Defending the Liberal Arts: My class on “Perspectives on Death and Dying” dealt in theory — until 9/11

Education helped students cope with tragedy 15 years ago and will in the future

Charles Myers

Just one student had experienced death in her personal life when I met with 25 seniors at Gettysburg College for the first session of my seminar, “Perspectives on Death and Dying.”

The famous Gettysburg battlefield where about  50,000 people were killed in 1863 may have been just down the road. But on Sept 5, 2001 nobody else in my class other than that one student had lost a grandparent, a parent, a sibling, or a friend to death.

That had changed by our second class session, the day after Sept. 11.

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We were all horrified and shocked by the tragic loss of life at the World Trade Center in New York City, at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and in an open field in Shanksville — 100 miles from the college.

As the dust settled and the rescue and recovery operations began, the world began to come to terms with the first major terrorist attack on American soil.

Nearly 3,000 innocent people lost their lives on that day as a result of the well-coordinated hijackings and plane crashes, but millions of people in this country and in the rest of the world felt the profound impact of the events of that day.

After 9/11, all of my students were painfully aware of the effect that death has on the living. The direct impact of 9/11 can be seen in the career choices of two female students from that seminar. After they graduated in the spring of 2002, both pursued careers devoted to bringing an end to terrorism. One is now an F.B.I. agent and was on duty in New York City on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The other is an analyst for the CIA and specializes in biological weaponry.

Neither of my former students had any such career plans prior to 9/11.

I still teach my seminar on death, but I now offer it to first-year students instead of seniors.

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Ever since 2001, I have included some treatment of death by terrorism and what happened on 9/11.

Last year was the first time that I had students confess that they could remember nothing about the events of 9/11, for they were in nursery school or kindergarten when the attacks occurred.

The students that I teach in the fall of 2016,  the 15th anniversary of 9/11, were preschoolers at the time of the attacks.

That means my teaching about that infamous day has become a type of history lesson, where I expose young students to the horror and uncertainty of that morning and explain the origin of the disillusionment and distrust that are part of the American psyche today.

But there is another lesson to be learned from 9/11, and that is that we live in a rapidly changing world. If 9/11 teaches us anything, it is that the world can change in an instant, that career paths are shaped by new challenges, and there are future challenges that none of us can anticipate.

As I look out at the sea of young faces that arrive in my classes each semester, I am reminded that some of my students will devote their lives to causes and problems that we are unaware of at the present time. Therefore, education cannot be content with teaching the past and preparing students to face the challenges of this day and age.

New technological innovations, changing political circumstances, and evolving social complexities will shape the lives of today’s students in the years to come.

Therefore, it is not enough to teach students “facts” and “skills” that will prepare them for the workplace of today.

Not knowing what the future holds should persuade educators to expose students to a broad array of courses and disciplines, encourage students to develop their problem-solving and innovative abilities, and inspire students to make lifelong learning a goal.

This is the essence of a quality liberal arts education, and this is why I believe that a liberal arts education is the best preparation for life in the world of tomorrow.

Charles (Buz) Myers is associate professor of religious studies at Gettysburg College, where his academic focus includes biblical literature, and death dying and afterlife.

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Charles Myers

Charles (Buz) Myers is associate professor of religious studies at Gettysburg College, where his academic focus includes biblical literature, and death dying and afterlife. See Archive

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