day, Emmett Till’s lynching, the Oklahoma City bombing, or Benedict Arnold’s switching teams. Each of these events shook the nation to its foundations, and each—plus the countless more that make up our nation’s history—can teach us much about how America has been made and how it still can grow. But treating such cataclysmic events as dates on a calendar, properly remembered—really, not forgotten—through once-a-year commemoration always simplifies their complexity, catching only a glance of shadow rather than the multifaceted reality that might be worth the effort of remembering. Learning the lessons of our country’s signal tragedies requires studious effort, not posters and a moment’s silence. In this way, a college—the very place devoted to complex, contextualized consideration of the most challenging questions facing human beings—is the place where a simplified memorial makes the least sense.
But perhaps what’s to be remembered is not the event itself but instead the people who died. After all, that’s why my students put out those 2,996 flags: one for each death. Though it’s the case that a lot of people died, my students didn’t know them. Absent even the tiniest bit of supplemental information, each victim is reduced by this memorialization to a flag, each of them exactly the same as the other. And when it comes to these flags, there’s a further error: 372 of the victims were not U.S. citizens. They included Canadians, South Koreans, Indians, one person from Uzbekistan, and plenty of others. 9/11 was not just an American tragedy. Without mooring these symbols in the reality of the victims’ lives, the remembering is necessarily incomplete. At worst, for my Midwestern students, the flags stand for nothing more than the amount of death that happened. And though it’s a tragedy that so many people were killed in such a vicious way, lots more people die every day, some from violence, some in accidents, some lacking medical care. The sheer amount of death in the world can be, when thought about too directly, debilitating.
That’s another problematic piece of this sort of remembrance. Instead of functioning as a celebration, even of something grim like soldiers who died defending American values, 9/11 memorials just relive tragedy. For those of us who were adults back then, there can be value to remembering our fear and helplessness, to thinking about the solidarity we felt and the political choices we made in the terrified months thereafter. And surely those whose friends and families were killed must grieve in whatever way best helps them to cope. But the yearly routine of ripping off our national scab serves, for most of us, as primarily a way to remind ourselves of pain and terror.
My students don’t need memorials to remind them to be hurt and afraid. They’re struggling to figure out what matters as they live through political instability, their economic prospects increasingly questionable even as their student loan balances climb. They’ve been through years of schooling not only in math and science but also to hide, run, and fight in case of a shooter. The increasing peril caused by climate change is, for them, a foregone conclusion. They know many of their peers are dying of opioid abuse, and they’re well aware that youth-suicide rates are skyrocketing. They don’t need to look back to a moment from their toddlerhood to understand the world is unsafe and hostile. Expecting them to do so, year after year, is asking them to enact our trauma, not theirs.
When we say we want students to remember 9/11, or the Civil War, or any of the many other tragedies that dot American history, we must accept that worthwhile remembering takes work. Colleges are one place where that work takes place, in the form of historical research, critical writing, and, above all, teaching new generations to think carefully through history in its full context. Students engage with difficult questions that challenge conventional wisdom and undermine the kinds of easy answers that lead amateur critics of academia to tweet about rip-offs. It may sometimes be uncomfortable, but that’s a necessary element of confronting, considering, rethinking, and growing.
Every day in class, I see my students struggle with the past, with all its uncertainty and all its consequences. This does not happen only once a year, and it is not easy, but that’s what it means to never forget 9/11.