9/11’s Generational Divide

Professor O'Connell

Katherine Duke ’05 interviewed Professor Barry O’Connell, the James E. Ostendarp Professor of English, about 9/11 and, more broadly, about grief, memory, teaching and historical understanding.

KD: Begin by describing your own memories of Sept. 11, 2001.
BO: I had an appointment that morning at 9. I came to my car, and I turned on the radio and caught the tail end of somebody saying what had happened. I think there was a gathering of the whole student body in the chapel [later in the day].

KD: I think it was LeFrak Gymnasium.
BO:  Yes. I remember students being very, very upset with one of the speakers, Barbara…

KD: Ehrenreich [a writer and political activist who happened to be on campus].
BC: Right—who immediately created a context that she believed this belonged in, about things that we [as a nation] had done that in some ways brought it on. A number of students were intensely hostile to this. That large meeting simply fell so far short of what people wanted and needed.

KD: So you and Professor Martha Saxton began running a discussion group about 9/11 and related topics.
BO: We wanted a setting where people could express uncertain feelings as well as feelings of uncertainty. We wanted to encourage people to affirm, in the face of enormity, that inarticulateness may be inescapable; [to] speak searchingly and take the risk of saying things that might be unpopular or surprising or unappealing.

KD: You also co-taught a course called “Media, Culture and Citizenship Since 9/11.”
BO: The course began sometime before 9/11. Obviously, we retitled it. We had a month unit on torture. I can’t bear what I call “falsifying language,” so the rhetoric of justification used, especially by American officials, I ridiculed savagely. I would describe in elaborate length what these tortures were, and I made [the students] watch a film in which waterboarding was central. But then I tried to step back and say, “Is there a place in your minds where torture might be justified as a way of protecting a nation? Or as revenge?” There were raging debates in the class.

We initially thought to rename the course after 9/11 because we believed—and I still believe—that it was a significant divide in the history of our culture.

KD: For the past few years, it’s simply gone back to being called “Media, Culture and Global Citizenship.”
BO: 9/11 got taken out of the title because, in our reading, it was no longer, in students’ consciousness, as large an event as we continue to believe it is. Every fall, it’s important to remind yourself how old your students were when X happened. We want to get students thinking hard about things that they either feel strongly about or can come to very quickly. And 9/11 is past in the minds of undergraduates now.

KD: Has 9/11 contributed to generational differences between the students you taught more than a decade ago and those you teach today?
BO: Yes. Students today see themselves as living in a world in which their country is in decline. That would have been impossible before 9/11. Students are very conscious of living in an American world of diminished possibility. I think that was true before the recession.

What events and perception move through people’s minds and influence how they act, or fail to act, are most often, I think, not tangible and visible to them. That’s why I would argue nobody really dependably ever understands a cultural moment.

KD: Is there anything you’d like to add?
BO: One might feel it’s shocking that something like 9/11 could fade in people’s consciousness. The fading—part of that is a very intelligent human way of surviving. [That’s] because living with pain endlessly is truly unbearable and keeps you in the present moment insistently. [But] if you forget completely, you’re at risk of wandering the world not just naïvely but helplessly. This is a real problem: How much and what should we struggle to remember of a historical event? And what is the cost of letting it go, in what measure?

Photo by Samuel Masinter ’04