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The Ongoing War on Terror in US Classrooms: Teaching about (and Avoiding) Conflict in Partisan Times

Nearly 3000 people died in the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, DC. The resulting Global War on Terror (WoT) has led to the deaths of more than 15,000 members of American and allied nations’ military and contractors and likely 10 to 25 times that number in combatant and civilian deaths in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq (and now Syria, Yemen). Even with American withdrawal of soldiers over the past decade, the levels of intolerance and Islamophobia in the US have only risen with the emergence of nationalism and the election of Donald Trump.


Despite the immeasurable impact the response to 9/11 has on young peoples’ identities in the US and the World, there is little known about what young Americans, who now have no memory of the attacks, are actually being taught about 9/11 and the WoT. In this paper we will present findings from a national mixed-methods survey of 1047 US secondary social studies teachers that focused on they teach about 9/11, terrorism, and the ongoing War on Terror. We also interviewed 30 respondents for an in-depth understanding of their pedagogies, goals, and the barriers or challenges faced when engaging in these topics.


Findings illustrate a continued focus on the anniversary of the events as the focal point of teaching – in the form of a memorial for victims and the celebration of heroes – which aligns with overall metanarratives of American identity as working for freedom and progress. As we dig deeper into the data, however, we find many teachers attempting to engage students in examining the historical causes of terrorism and conflict in the Middle East and the impact of terrorism on US domestic and foreign policy (e.g., torture). They do this in a highly partisan environment with students who know little about 9/11, parrot conspiracy theories, and hold xenophobic views of Muslims. Discussion of the study focuses on impacts for the continued cycle of conflict, identity construction as American citizens, and the impact of emphasizing the memorial, heroism, and victims of the attacks over engagement in the many controversial aspects of the response to the attacks.