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Vietnam War Presents Challenge for History Teachers - 2002-07-25


The Vietnam War is considered by many to be one of the most controversial wars in American history. More than 58,000 Americans were killed in that conflict, which lasted from the early 1960s until 1975. The country was bitterly divided at the time between those who believed the United States was perpetuating a cycle of violence and those who felt it was America's duty to fight Communism in Southeast Asia.

Twenty years ago, Americans started to come to terms with the anger and divisiveness generated by the war, when they built a Vietnam veteran's memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. But there is still no national consensus on the war, and this presents a challenge to history teachers, as they try to address the topic in their classrooms.

The Vietnam War is a relatively recent addition to the ongoing story that is "American History." It's usually the last topic to be covered in a history class and high school teachers say they often rush through it, since the school year in America is only 180 days long, and teachers have to cover nearly 400 years of history in that time. But Lindy Poling, who teaches 17 and 18-year-olds in the southern state of North Carolina, says it's important that teachers find the time to talk about Vietnam, because it's something students want to know about.

"Students are very curious about the Vietnam Era, and students today, there's one thing about high school students: If it's controversial, they want to know about it. And so much of what we can teach about from the Vietnam Era can be applied to what's going on in our world today."

Time isn't the only challenge teachers face as they try to tackle the Vietnam War. Lindy Poling says very few textbooks adequately address the issues surrounding the conflict. And many teachers find it difficult to give an unbiased account of the era. Most Americans over the age of, say, 50 have vivid memories of and strong opinions about, the social turmoil the war caused. Stephen Sossaman teaches English and history to college students in Massachusetts. He fought in the Vietnam War and joined the peace movement when he came home.

"The country has never resolved what to think about the war. It's not like the Second Punic War. Any teacher can teach what the Romans did, or what the Greeks did and nobody will find any controversy in that," he said. "But to go into some communities and teach the Vietnam War, it is absolutely impossible to make one paragraph of statements about the war without someone being irritated and annoyed. I think frankly those of us who fought either in the war or against the war, and I did both, we all have to die out. And then we'll come up with a generation that doesn't have the passions about it."

But in the mean time, Mr. Sossaman says, teachers have to find a way of informing their students about the war, so that future, less passionate generations will have a knowledge base upon which to draw their own conclusions. Stephen Sossaman says teachers need to emphasize the human aspects, because that's what students remember. To that end, he and a colleague, Rob Wilson, have started the Veterans Education Project, an organization that recruits veterans to speak to students about their experiences in Vietnam. Addressing a group of high school teachers recently gathered in Washington, D.C, Rob Wilson says the Project works best when it's treated as a partnership between teachers and veterans.

"It's important to prepare the veteran you're inviting by making the goals of your curriculum and reviewing the material that you've covered, making your expectations really clear," he noted. "I would advise you to make it clear if a veteran has not spoken in a classroom before that he or she shouldn't share anything that they're uncomfortable with. They really have to feel comfortable with their story. And also, prepare them that there might be some uncomfortable questions that they get. What do you think the number one question that the boys sitting in the front of the room ask? Yeah. 'How many did you kill?' And just warn them about that, and that's going to get that out of the way early. Yes sir?..."

The teachers debate whether they should instruct their students beforehand not to ask personal questions. Some think it's a good idea. Others believe their students should be allowed to ask anything, but that they should also be told to respect a veteran's decision not to answer a particular question. Rob Wilson says it's up to each teacher to decide, since he or she knows best how the students learn. But, he says, teachers probably ought to ask the veterans to tell their stories first and not express their opinions about the war until they are asked about them.

"No matter who the speaker is, they're going to have strongly held opinions. Somebody who's active in Veterans for Peace, for example, may be extremely critical of U.S. policy in Vietnam and probably have some critical views of American foreign policy and the military today," Mr. Wilson explained. "No matter what the prospective speaker's ideology is, it's important to make clear that you're inviting them in to share their Vietnam experience. You don't want to discourage them from expressing their strongly held opinions, but we've found that having veterans talk about their opinions during questions and answers at the end of their presentations, to focus on their narrative first, and then get into their opinion later is important."

Mr. Wilson says it's also important, whenever possible, for teachers to arrange to have more than one speaker come into their classrooms and to choose speakers who have different perspectives and different opinions on the war. But teachers still have just 180 days to work with, and achieving a balanced view of the Vietnam Era takes time. Rob Wilson says teachers may want to think about rushing through earlier parts of American history, so that they will have the time at the end of the year to fully address the Vietnam War. He says it's not that the earlier history is unimportant. It's just Americans haven't really found a way of talking about Vietnam yet and learning from it. He says today's young people are the ones who can begin to find that way but in order to do that, they'll have to be informed.

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