How a GW Professor Teaches the Current Generation about the 9/11 Tragedy

Sean Aday teaches his students about the significance and implications of 9/11, ensuring that the pivotal moment in U.S. history is not forgotten.

September 8, 2023

9/11 Memorial in New York City

9/11 Memorial in New York City (Anthony Fomin)

For those who lived through the devastating terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the memory of the fear and anguish that gripped the nation on that harrowing day and the years after will forever be etched in their memories. The tragedy touched the lives of countless Americans who lost loved ones, while the entire country watched in disbelief and horror. 

And while those who lived through 9/11 will never forget how they felt that day, more than two decades have passed. The current generation of students did not live through 9/11 and its aftermath, which has led professors to shift how they teach about the event. 

Sean Aday, an associate professor at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, teaches a course titled “Media and War” to both graduate and undergraduate students. GW Today spoke with Aday about how he teaches his current students about the significance and implications of 9/11, ensuring that the pivotal moment in history is not forgotten. 


Q: What are the challenges of teaching about the 9/11 attack to students who didn’t live through the tragedy?

A: The most difficult, but maybe most important, part of teaching about 9/11 to students who didn’t live through it is simply conveying the profound significance of the event to those who did, how complex those reactions could be—and how they were different for people depending on their own background, beliefs, nationality, race and ethnicity. In some ways America came together after 9/11, but in other ways it kind of lost its mind to fear and anger for many years, and the country and the world are still dealing with the results. 

On the other hand, the emotional distance my students have from 9/11 lets us examine the event and its aftermath with a kind of sober hindsight that can be beneficial to learning about it. It’s a lot easier now to talk about the Iraq War debacle and the horrors of the U.S. torture policy, for example, than it was in the first 10 years or so after the attacks when those issues were so closely tied to partisan opinions. It’s also fascinating to study how media of all kinds, from news to movies, have represented the attacks and the post-9/11 era over the past 20 years.

In a way, 9/11 can now be taught as history instead of as current events, and while that can make it challenging to make students comprehend the power, grief, anger and fear most of us felt back then, at the same time that emotional distance can make it easier to teach and learn about it in all its complexity.  

Q: Have you had to adjust your teaching in any way to accommodate students who didn’t grow up feeling the full weight of that day?

A: I’ve included more readings about 9/11, the post-9/11 wars and anti-terrorism policies, especially from those who were in combat, government or from loved ones and other civilians in America and elsewhere who experienced this era in their own way. 

In my “Media and War” class, I ask my students to visit Section 60 in Arlington National Cemetery, where the graves of some of those who died in the post-9/11 conflicts are found. I have the students write a paper about their experience and what they learned researching some of the people buried there. I do this as a way of helping them connect in some way with that aspect of 9/11 and its aftermath. I’ve also tried to use what I learned training spokespeople, journalists and members of civic society in Iraq and Afghanistan during the wars, as well as what I learned in a counter-insurgency course outside Kabul in 2010, to enhance my teaching and provide at least something of an on-the-ground perspective to my students. 

Q: Why is it important to explain and teach the memory of 9/11 to the current generation and what do you hope students take away from your class?

A: That day was powerful and devastating in a way that I never want anyone to have to experience again. I remember being at work emailing a college friend who worked on Wall Street when the attacks happened, hearing a plane might be headed to the U.S. Capitol, where my pregnant wife had meetings and having armored vehicles on the streets of D.C. for weeks afterward. But as a citizen and a scholar, what came afterward in terms of policies, wars, elections, media and virtually every aspect of American society and many others around the world has been profoundly revealing, informative and in some ways, sadly predictable.

 As a teacher, I think it’s critical that we work with our students to study these events and learn from them—the successes and failures, heroism and tragedies, all of it—so that we can hopefully grow and become a more just, peaceful and compassionate society going forward, and elect people who will help make that happen. It’s imperative that we learn the right lessons from 9/11 rather than the wrong ones.  


Q: In what ways would you say we are still living the effects  of 9/11?

A: 9/11 still influences U.S. foreign policy, elections, media and culture in so many ways, some good—like legal and moral prohibitions on torture; some muddled—like the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan a year ago and its ramifications; and some bad—like rising xenophobia and isolationism, continued terrorist threats around the world and secretive combat operations and government surveillance waged out of public view and with little accountability. America will be living in the shadow of 9/11 for decades.