Keeping the Memory of 9/11 Alive at the Site Where Flight 93 Went Down

Before the pandemic, about half a million people visited the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa., each year. The visitor center details the events of the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when passengers and crew members stormed the cockpit of a hijacked jetliner and thwarted terrorists, possibly preventing an attack on the U.S. Capitol.

A wall of phones is central to the exhibit. Pick one up and guests will hear a goodbye message left by one of the 40 passengers and crew members for their families before the plane crashed into a field just east of Pittsburgh at 10:03 a.m, one hour 21 minutes after taking off from Newark Liberty International Airport, killing them all.

Tour guides often explain that these goodbyes were collected from answering machines. Young visitors often have the same question, according to Donna Gibson, the president of Friends of Flight 93 National Memorial: What is an answering machine?

This question serves as a reminder, Ms. Gibson said: Teaching history to the 75 million Americans born after Sept. 11 — nearly a quarter of the U.S. population — requires new tactics. With the 20th anniversary of the attack rapidly approaching and the world-altering events of that day receding further into history, her organization announced on Monday the creation of a Flight 93 Heroes Award to try to engage younger generations.

“I hope that it inspires educators and parents to want to teach their children more about what happened at Flight 93,” Ms. Gibson said. She has noticed that with each passing year, fewer and fewer people seem to know what happened on the flight, or more broadly about the events of Sept. 11. Her organization recently conducted a survey of schools throughout Pennsylvania to find out how they approached teaching about that day. Ms. Gibson was surprised to learn that “there is no real formal education,” she said.

On its website to submit nominations, the organization says it is looking for people who performed acts of heroism in 2020. “Like those on board Flight 93, they suddenly found themselves forced to make a decision to help others, placing their own life at risk,” the submission form says.

The winner will be recognized with a formal plaque and a presentation some time around Sept. 11, Ms. Gibson said.

Ms. Gibson’s group is far from the first to notice that knowledge of Sept. 11 is eroding.

Jeremy Stoddard, a professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, surveyed more than 1,000 middle and high school teachers in 2018 to find out how they approached teaching about Sept. 11 and the war on terror. About 130 history, government and social studies teachers said they had never taught students about Sept. 11.

Among those who had led classes on it, many said that they didn’t have the materials needed to address the topic. Teachers were facing not only ignorance but also “misunderstandings about the events because of inaccurate information from family members or even conspiracy theories from the web,” Mr. Stoddard said.

Cheryl Lynn Duckworth, a professor of conflict resolution at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, wrote a book called “9/11 and Collective Memory in U.S. Classrooms: Teaching About Terror.” In the process of researching it, she talked to many teachers. “The key barriers I found to teaching about it were one, time and lack of inclusion in the curriculum; two, emotional barriers (pain and grief remain for many teachers); and three, self-censorship regarding a sensitive and unfortunately politicized topic,” she wrote in an email.

She thought that the Friends of Flight 93 National Memorial’s hero award sounded like a smart way to generate interest in the events of Sept. 11 and the war on terror, so long as the selection committee did not put outsize weight on military heroism. According to the criteria on the award website, nominees should demonstrate “courage at the risk of one’s own personal safety” and put “the physical well-being of someone else above themselves.”