As my son reaches voting age I’m wondering — Is it too late to teach him to care about civic issues?
This month acknowledges a number of milestones. It’s been a decade since the tragic events of September 11th. My son Nick turns eighteen on September 10th. I’ve been thinking about both events and wondering how the events of 9/11 will impact my (almost adult) son’s sense of politics and the world.
Like many Americans, I remember the exact spot where I was standing when I watched the World Trade towers fall. My children were in elementary school in Florida, oblivious to events. My own world seemed to rotate a bit more slowly as the implications of this horrifically orchestrated act of terror began to seep through the shocked media reports.
The media is marking this anniversary in appropriate ways, even if many of us find that we hesitate with recalling it. Scott McLemee references this understandable hesitation with his overview of 9/11 publications as well as with his excellent review  of Athan Theoharis’s book The Abuse of Power. The New Yorker  has republished a collection of the magazine's articles that appeared in the weeks after 9/11 up through Bin Laden’s murder this past May. (I recommend Nicholas Schmidle’s “Getting Bin Laden”)
I asked Nick if he remembered that day in 2001 or thought about its significance.
“No,” he said. “Not really.” I prompted him some more. “Do you talk about 9/11 in your history classes? Do you feel as if you are in a country that has gone to war during your lifetime?” Same response — “Not really.”
Even with my sister -- Nick’s aunt — working in Kabul  with USAID, my son does not seem to register the impact of acts of terrorism on U.S. soil or the continued U.S. military action in the Middle East. Has the trauma of that day or its long-term implications been absorbed and forgotten by young people? Is it too traumatic to discuss?
Nick is privileged in a way. He does not think he needs to know more about 9/11 than what he already claims. And why should he? Neither Nick’s teachers nor his family have asked him to think much about current political issues. As Susan Sontag noted in the September 24th, 2001 New Yorker of the lack of inquiry surrounding the Bush administration’s counter-intelligence policies, “The public is not being asked to bear much of the burden of reality.”
My son is turning eighteen soon, but he has not been asked to bear much of a burden so far either. His food is generally prepared for him. He has an old car to drive himself to school and his part-time job. Nick is a smart and sensitive boy, but he is starting to chafe against the expectations of the adults around him. Unfortunately, the natural response to autocracy is not rebellion but ennui, or at least a detachment from the world — a behavior that I also detect in my students. I hate to think that I have become a “helicopter” professor who is helping to create a generation of disengaged, debt-laden taxpayers.
My son seems to have an awareness that adults make decisions in small rooms that can alter the course of history, but I don’t know that he cares much about transparency for these decisions -- or if even understands why he should care? There is so much that I want Nick to know, or, more importantly, to feel by this age—knowledge that I fear I’ve neglected to share with him.
If there is any 18th birthday wish that I want to send to my son, it goes something like this thought —
“This is it, Nick. This is your world. Live in it. Relish it. Study it. Make it better.”
I wish that I knew how to help him to really feel this way…