Until recently, any objective historical treatment of the Soviet-bloc nations has been considered, as with the Vietnam War, too controversial.
“The Soviet Union and the Eastern European countries have been looked upon as enemies for so long that they have been judged as not worthy of being studied,’' says Donald Bragaw, associate professor of education at East Carolina University, co-chairman of the National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools. “Hated, yes, but not studied.’'
Ironically, the current pressure to study Europe more intensively comes at a time when social studies teachers are already under attack for neglecting the historical contributions of non-European cultures, notably those of Africa. Under the circumstances, something has to give.
As it is, teachers often don’t get to historic events like the Prague Spring of 1968 for much the same practical reason they never review the Vietnam War’s Tet offensive. Because most history courses are taught chronologically, there is usually too little time to cover recent developments in depth.
Many secondary students learn about recent European history only incidentally in U.S. history classes, which often cover the subject in the context of American involvement in World War II and the Cold War, according to Paul Gagnon, scholar in residence at the Los Angeles-based Center for History in the Schools.
There is also a lack of good textbooks that deal with the more recent history of Eastern Europe. Gilbert Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, who is analyzing textbook treatment of Communism and the East-bloc nations, says: “I can generalize already. The treatment is inadequate.’'
One state, California, is beginning to come to grips with the almost geometrical expansion in historical knowledge by beefing up curriculum requirements to include three years of U.S. and world history and geography. In a report released last November, the National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools advocated just such an approach. In the meantime, some educators suggest, teachers might provide more insights into current world history by teaching the last chapters of their history text first.
No matter how schools ultimately respond to the challenge, perhaps the best lessons may be found in the streets of Bucharest, Volgograd, and Leipzig. Since many of the changes in the Soviet bloc have come about at the hands of the young, educators see in these developments a golden opportunity for renewing student interest in global affairs.
Says Alan Jones, a professor of history at Grinnell College in Iowa, “This may change their whole view of the future.’'
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Another Curriculum Debates Heats Up As The Cold War Thaws