Why we fight, why we study (retrospective)

September 11, 2011, 12:04 pm

This is an article I first published here on the blog back on September 11, 2007, in remembrance of the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It seems incredible that 10 years have come and gone since that horrible day of confusion and chaos. I was in my first year at Franklin College in Indiana then. On 9/11/2001, the students I have today were around 7 years old, which is the age of my oldest daughter right now. Knowing how innocent yet knowledgeable my daughter is, I can begin to understand the awesome formative power of that day in their lives. I think the point of this article — you’ll see it in the last paragraph — still works today for me, and it’s the same lesson that I want to communicate to my students and to my kids.


I remember 9/11/01 because it was an absolutely gorgeous day here in central Indiana — cool temps, crystal clear skies and the leaves just starting to turn. It was my first semester in my then-new teaching job at a small liberal arts college near Indianapolis. I had a 9:00 AM calculus class and was getting my stuff together when my wife called from her work to tell me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Like others, I thought it was probably a small plane that hit by accident. I went to and the image that came up was the hulking, smoking hole left by the first plane. I thought, Whoa, this is serious.

I kept clicking the reload button and there was the report that a second plane had hit the towers. Immediately I knew that we were under attack, and everything that I knew was smothered by uncertainty. Who was attacking us? Where else were attacks happening? Am I safe? Is my wife safe? Are we going to be under martial law? What the hell is going on?

On the way up the stairs to my classroom there were rumors going around about the Pentagon being hit as well, and as soon as I got into the room I checked the web again, and sure enough it had happened.

At that moment it was my call to either have my calculus class or not have it. Everything within me wanted to go back and hole up in the office and stay updated on what was happening — or just hole up and do nothing and pretend nothing had happened. I could think of nothing more absurd than trying to carry out a lecture on algebraic limit calculations while I knew, and the students knew, that the whole world was going out of control moment by moment.

In the end I held class. I started by updating the class on what was happening in case they hadn’t checked the news or the web yet. Then I told them something I still believe today: That whoever is doing this and for whatever reason, I am sure that one of the things they want us to do is to despair, to give up hope that anything we can do will produce anything of value. For my part, I refuse to give them that satisfaction. Limits and functions may pale in importance to what’s happening — but by studying, by making an effort to learn, no matter what it is, we are denying the enemy the ability to rule over us. Let’s get to work and show that there’s still such a thing as civilization.

I don’t know if any of those students remember how to calculate a limit, but I hope that lesson stuck with them.

One of my intellectual heroes, C. S. Lewis, had pretty much the same ideas in his essay Learning During Wartime (PDF).

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