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Alkana’s Nine-Year 9/11 Survey Of Students Is Full Of Surprises

Published: December 18, 2012

History’s Linda Alkana has taken a long, careful look at what CSULB students think about the 9/11 tragedy in a survey full of surprises.

Alkana, a member of the university since 1983, began surveying her History 101 class on critical thinking every semester from two days after the attacks to the present with the goal of measuring what students really knew. “How students today understand something that happened when they were in middle school (and have never been taught) contrasts markedly with how their older brothers and sisters who were closer to events understand 9/11,” she said. “I have around 900 responses from the nine-year period which I used to write ‘What Happened on 9/11? Nine Years of Polling College Undergraduates’ published in the August 2011 issue of The History Teacher“.

In her article, Alkana addressed the evolution of student perceptions about the day that changed their lives. “Because of the free-form nature of the questions, it became important to develop some guidelines to interpret the answers,” she wrote. “Evaluating over 850 ripped notebook pages and deciphering handwriting and misspellings was a challenge.”

After reading through the responses several times, however, she began to notice some patterns that could make the information useful to history teachers.

“I began to realize that the students defined ‘what happened’ by whom they thought was behind the events,” she said. “By the third anniversary of 9/11, it became obvious that the answers to `What happened on 9/11?’ differed considerably between the students who were young adults on 9/11 and those who experienced the events of Sept. 11, 2001, at a younger age. Over the course of the survey, it also became apparent that differences seemed to reflect students’ exposure to major headline events and popular culture.”

She noted that “very few of the 800-plus students, even those who were in elementary school in 2001, remark that they learned about 9/11 in a history class. Those who were younger in 2001 apparently grew up in a context where others assume that they `knew’ what happened on 9/11, but very few of them had been taught this recent history in school. Their answers reveal their ignorance and confusion.”

Consequences are important to critical thinking so Alkana asked her students what they thought would happen. Whom did they think was responsible? Over the years, she was surprised to find how differently the students defined what happened by the consequences they perceived stemming from the event. In terms of a “critical thinking” error, they began to mistake consequences for causes. Furthermore, what they thought happened on 9/11 soon began to reflect world events and even personal experiences they later were exposed to.

For many of her students, the consequences of the attack translated to restrictions on commercial flight. “Thus they blamed lax security as a cause of 9/11,” she said. Alkana noticed how students initially blamed Osama Bin Laden’s plane attack and understood the war in Afghanistan to be a consequence. But very soon, attention shifted to the war in Iraq, and Saddam Hussein became responsible.

Some students wrote about how Bin Laden and Hussein were in on the 9/11 attacks together. There was even a suggestion that Iraqis flew the planes. Afghanistan returned to the students’ radar after the death in Afghanistan of Cpl. Patrick Daniel “Pat” Tillman, an American football player who enlisted in the US Army in 2002. “As the surveys continued, respondents were younger and younger when 9/11 occurred,” she said. “The younger they were in 2001, the vaguer their responses were when they took my survey as college freshmen. Few got beyond blaming generic ‘terrorists.’”

Linda Alkana
Linda Alkana

Conspiracy theories also abounded, especially after the 2004 Academy Award-winning documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11” from Michael Moore that took a critical look at the presidency of George W. Bush. “The conspiracies seemed to depend on the U.S. letting down its guard and getting lax in its security, although some blamed President Bush,” she said.

Alkana received her B.A. from UCLA and her master’s and Ph.D. from UC Irvine, the latter in 1985. She has been teaching this Critical Thinking History course since its inception as a university requirement.

Alkana concluded “What Happened on 9/11?” with a cautionary note for tomorrow’s history instructors.

“If we are to teach recent history, we need to appreciate how students understand the historical events around them,” she wrote. “We cannot assume that when we talk about or teach 9/11, we are talking about the same event to all our students. Increasingly, 9/11 is part of the history curriculum, but if the responses from this cohort are any indication, students are still confused.” She continued that “Confusion about a term that is used as a shortcut for political and social issues is reason enough for history teachers to ask their students what they know about recent history before attempting to teach it.”

When President Barack Obama gave his speech regarding the planned troop pullout from Afghanistan on June 22, 2011, he thanked “intelligence professionals and Special Forces (who) killed Osama Bin Laden, the only leader that al Qaeda had ever known.” Obama remarked that this “was a victory for all who have served since 9/11,” then quoted a soldier who “summed it up pretty well” by saying that “the message is we don’t forget.” Alkana pointed out that for the majority of the 800-plus students taking her survey over the last nine years, “’not forgetting’ about 9/11 is clearly not the issue—most do not remember 9/11 with any degree of accuracy and few have been taught it. It is our challenge as history teachers to recognize this gap in their knowledge and to offer a remedy.”