Curriculum

Time an Enemy in Teaching About War

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — April 09, 2003 8 min read
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It’s April already, and Kevin O’Reilly still has some six decades of material to cover in his 20th Century U.S. and World History course.

Over the next few weeks, his 11th graders at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School in Beverly, Mass., will learn about World War II, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and a host of social and political issues of the past 40 years. As if that weren’t enough, Mr. O’Reilly plans to weave in discussion of the war with Iraq, background on Middle East culture and history, and parallels between the current war and previous U.S. conflicts.

Wars of the past century and their effects on the United States— and the world—can provide critical context for students seeking to comprehend the war in Iraq, teachers and curriculum specialists say. But providing the kinds of perspective and analysis that give students an in-depth understanding of those historic events is difficult, given the time and curricular constraints.

Mr. O’Reilly plans to make time for deeper analysis of foreign-policy decisions and the causes and effects of war by cutting other topics.

His lesson on Stalinism, for example, and his final unit on globalization will likely be axed. The Korean War will get just a skimming. The 1991 Gulf War and the conflicts of the 1980s in Nicaragua and Panama will barely get a mention, despite their potential to shed light on the evolution of the United States’ view of its role in the world, he said.

“If you try to cover everything, you are doing a disservice to your students. So teachers struggle with ‘What do I cut?’ ” Mr. O’Reilly said. In light of the gravity of recent events, from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to the daily news from Iraq, he added, “Monica Lewinsky is sounding not very important anymore.”

The study of U.S. conflicts throughout history weighs heavily on the school curriculum, and with good reason, educators argue.

“In the history of the United States, [war] is a major force. We’re a nation born out of war, we solved our greatest constitutional question of the 19th century in a [civil] war, and in the 20th century, [the country fought in] two world wars,” said James A. Percoco, a history teacher in Fairfax County, Va., and the author of Divided We Stand: Teaching About Conflict in U.S. History.

Without enough knowledge of the nation’s military legacy, Mr. Percoco added, it is hard for students to understand the historical underpinnings of current events.

Time Pressure

But squeezing the breadth and depth of American history into the standard high school course is often a race to the finish. In the waning weeks of the school year, when state tests and summer vacation loom large, many teachers still struggle to get beyond lessons on World War II.

In recent years, however, there has been a recognition that students need a deeper grounding in events and issues that are fresher in the nation’s collective memory. History and social studies teachers who see their role as preparing teenagers to be active citizens in the democracy have argued that a survey approach focused on dates, names, and other facts is inadequate.

Some states and districts have restructured the curriculum to address those concerns. A growing movement from Massachusetts to California combines American history with world history, then splits the subject chronologically into two courses: The first looks at events before the age of industrialization, and the second focuses primarily on the 20th century.

That shift has allowed more time for Mr. O’Reilly to steep students in the decisionmaking behind pivotal events and to incorporate analytical exercises that help students interpret history.

“What separates adults from children is experience,” he said. “I’m trying to speed up their experience.”

So when his students study World War II, they weigh arguments for and against dropping the atomic bomb on Japan. For the Vietnam War, students get a close-up view through an interactive software program the teacher has been developing since the mid-1980s. The program, which incorporates still photographs and film from the front lines, leads students through various scenarios that require them to make strategic decisions, react to the resulting consequences, and then analyze the process.

And in recent weeks, Mr. O’Reilly has divided students into groups, each representing a different nation or region of the world. The groups were asked to contemplate their respective views of the war in Iraq and the potential implications.

At West Springfield High School this school year, Mr. Percoco’s students analyzed the challenges Abraham Lincoln faced in a period of extraordinary diviseness for Americans, and they tried to draw parallels to contemporary issues. They also studied how the policy of appeasement prior to World War II and the consequent growing empire of Adolf Hitler have fueled current arguments for toppling Saddam Hussein.

And they have debated whether some wars are more justified than others, a question that helps students see links between historical eras.

Making Connections

Even selective private schools have trouble fitting it all in.

At Mary Institute and Country Day School, outside St. Louis, teachers are trying to keep pace with a survey course in U.S. history that stretches up to the Reagan years. To cover the material in a meaningful way, teachers help students understand the connections to their own experience, according to Gabe Ashman, the history department chairman for the upper school, which enrolls some 600 students.

“History, when taught well, is going to make any war, be it the Peloponnesian War or more current conflicts, immediate to students,” said Mr. Ashman, who teaches world history and a course on World War II, one of a number of electives that let students focus more intensely on a single era. “Even the Cold War didn’t happen in their lifetimes, so we have to draw comparisons to today.”

Making such connections, scholars say, is one way of fitting much of the course content into the standard academic year.

“Teachers have to let loose of long-held and cherished beliefs about what needs to be covered and how,” said Mark P. Parillo, a professor of history at Kansas State University, in Manhattan, Kan., who edits a popular online listserv where educators share information on teaching about war.

While students must learn the chronology of events, he said, teachers can no longer hold to the timeline approach. Instead, he suggests, teachers should give students tools for interpreting history and evaluating current events. “If you intend to teach the traditional way,” he said, “you are going to run out of time.”

The clock still expires on even the best of teachers, according to Cricket F.L. Kidwell, the curriculum coordinator for the Trinity County school district in northern California.

“The typical classroom day, where you have approximately one hour, five days a week, for history, is pretty inadequate,” said Ms. Kidwell, the immediate past president of the California Council for the Social Studies. “More successful programs have teachers teaming together, combining reading and writing with content in history” to make the best use of class time.

Until recently, covering the Vietnam War—which ended more than a quarter-century ago—was almost an afterthought in U.S. history courses. In the years following the war, some textbooks treated the entire conflict in just a few paragraphs. Throughout that period, few supplemental materials were available to fill the void.

And with the emotion and tumult of the era still fresh in the American consciousness, many educators shied away from substantive lessons on the conflict.

Some educators, though, took up the mantle for beefing up the curriculum on Vietnam, crafting lesson plans and sponsoring workshops for covering the war that remain popular today.

“Coverage in textbooks excluded many of the most controversial and important issues of [the Vietnam War] and focused principally on the logistics of war,” said Jerold M. Starr, the director of the Center for Social Studies Education, located in Pittsburgh, who developed “Lessons of the Vietnam War,” one of the first widely available high school curricula on the era. “This was a very serious deficiency in the education of American students.”

In the newest generation of textbooks, the conflict garners at least a chapter. It has also been the subject of elective courses at some high schools.

Oral History

Over the past two decades, veterans’ groups have also stepped up efforts to supplement the U.S. history curriculum by producing and distributing lesson plans.

One such offering, “Echoes From the Wall: History, Learning, and Leadership Through the Lens of the Vietnam Era,” has been distributed to nearly all American high schools and middle schools through the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. The curriculum resource is designed to make students aware of the contributions and sacrifices of members of the armed forces.

That outreach program—as well as those of other veterans’ organizations—has encouraged teachers to invite former members of the military to classrooms to share their wartime experiences.

“We used to be called on to just do a Veterans’ Day program,” said Michael Gormally, a former social studies teacher who directs education programs for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, based in Kansas City, Mo. “Now, veterans are [invited in by teachers] when they teach a particular unit. This should be a normal part of the curriculum.”

That approach can help students reflect on what they’ve learned and gain insight into the human toll of war, said Paul S. Aleckson, a history teacher at D.C. Everest High School in Weston, Wis. In his classes and after-school history clubs, veterans share their eyewitness accounts of wars of the 20th century. The students have chronicled their interviews in bound volumes and shared them with military archivists.

“Kids have to appreciate what service veterans have provided for preserving our freedoms,” Mr. Aleckson said. Through oral-history projects he assigns each year, the teacher said, students learn that “war is awful,” and that “there is a price to be paid for those freedoms.”

Mr. O’Reilly, the Massachusetts teacher, also asks veterans to speak to his students at Hamilton- Wenham Regional High, particularly when his lessons focus on the wars in Korea and Vietnam. The firsthand accounts are a dose of reality for students asked to ponder policy decisions of another time with the benefit of hindsight, he said.

“They are now realizing that things didn’t have to turn out the way they did,” Mr. O’Reilly said. “There is power in that knowledge.”

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