Tiffany Charles got a B in history last year at her Montgomery County high school, but she is not sure what year World War II ended. She cannot name a single general or battle, or the man who was president during the most dramatic hours of the 20th century.
Yet the 16-year-old does remember in some detail that many Japanese American families on the West Coast were sent to internment camps. "We talked a lot about those concentration camps," she said.
As Washington begins a massive Memorial Day weekend celebration of the new National World War II Memorial on the Mall, interviews with national education experts, teachers and more than 100 public school students suggest that Charles' limited knowledge of that momentous conflict is typical of today's youths.
Among 76 teenagers interviewed near their high schools this week in Maryland, Virginia and the District, recognition of the internment camps, a standard part of every area history curriculum, was high -- two-thirds gave the right answer when asked what happened to Japanese Americans during the war. But only one-third could name even one World War II general, and about half could name a World War II battle.
Diane Ravitch, an educational historian at New York University, said the big emphasis in high schools today is on the internment camps, as well as women in the workforce on the home front and discrimination against African Americans at home and in the armed services.
"Then, too, there was a war in the Atlantic and Pacific," she said.
Teachers and historians have been arguing for decades about how to teach World War II and other parts of American history. Many surveys, and interviews with students and teachers, indicate that there is less emphasis now on battles and victories, sparked in part by American failure in the Vietnam War, which had a significant impact on this generation of scholars and teachers.
At George Washington Middle School in Alexandria yesterday, seventh-grade history teacher Eric Bartels led his students through a spirited discussion of World War II that included mentions of Pearl Harbor, D-Day and other battles. But much of the emphasis was on the class's earlier visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a visit to the school by African American World War II pilots and the causes of several of the war's major events.
Instead of seeking the details of the Japanese assault on Hawaiian-based forces on Dec. 7, 1941, Bartels asked: "Why did Japan attack Pearl Harbor?"
He got a big response when he asked about American women entering the workforce: "Rosie the Riveter!" several students said.
Compared with other area students interviewed, Bartels's 23 students were somewhat less likely to know about the Japanese American internment camps (57 percent) but more likely to know that World War II had improved African American economic status (70 percent) and more likely to be able to name a battle in the war (86 percent).
Many teachers, including Bartels, say they emphasize the social, rather than the military, history of the war, a trend that extends to many universities and through both public and private schools.
Bryan Garman, principal of the Sidwell Friends Upper School in the District and a popular American history teacher, said "it is important to understand the political and social context -- the rise of Nazism, how the Germans got used to Hitler's leadership and to understand what was going on in Japan, too."
Other scholars warn that this approach can leave many students unclear on the details of the conflict and unable to understand what produced victory or defeat.
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."