He was killed more than five years ago but many teenagers today do not know that Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011. The date Sept. 11 continues to occupy a haunted place in American history, but May 2, 2011 — the death of Osama bin Laden — was hailed triumphantly, splashed boldly across all the major newspapers, as it signaled a victory in the country's fight against terrorism. So, why is it that teens in high schools across the country have never heard of bin Laden's death?
The Washington Post recently reported on a story from veteran journalist Alan Miller, who said high school students in a journalism class at a New York City charter school, were extremely puzzled when they learned that bin Laden was dead and has been for a few years now.
Soon after bin Laden's death in May 2011, articles surfaced with headlines like "Teens Who Never Heard of Osama Bin Laden" and "The Best Thing About Teenagers: They Didn't Know Bin Laden." It continues to be an issue today and there could be a handful of factors that are worth considering here. For example, how do schools teach 9/11 to their students?
An investigation by local news website Patch found that there are many differences in how states across the country teach 9/11 to their students. Some don't teach it at all. States might encourage educators to come up with lessen plans that contextualize the attacks as a historical event, whereas some lessons focus on the emotional aspect in remembrance of that day, and other state departments give specific guidelines that address what is to be taught. In the survey conducted by Patch, around half of the states haven't specified certain topics (like 9/11) as mandatory, which means that this is left to local school districts and individual teachers to address.
Students in high school today were either too young or not able to fully understand the scale of the terror attacks of Sept. 11. Many of them have an idea of it — that something horrible happened, it's important, and it was an act of terrorism — Michigan high school teacher Ryan Kay told the Detroit Free Press. In the state of Michigan, there are approximately 1.5 million public school students who weren't around when 9/11 happened. It's likely that since many current students didn't experience it, they can't fully grasp the magnitude of the attacks.
But there are ways schools are trying to bridge this informational and contextual gap in educational outlines. For example, in Michigan, state guidelines have high school students learn about 9/11 in a manner that is analytical and critical — calling on students to see how 9/11 has impacted America's domestic and international policies. This seems like a pretty comprehensive way of trying to explain the significance of 9/11 in an educational setting.
But teachers in a North Dakota high school are worried that the gap in generational knowledge when it comes to the events of 9/11 is tough to address. WDAZ-TV, an ABC affiliate based in the state, spoke to Fargo Davies High School teacher Loretta Wellentin who teaches World Cultures and has specifically focused on Sept. 11 in modern American history. "I've taught it every year, because I feel like it needs to be taught," she said. "They simply don't know the history of 9/11."
One of her students, 14-year-old Hannah Oberg, was born after 9/11 and doesn't fully grasp it in its entirety. "I know it happened, but I was born after 9/11, so sometimes I feel like it doesn't really affect me, but it does in some ways," Oberg said to WDAZ-TV. "Sometimes it's hard to believe and understand what truly went on."
It's also worth considering if the millennial generation was just sheltered when news of bin Laden's death broke out. Many of them would have been young enough that it would have been reasonable for parents to shield them from the horrific events that took place.
While it's a traumatic part of American history, the way it is remembered is important — and schools around the country play a big part in doing just that.