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Making Peace With Vietnam

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Karen Franklin is a freelance writer who frequently covers veterans' issues. In a large unfurnished room away from the bells and slamming lockers of Tennessee's Science Hill High School, teacher Carol Transou and 25 solemn-faced history students sit together on the floor. They have come to this empty ROTC training site--in the basement of the school gymnasium, apart from the main building-- for its silence.

Each student holds a computer-printed page listing names and home towns of the 1,291 Tennesseans who died in the Vietnam War. Taking turns, speaking in modulated voices, the classmates spend a solid hour reeling off all those names and towns, from Carroll David Abbott of Sevierville, all the way to William Henry Yount Jr. of Millington.

Back in the classroom, Transou moves among her students, handing each a photo depicting a particular image of the 1960's--Twiggy, Ho Chi Minh, the Beatles, Jerry Rubin, men on the moon, kids doing the twist. Taped to the walls are antiwar chants ("Hell, no, we won't go'') and famous quotes by national leaders ("I will not be the first American President to lose a war''). She calls on students to talk about the pictures and explain the messages on the walls. In the process, she sizes up their knowledge about the Vietnam era.

In turn, the students fire questions right back at her:

"Mrs. Transou, did your husband wear his hair that long?'' (He didn't.)

"Mrs. Transou, did you wear your clothes that short?'' (She didn't.)

"Mrs. Transou, were you a hippie?'' (She wasn't.)

An award-winning American history teacher in Johnson City, Tenn., Transou, 53, began teaching her segment on the war in 1986. It was a watershed period for Vietnam education. Since the mid-1980's, classes like hers have exploded across the country, a delayed response after a decade of neglect by the nation's schools.

Interest in Vietnam has soared on both sides of the teacher's desk. Students want more than merely to dress for yesterday's cause; they want context. Teachers, whether they opposed the war or supported it, yearn to impart their knowledge and, perhaps, to resolve some old dilemmas.

But to teach the Vietnam War is to try to make sense of a conundrum. Many questions have not been answered, and some probably never will be. Why did America send its poor to die in Vietnam? Why didn't the Americans win? What lessons have been learned? Although teachers can pass few absolutes on to their students, increasing numbers of them are determined to raise these issues.

"My guess is we'd be shocked at how many high school courses there are now,'' says Joe Dunn, a professor of history and politics at South Carolina's Converse College. "It's well into the hundreds.'' An avid member of the growing community of Vietnam educators, Dunn conducts conference sessions and workshops on methods of teaching the war to high school students.

Such professional support has grown over the past several years--and for good reason. The subject of Vietnam presents not only prickly political obstacles, but also several practical constraints. Public school teachers typically offer units on Vietnam as part of larger history or social studies courses. To condense the Vietnam War, in all its complexity, into just a few weeks, teachers must select from a vast range of topics. An average course might include lessons on imperialism in Vietnam, the conduct of U.S. military, America's political goals, the protest movement, the press, Amerasians, and refugees.

Until recently, educators had to exercise their creativity to assemble a curriculum that included these topics; no teaching guides existed. Teachers have learned that resources at hand can provide ample raw material. Guest war veterans typically speak to classes about the different duties and experiences soldiers had. Students tap into the sensations of the Vietnam era through music, fiction and poetry, and photos and films.

History teacher Wade DellaGrana, 37, began his custom-made Vietnam unit in 1983 at Edgewood High School in Madison, Wis. DellaGrana makes liberal use of resources in his community, a hotbed of antiwar protest 20 years ago. He shows The War At Home, for example, a film that documents the student demonstrations at the University of Wisconsin, followed by a discussion led by two of the film's principal characters: Madison mayor and former campus radical Paul Soglin and University of Wisconsin Chief of Security Ralph Hanson. Standing before DellaGrana's 11th and 12th grade students, these former adversaries look back on the antiwar movement and the counterculture it spawned with 20 years of hindsight.

Transou took a similar avenue, constructing her Vietnam War course by compiling a 64-page "text'' of articles, chronologies, maps, pictures, and questions about the war for her American history students. Her curriculum addresses three broad topics: the origins of the war, the war experience, and its legacies. Class work typically takes students directly to primary sources. Students interpret political cartoons of the day, for example. One assignment requires them to interview parents or other members of the community about their experiences during the war and the lessons they have learned.

Study guides and other teaching materials have also mushroomed in the last year or two. In 1988, for example, the Center for Social Studies Education introduced "The Lessons of the Vietnam War,'' the first prepackaged curriculum about the subject to appear on the commercial market. A semester-long course divided into topical modules for shorter treatments, "Lessons'' emphasizes critical reasoning about the war.

"We present all points of view and ask students to identify the assumptions behind the positions and the values behind those assumptions,'' explains Jerold M. Starr, the center's director. (See "Viewpoint,'' page 64.) "My mission is to complicate their thinking because they do tend to come in with a Rambo mentality. I want to show them how complicated it is.''

The curriculum features role-playing, which puts students in positions that affect the war's outcome. Acting as government officials or members of Congress, students argue for or against military escalation. Some also face the draft, and make their decisions--to enlist, to sweat out the draft lottery, to seek a deferment--in consultations with military recruiters, counselors, or clergymen. In doing so, "They learn about the whole draft-classification system, the personal decisions that affected that choice, who served, and the reasons for conflict among the troops,'' Starr says.

Once educators start looking, they find a wealth of material on the war that seems almost limitless. Ironically, the most basic of teaching tools--a good textbook--is conspicuously absent.

"The textbooks haven't responded to the demand,'' DellaGrana says. "The average number of pages on Vietnam is probably about five.''

Larry Dieringer, executive director of Educators for Social Responsibility, estimates that the amount of space high school history books devote to Vietnam is even less--about one and a half pages.

One reason for the scant treatment is the paucity of questions about the war on college-entrance and advanced-placement tests. Since book publishers take their cues from these tests, says Dunn, Vietnam is missing from the history texts. Those tests have recently begun to ask more questions about the war, but textbooks have been slow to respond.

Publishers are aware that most teachers have little time to spend on the subject. In history courses, Vietnam typically comes up during the end-of-semester rush. And in social studies classes, teachers must choose between Vietnam and a spectrum of competing--and equally important, Dunn adds--topics, such as drugs and AIDS.

The controversial nature of the subject can create other obstructions as well. "A great deal of emotion continues, and we're still at a very early stage in divining what the lessons are,'' Dunn says. "The danger is that everyone has a different perspective. You can't avoid having your own viewpoint, but you've got to try to present as many perspectives as possible. Good teachers do that.''

Transou concurs that the risk of indoctrination is ever present, but adds that ignorance is potentially more hazardous to a child's intellectual health. "When you teach history, you're being selective,'' she says. "It is subjective, and there are some pitfalls. But if we don't make the effort, it's dangerous what we'll be doing to young people. It's dangerous because there's a low level of factual knowledge about the war.''

By opting to teach this loaded subject, teachers inevitably set themselves up for criticism. Although parents and administrators have supported their efforts, Transou and others are occasionally accused of spreading leftist propaganda.

"Lessons,'' while receiving some favorable reviews, has also been criticized as antiwar. "A basic lack of understanding about the war is reflected in that very bad curriculum,'' says one critic, Robert Lynn, a Vietnam veteran who teaches a noncredit course about the war to high school students in the Orlando, Fla., area. Lynn, an ex-Marine and a self-described conservative, once assailed the alleged liberal sympathies of the course's authors and advisers in a newsletter published by Accuracy in Academia (an offshoot of the right-wing Accuracy in Media). He later described Educators for Social Responsibility, one of the collaborators on "Lessons,'' as "a very biased, anti-U.S. organization that has never said anything good about the U.S. military.''

Any controversial subject invites scrutiny and comment. But there's little doubt that the Vietnam "bug'' infecting educators will survive. The reasons for teaching about the war are varied; they often stem from personal conviction. After years of distorted portrayals of the war, teachers want to fill in the gaps of knowledge about one of the most crucial turning points in recent U.S. history. Transou, for one, seeks to raise questions about the limits of authority in a democracy and to tell the story behind all the rows of names etched into the black marble face of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Says Transou: "I ask my students, 'Do you believe your government always tells you the truth?' You'd be surprised how many of them say yes. If we don't teach Vietnam as history, what responsibility are we showing to the 58,000 names on that wall? I feel their story needs to be told--if it isn't told, it's breaking faith with that generation. I feel I have a duty to get some of it straight, at least to raise the questions that need to be raised.''

As much as teachers aim to debunk the myths of the past, they also endeavor to train future adults to take responsibility for preventing mistakes from recurring; in essence, to become active participants in democracy.

Explains Wade DellaGrana: "An important part of teaching Vietnam is not just to focus on what we did in Vietnam, but also on what Vietnam did to us. The whole Vietnam syndrome forced us to analyze and review our own foreign policy goals and objectives so that the Vietnam quagmire can be avoided in the future. If it does happen again, these kids will be in it.''

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