College freshmen don’t remember 9-11

Print More
Interactive social practice work by Fynn Sloyan, photo by Jason Wilson via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/hive/240688859/

Interactive social practice work by Fynn Sloyan, photo by Jason Wilson via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/hive/240688859/

Today is the 14th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Many of us will take a moment to remember that day. But today’s college students can’t do that—they’re too young to remember anything about that day.

Interactive social practice work by Fynn Sloyan, photo by Jason Wilson via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/hive/240688859/

Interactive social practice work by Fynn Sloyan, photo by Jason Wilson via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/hive/240688859/

College students who are arriving straight out of high school have zero memory of anything that happened before 2001. They were, after-all, only three or four years old at the time. Most can’t recollect life before 2005. And when it comes to politics and news, don’t expect them to remember anything before Obama winning the presidency.

This short living memory it tough for those of us who teach politics. How can we talk about politics today if students can’t recall the events of 9-11, the start of the Iraq war, or President Bush being anything other than as a painter (seriously–they barely remember him being in the White House). If we want to reference politics that students remember, then we need to remember how little they have in their living memory.

Beloit College puts together an annual “mindset list” to remind professors how their students differ from past generations. As they announced this year:

Members of the entering college class of 2019 were mostly born in 1997 and have never licked a postage stamp, have assumed that Wi-Fi is an entitlement, and have no first-hand experience of Princess Diana’s charismatic celebrity.

Here’s my own list of how their memories (or lack thereof) shape today’s college freshmen understanding of politics and current events.

Prepare to feel very, very old.

Today’s college freshmen were five years old on 9/11. Growing up, Osama Bin Laden was always the biggest bad guy on the planet. They have always lived in an age of terrorism. What have they never feared? The Soviet Union. The Cold War is merely something that reminds them of 80’s movies they’ve seen on Netflix.


READ College freshmen less religious than ever — just like their parents


I like to reference famous quotes, but here’s some that today’s freshmen never heard live (if they’ve heard them at all):

Read my lips: no new taxes

I am not a crook

I did not have sexual relations with that woman

You’re no Jack Kennedy

Giant sucking sound

Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall

“btw whos mr gorbchv?” they ask in a text message.

Mother Teresa died before they were born. A few remember Pope John Paul II. None have seen Billy Graham give a sermon.

When you mention religious scandals, they think of Catholic priests not televangelists. The Catholic Church has always been reeling from its pedophilia crisis.

They never heard a president call for a war on poverty or a war on drugs. What they have seen, however, is America always at war. And bombs, like their phones, have always been smart.

Iraq and Afghanistan have always had U.S. troops on the ground. South Africa has never had apartheid. Russia has never been a superpower. China has always been a growing economy. Hong Kong has always been under Chinese control. Japan has never been an economic threat.


READ How religion and high school peers shape when people marry


They’ve never seen candidates fight over flag-burning, welfare reform, affirmative action, nuclear disarmament, or federal flat tax. As long as they can remember, same-sex marriage, medical marijuana, and doctor-assisted suicide have always been legal somewhere in America. Same-sex marriage has always expanded to more states, not restricted.

The rise of conservatives means the Tea Party, not the Christian Right. Liberals have always described themselves as “Progressives.”

A decade of prosperity? That’s impossible! They’ve experienced two major recessions already.

All presidents are African-American. At least, that’s how they remember it.

Finally, don’t expect things to get easier. Every year, new freshmen arrive on campus, with less and less of our history in their experiences. It won’t be long until all of the freshmen will be students born after September 11, 2001.

This post is an update of earlier post.

Don’t miss any more posts from the Corner of Church & State. Click the red subscribe button in the right hand column. Follow @TobinGrant on Twitter and on the Corner of Church & State Facebook page.

  • Larry

    Just to add to the depression:

    The War in Afghanistan is the longest armed conflict the US has ever been involved in.*

    Your average Army private is fighting a war which started when they were going to nursery school/kindergarten. They can easily be the children of those who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq at its outset.

    *placing the start of The Vietnam War for the US at 1964.

  • Sarah J

    Really?!! You think college freshman are unaware of history? Do you teach with that arrogance in mind? Wanna know why they don’t give two shakes about what you say? Because you already assume ignorance. My son (1998) knows about the threat that the Soviet Union never really posed. (The only threat they actually posed was to fundamentalist Christians with their lack of capitalism and religion, in that order.)
    You who need to stop assuming that they don’t know anything about the past.
    It is this arrogance that keeps America from progressing beyond the petty squabbling over civil rights, guns and abortion.
    You who teach suffer from the same delusion as the professors you had suffered upon you. The arrogant idea that you don’t know history other than what you saw.
    In fact students today have access to far more resources than we had.
    If you open your eyes you can see that the progress made is forced by young people. They see that past and refuse to continue down the same path.

  • Mary B

    I was born 5 years after Pearl Harbor, but I can’t remember a time that I didn’t know something about it, and eventually a lot about it, because it was important to the adults in my life.
    I knew how people around me felt about Truman, and remember Ike and Adlai running against each other.
    One sister was born when I was four and a half, and I can vaguely remember an incident that happened with my baby sitter at the time. I definitely have memories from when I was five and six. Don’t sell your students short. They may have more memory, and more knowledge of the past than you assume.
    And they could be as ignorant as rocks. Lots of adults sure are.

  • Edward

    Ignorant article. I was born in ’97 and have every recollection ‘of life before 2005’. I don’t remember the day 9/11 happened because I was at preschool. But to say we aren’t aware of 9/11 is pretty stupid. I know plenty of people who lost family from 9/11, they were 4 or 5 and remember the day. I remember many events in my life from 2001-on. Horrid article. You should be taking about the elementary and middle school students who weren’t even born in 01.

  • Taylor

    Very silly article here. Seriously, I was born in 1995 and have licked many postage stamps and had to deal with dial up internet connection growing up. It’s true that the realness of past events evaporate as time goes by and new people come around to existence. Why blame me and people younger than me for that? It’s called the circle of life.