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Ending the Silence On Vietnam War

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When Bill McCloud, a social-studies teacher at Pryor (Okla.) Junior High School, was asked last year to teach an 8th-grade American history class and to include thorough coverage of the Vietnam War, he began a journey into uncharted territory.

The textbook his school used, which contained only a few paragraphs on the war, was "not adequate,'' he says.

And a survey of principals from nearby districts--which found that more than a third of the schools did not cover the war and those that did devoted only a week or two to it--failed to uncover a model he could use.

Lacking sufficient teaching materials, Mr. McCloud--himself a Vietnam veteran--decided to develop a curriculum on his own by writing to prominent leaders active in the Vietnam period and asking them what young people should know about the war.

The responses--from government officials, such as Presidents Reagan and Carter, former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, and Senator J. William Fulbright; journalists, such as Frances FitzGerald and Peter Braestrup; and war protestors, such as Tom Hayden and Timothy Leary--guided his instruction.

"I knew I needed help on what I should teach,'' Mr. McCloud said. "I turned it over to them, and they responded.''

For his efforts, Mr. McCloud has earned national media attention--including a cover story in American Heritage magazine--and plaudits from educators around the country.

But even before he began, educators and representatives of Vietnam veterans' organizations say, a number of teachers quietly undertook similar, if less dramatic, attempts to bring one of the most divisive eras in American history into their classrooms.

In fact, they contend, since 1982, when the Vietnam War memorial was dedicated in Washington, the war has become a "hot topic'' in many schools.

As evidence, they note that:

  • Some 900 teachers have already ordered a highly regarded curriculum on teaching about Vietnam that was published this spring by the Pittsburgh-based Center for Social Studies Education.
  • Hundreds of schools have invited Vietnam veterans to speak to students. One of the largest programs, in Delaware, has reached 14,000 students in 250 schools in that state since it began in 1984, according to its co-director, Edwin M. Jentz, assistant administrator of St. John the Beloved School in Wilmington.
  • A study of textbooks by two Virginia researchers has found that the amount and quality of coverage of the Vietnam War has improved substantially in the past five years.

'We Are Reawakening'

This heightened focus on the war, educators and veterans say, mirrors the national yearning, reflected in the popularity of Vietnam films, television programs, and even comic books, to break years of silence and confront issues that polarized the country in the 1960's and 1970's.

"We are reawakening from our slumber,'' said Andrew F. Smith, president of the American Forum, a New York group focusing on global education and international studies. "We are now willing to remember and try to put that episode of our history into perspective.''

"Things have changed dramatically in the past two or three years,'' added Jerold M. Starr, professor of sociology at West Virginia University and author of the new Center for Social Studies Education curriculum. "There has been a shift in the cultural climate.''

The movies and television shows have "demonstrated that there is an enormous market for Vietnam,'' he noted.

Curricular Constraints

The growing interest in Vietnam in junior- and senior-high-school classes comes on the heels of a surge of interest in the subject at the collegiate level.

"Five years ago, it was hard to find a college that had a course on Vietnam,'' said Marc Leepson, a Washington writer who has written extensively on Vietnam veterans' issues. "Today, it's hard to find one that doesn't.''

Such courses have been among the most popular on campuses, added Mr. Starr, who noted that his course on the war at West Virginia University "fills up in the first two hours of registration.''

At the precollegiate level, instruction in the topic has been hampered by a lack of curricular time. History classes tend to be taught as survey courses that attempt to cover the entire sweep of American events, and few topics get covered in depth.

In addition, as Charlotte Crabtree, the director of a new center on history education funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities has noted, teachers in survey courses tend to run out of time before they reach the modern era. Teachers wave goodbye to their students in June, she has said, and tell them, "By the way, we won World War II.''

'No Firm Grip'

Teachers who have wanted to cover the Vietnam War have carved out time for it within the curriculum's confines. Mr. McCloud, for example, said he started the school year on that topic to ensure that he did not run out of time for it.

And, like Mr. McCloud, teachers have also lacked usable information on Vietnam. "As teachers choose to teach about the late 20th century, they pick things for which there are some materials,'' said Frances Haley, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies.

"For a long time, there weren't materials available'' on Vietnam, she added.

In America Revised, her 1979 book on American history textbooks, the journalist Frances FitzGerald found that "in most texts the reporting on the war is no more accurate than'' that of books written while the war was still going on.

"The majority of the best-selling texts still have no firm grip on Vietnamese geography or nomenclature,'' wrote Ms. FitzGerald, author also of an award-winning 1972 history of the Vietnam War, Fire in the Lake.

A 1982 study by two researchers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University found that textbooks of the late 1970's were "more objective and more accurate'' than those Ms. FitzGerald had analyzed, but that they still offered "too sketchy an account of the Vietnam War.'' This was particularly true, Dan B. Fleming and Ronald J. Nurse found, of "war aims, moral controversies, and lessons of the war.''

More Open Coverage

But in a 1987 update of their study, the researchers found that the textbooks' coverage of the war had improved substantially in the previous five years.

"There is more coverage, and it is definitely more open,'' said Mr. Fleming, professor of education at Virginia Tech. "The texts do offer more varying views and criticisms, whereas before they provided the standard nationalistic view.''

For example, he noted, textbooks now provide several possible explanations of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which historians have called a major turning point in American involvement in the war. In the past, Mr. Fleming said, most textbooks did not mention the incident or reported only President Lyndon B. Johnson's explanation.

Despite these improvements, Mr. Fleming added, textbooks' coverage of the war remains limited by the "inherent'' space limitations in survey texts. Although one textbook--Laidlaw Brothers' 1986 Legacy of Freedom--devotes 23 pages to the subject, most devote far fewer, he said.

"Many people who want in-depth treatment will be frustrated,'' Mr. Fleming said.

How, Not What, To Think

Mr. Starr's new curriculum represents an attempt to fill that gap.

Consisting of 12 units that can be purchased together or separately, the curriculum--called "Lessons of the Vietnam War''--includes units on the history and culture of Vietnam; American soldiers; the My Lai massacre; "the war at home''; Vietnamese "boat people''; and the war and literature.

The topics focus on the war's controversies, Mr. Starr said, to give students a more complete picture of the era.

"The war was controversial,'' he noted. "There is no way of adequately discussing it without addressing controversial issues.''

But the curriculum attempts to present all sides of the issues, in order to help students develop critical-thinking skills, Mr. Starr said.

"This says how to think about the war, rather than what to think about the war,'' he said. "That's the purpose of education.''

The large initial demand for the curriculum reflects teachers' growing willingness to confront the war's complexities, said Susan Alexander, executive director of Educators for Social Responsibility, a Cambridge, Mass., group that develops materials for "teaching in a nuclear age.''

"While the war's wounds were still bleeding, and differing viewpoints were confrontational, it wasn't really possible to develop such a curriculum,'' she said. "It would have been impossible to do, and there wouldn't have been 900 orders for it, five years ago.''

"But enough time has passed,'' she added, "and people are no longer pitted against one another on the issues. We can teach them, and help the younger generation understand them.''

'A First-Hand Source'

The seminars with Vietnam veterans are also aimed at filling the gaps left by lack of coverage of the war in textbooks, veterans say.

"Students thirst for knowledge of that time,'' said Mr. Jentz of Delaware. "We're guys who experienced it. We're a first-hand source.''

Although the veterans discuss the war's controversies, he added, they are not "making a political statement.''

"We've got people to the right of Attila the Hun, and others who want to hug Jane Fonda,'' he said.

The seminars also help to dispel the image of Vietnam veterans as "drunks, dopers, murderers, and rapists,'' Mr. Jentz said.

"Yes, there are unanswered questions about the health effects of Agent Orange, post-traumatic stress, and alcoholism,'' added Michael Leaveck, a spokesman for the Vietnam Veterans of America, a Washington-based veterans' organization.

"But at the same time,'' he said, "we tell students that their doctor, banker, lawyer, insurance salesman, and postman are all likely to be Vietnam vets.''

'Take the Glamour Out'

Classroom instruction in many schools also helps dispel the media-driven image of battle, added Mr. McCloud.

One of the major points stressed by those who responded to his requests, he noted, was that students should learn that "war is more grim than it is traditionally portrayed in movies.''

"We should take the glamour out of war,'' he said.

Such instruction could also help students understand current foreign policies, he suggested. Perhaps because of the way Vietnam was taught in the past, today's young people tend to be less willing to question government actions than were students 20 years ago, he said.

"My students cannot understand the protest movement,'' said Mr. McCloud. "They see it as very unpatriotic.''

"If you teach [Vietnam] as a straight lecture course,'' added Mr. Starr, "students never ask questions. They'll still be puzzled about what all the fuss was about.''

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