I’ve been teaching political science for about a decade now. I teach students about the international system, the functioning of government, foreign policy, national security. My teaching is based on my 12 years of higher education and shaped by my life experiences.
I’m a Cold War kid. In grade school and junior-high classrooms, we had “duck and cover” drills for what to do in the case of a Soviet attack. I grew up in a place considered a strategic attack target, so we likely did these drills more than the average American school kids. I still remember crouching under my desk, staring at the fossilized gum on the underside, waiting for the teacher to tell us the drill was over so we could go out to recess.
Even as a child I knew that we weren’t really likely to be bombed. There had never been a missile attack on the U.S. I believed in my own safety because the threat that I was told was a possibility was never a reality.
This is not to say the experience didn’t affect me. Being a Cold War kid in the U.S. meant that you knew the Soviets—and maybe China—were the enemy. Cold War kids knew that protecting us from those enemies was the primary focus of our government. We knew this because they told us. We mostly believed the politicians, because we stayed safe from the threats they told us they would combat.
When the Cold War kids grew up, some of them became educators. What we were taught, what we learned, was affected by our experiences. And when the Cold War kids grew up, some became politicians. Those childhood memories and experiences informed the way they governed. They believed that the enemies of our childhood were the enemies of our future. This belief shaped our policies, sometimes to our detriment.
We weren’t prepared for 9/11 in large part because our leaders were shaped by their experiences which said that if we would be attacked, it would be by a country. We believed, because of what we thought the Cold War had shown us, that we could deter an attack by using our threat of force or our economic influence. We did not comprehend, even though the Cold War should have taught us this as well, that you can’t deter an ideology, and that our might does not ensure our safety or victory.
A Cold War kid teaching the post-9/11 generation
I now teach classes on political violence, terrorism, international relations, and on global security and diplomacy. I’m a Cold War kid, but my students have a very different frame of reference. My students are now the post-9/11 generation—often too young to remember the actual event, though old enough to enlist in the ongoing war that was a response to that attack. They don’t really understand why the politicians are so concerned about North Korea.
Today’s college students didn’t have my childhood, so they don’t understand the fear of a nuclear threat. What my students know, unlike the Cold War generation, is that might does not guarantee victory—and that war is endless.
What my students know, what they do remember, and what shapes their perspective, are hate crimes, terrorist attacks and mass shootings. My students know about El Paso, Dayton, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Parkland, Pulse Nightclub, Thousand Oaks, Las Vegas, Tree of Life Synagogue, the Boston Marathon bombing, the Emanuel AME Church, among so many others.
My students didn’t just duck and cover under their K-12 school desks. They learned to tie tourniquets, and have been taught how to block doors, how to stay silent in a coat closet. My students look for all of the exits at a public event, they are cautious at stores and movie theaters. They carry their phones at all times, not because they are checking their social media, but because they want to be able to reach their parents at any moment.
While they do not remember the 9/11 attacks, today’s college students do remember others. Unlike the Cold War generation, they have learned that might does not guarantee safety.
They have now also experienced more than a year of the effects of a global pandemic, which included school shutdowns, virtual learning and catastrophic death tolls. My students have seen Asian people being targeted for hate. During the pandemic, my students watched a Black man die with an officer kneeling on his neck, protests and riots erupt over police brutality. My students saw a violent insurrection storm the U.S. Capitol and kill a police officer in an effort and stop a presidential election.
Thoughts and prayers
With each shooting, with each attack, with each eruption of violence, new debates about gun control, mental illness, hate and terrorism erupt. Sometimes, our representatives enact legislation, but more often they do not. We offer prayers, we offer thoughts. But we do very little.
My students are America’s mass-shooting generation. They have learned that the potential threats may be in their hometown. They do drills in school because the threat has become reality. They didn’t wait for the recess bell to end the drill; they waited to see if it was only a drill. They didn’t stare at fossilized gum—they waited for a shadow to cross in front of the classroom closet they were hiding in.
In many ways, being a Cold War kid defined how I viewed the world and our place in it. During my childhood, the biggest threat was nuclear war that would destroy the planet. But it never happened, and I believed that our government could keep us safe. I think, I had it easier than my students do.
Many of today’s college students are growing up believing that thoughts and prayers are insincere and something that takes the place of action. They don’t believe the politicians, because the politicians haven’t kept them safe. Their generation has become used to the idea that the enemy could be anyone, that they could be anywhere, and could strike at any time.
My students are members of the active-shooter generation, and that means that I have to be prepared to address topics that they have personal experience with as they may arise in the curriculum. I have students who were at the Boston Marathon bombing, and I have students who had family and friends who survived Sandy Hook. In the classroom, I have to understand trauma in order to educate in a way that respects and acknowledges those experiences, an approach that most Cold War kids would have never expected from their teachers.
Someday, my students will be the leaders of the world. I can teach them, but their experiences will shape everything. And I have to ask, after watching the successes and failures of the Cold War kids, what will these future leaders’ policies will look like? What did the Cold War generation leave for our children?
Christina Cliff is an assistant professor of political science and security studies at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H.