9/11 Taught Differently Around The World, Tufts Grad Finds

People all over the world remember the 9/11 attacks. Here, mementos are left at the September 11 Memorial Garden in Grosvenor Square, London, in September 2009. (AP)

People all over the world remember the 9/11 attacks. Here, mementos are left at the September 11 Memorial Garden in Grosvenor Square, London, in September 2009. (AP)

When Elizabeth Herman visited her former high school, Newton South, a few years ago, she was surprised to find that its new history textbooks already include sections on 9/11. That got her wondering how textbooks in other countries describe the events of September 11, and that topic eventually became her thesis project at Tufts University, where she graduated in 2010.

Now a Fulbright scholar, Herman is continuing her research on how 9/11 is taught around the world. So far, she has analyzed textbooks from 13 countries. When Herman spoke this week with WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer, she said she has found that a country’s relationship with the U.S. often influences how it teaches about 9/11.

Elizabeth Herman: If the country’s relationship with the United States was a little bit more tense, you saw a much more critical view of the United States. So, for example, I was able to analyze the textbooks in Brazil, India and China, and in those three nations relationships with the United States are a little tense. All of those spoke about the audacity of the United States and its actions post-9/11 and the illegality of the war, specifically of the Iraq War.

Sacha Pfeiffer: And what did you find in textbooks published in Islamic countries?

In textbooks in Islamic countries the focus on the assailants was fairly different. In Pakistan, the textbooks completely omit the identity of the assailants. So in the United States and in western countries, you find that the attackers are talked about as Islamic fundamentalists. They’re identified as such, whereas the Pakistani textbook reads, “On September 11, 2001, American Trade Center and other strategic positions were attacked by unidentified terrorists.” And in Turkey it just omitted their identities as Muslims.

What country presented 9/11 most differently than the way the U.S. presents it?

I would say that the country that presented 9/11 most differently would be China. It mostly spoke about 9/11 as a sign of diminishing American hegemony — and that is not what you see in American textbooks. You see 9/11 being spoken about in American textbooks as a sign of America having been attacked and then having come together.

You found that sometimes there were different words used in different textbooks that seemed like subtle differences, but that you think were significant. For example, describing 9/11 as an “incident” rather than an “attack.” How did you find that that made a difference?

I think that that is what is at the heart of all this. It’s that when you’re thinking about the way that a story is told, you might imagine that one word chosen or substituted for another would not make much of a difference. But when you take all these little changes together, you get a tone that is very well-defined. So, for example, in the way that you would describe the people who executed the attacks of 9/11, whether you call them “attackers” or whether you call them “assailants” or whether you call them “individuals” has very a different connotation and creates a very different image in one’s mind when you’re reading that textbook.

Why do you think it matters that students are getting different perspectives?

This is one of the first generations that has textbooks that have had an event that happened less than a decade ago written into their history textbooks already; that’s new. And so that kind of speed with turning current events into history I think really changes the way the next generation is going to view these events and discusses them. And I think that if students grow up with completely politicized views of these events, then we could run into a lot of trouble.

Do you think there’s ever really an official version of events? Doesn’t it always change depending on where you live and what your political viewpoint is?

Absolutely. And I think that there’s no right way to teach 9/11. I think that the best thing that you can do is provide as many perspectives as possible and help students learn how to synthesize those narratives themselves.

And that’s your goal, I believe: to take all the different versions you’ve come across and create a curriculum that presents all those different viewpoints.

That’s exactly right. You know, originally I did set out on this project imagining that I could come up with the right way to teach this in schools. Over time I’ve realized there’s no way to do that. What I’d really like to do is I have all these narratives from all these different countries. If you hand a student 13 different ways of looking at 9/11 from 13 different countries and ask them, “How is this different from how you’ve learned this in the past? And why do you think it’s different? Why do think that Pakistan tells this story one way and Brazil speaks about it a different way? Who’s writing this history?” I think that that’s the only way that we can actually reach a new understanding of this event.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Saria-Jumpman/100002888482917 Saria Jumpman

    Stay strong America, The world will never forget the sacrifice of your first responders, Our neighbors, My Family.

    Three Words of Truth mean more than a Lifetime of Lies.



  • Anonymous

     I understand the event quite well, 4 airplanes were hijacked, 3 were flown into buildings with the intent of murdering as many people as possible.  One plane ended up crashing into a field when passengers fought the hijackers for control of the plane.  Giving up their own lives to save untold others.  Not sure how you can teach that any other way? 

    • Kitkilbourn

      You’re forgetting the ‘why?’ from different international perspectives. It’s one thing to be an American going about one’s daily life in the US. It’s quite different to be a citizen of another country affected by the most powerful country in the world, the US, in a myriad of ways both positive and negative. We ARE connected to everyone in the world virtually by being fellow human beings and our actions need to be connected, not only to supporting US interests but also to supporting the interests of human beings on this globe or we will continue to feel reverberations that take us down and perhaps others with us.

      • Anonymous

        I lost 3 friends that day, 4 if you count the baby who never arrived. My only why is why were so many innocent  people condemned to death? Yes our culture does tend to effect the rest of the world, but again, why did so many people have to die because of that?

        • glitter_girl

          If I remember correctly, the Muslim “bible” teaches that muslims are supposed  to be against Americans. And that if they sacrifice their life for whatever greater good they are taught about, then they will recieve rewards in “heaven”. Their goal was to bring down america. I’m so sorry for your loss

          • Abtleo

             First of all, don’t try to copy and paste Christian terms into Islam. It’s not the same belief system at all and you don’t need to act like it’s just a messed up type of the “right” kind of religion. The belief point you’re talking about is called Jihad and there are different ways to interpret it. Foremost scholars of the day and many Muslims themselves don’t believe in the “holy war” or really any sort of physical violence being necessary to fulfill that religious obligation. They see it as an inner, spiritual fight, much like most people from religions around the world try to conquer their personal demons.
            Yes, there are radical Muslims out there who believe in acts of war against disbelievers. There are radicals everywhere, but they are a minority and yes, what they’re doing is called terrorism. But you can’t simply blame it on Islam as a whole. All you’re doing is feeding the ignorance and the idea that this is indeed a holy war between the Middle East and America or Islam and Christianity.
            It’s not. We mourn for those who lost their loved ones and friends to this attack, but it was not the work of a religion as a group.

  • Guest

    Are you writing a curriculum for this? Of course, this is the only objective way to teach this subject to an open society. Whether or not, we are an open society is debatable.

  • Guest

    Fascinating topic! Never thought about this aspect of the telling of history. Hope you continue on this important story.

  • Christine Bagley

    Eye-opening piece on world views of 9/11 and a broad-minded, intelligent solution. 

  • guest

    I’m not sure if I found the right Chinese textbook. But I’m pretty sure it’s the official national standard one (Published by The People’s Education Press). I’m afraid there are something terribly lost in translation. 9/11 is not presented in the textbook as a sign of ‘diminishing American hegemony’ at all. Actually the description is quite concise and straight forward without mention of either ‘Islamic fundamentalists’ or ‘Muslims’ ( They are just simply terrorists).  Maybe  the politically correct way considering the significant Muslim population in China (>20M)? Basically they want the students to understand that terrorism is now the major threat to the world peace and stability. Of cause many provinces have their own versions, but mostly similar. Some of them didn’t forget to mention that GWB’s Iraqi war was not authorized by UN. I have no idea how this was taught in the two (or 3?)  Muslim dominated provinces. 

    The confusion IMO might be caused by how they present 9/11 in the context. They used only a few sentences for 9/11 and the whole chapter is about the world situation after the cold war starting with the collapse of Soviet Union. And I don’t think I need to remind you guys that they do like the idea of a multipolar world. So they mentioned EU (r u kidding me? lol), Japan, Russia and China (interesting, no mention of India or other developing countries). And I’m afraid this is the main point. Some versions do mention about GWB’s policy is self-weakening to America. No matter how you interpret what they teach, there’s no way you could draw the conclusion of ’9/11 as a sign of diminishing American hegemony’.

  • Geraldism

    My teacher said that were still living through the aftermath of 9/11 and while we can talk about the facts, we can’t truly analyze the outcome of what happened because were still living through it. I agree with him but I think your way of teaching it is really smart it’s actually kind of how my teacher teaches, it gives students a chance to see the event from various perspectives and decide for themselves what happened. I stumbled upon this page when looking for something about how people view 9/11 depending on what part of the country they lived in when it happened, but this is really interesting.

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