A Battle on the WWII Knowledge Front
University of Missouri-St. Louis political scientist J. Martin Rochester, author of "Class Warfare: Besieged Schools, Bewildered Parents, Betrayed Kids and the Attack on Excellence," said he is happy to see a reduction in the flag-waving that accompanied history teaching when he was a student, "but we may now be going to the opposite extreme of schools highlighting the imperfections and flaws of America."
He said he is also concerned about class projects designed to engage student interest that leave little time for reading.
"I can recall my son in middle school being given an oral history assignment to interview some nuns who were at Pearl Harbor, and I was thinking how his time could be better spent reading Herbert Feis's work on Pearl Harbor or some other serious study of World War II," he said.
Mike Kirk, an American history teacher at Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax County, said he tries to combine projects and instruction in a way that helps students understand the sweep of the war.
When teaching a particular battle, he sometimes tells students to pretend they are soldiers and write a letter home describing what they saw. He said students are fascinated by the text of Civilian Exclusion Order No. 5, one of the documents used in the internment of Americans of Japanese descent.
Kirk said he follows the Virginia Standards of Learning, which specifically require instruction on the battles of Midway and Stalingrad, as well as the D-Day invasion and the dropping of the atomic bomb. The same standards require discussion of the African American Tuskegee Airmen, the Holocaust and the Japanese American internments.
"We do a lot more on the home front," Kirk said. "We talk about censorship of the media; we talk about rationing, war bonds, the draft." Angela L. Davis, the Advanced Placement American history teacher at C.H. Flowers High School in Prince George's County, said students are more likely to remember what they hear from real experts, such as the Tuskegee Airman her school is named after.
"We should have more guest speakers, from World War II veterans to military historians," she said.
Students and teachers say it is difficult to get deeply into World War II in just two-week units in world history and later American history. Molly Rogers, a senior at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington County, said: "We never really got to the bottom of it in any of the courses I took."
But Dan Fleming, professor emeritus of social science education at Virginia Tech, said his research shows that more high school time is given to World War II than the Korean or Vietnam wars.
"I would prefer to see high schools in America be required to have a class on 20th-century conflicts where World War II could be dealt with much more in depth than the two to three weeks a high school survey class can provide," said Philip Engle, who teaches world history at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. "High school students don't know enough about World War II because we don't let them."
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