World War II without war

American students learn how World War II affected Japanese-Americans, blacks and women, but not much about the actual war, writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. Students tend to learn social history but not military history.

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.

. . . 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.

Rosie the Riveter has trumped Patton.

When I was in school, there was a lot less history, of course. Vietnam was current events. After we “did” World War I, we’d have three days for the Depression, World War II and reviewing for the final. I think once we devoted five minutes to the McCarthy Era.

Update: Betsy describes how she teaches history and gives valuable advice on how to ace the AP U.S. history exam.

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  1. But can they even be said to have learned much social history? How many can say much about the context of “Rosie the Riveter”?

  2. Typical.

    My high school didn’t pretend to do WWII with any detail, and I am less and less interested in the current events aspect of most American history.

  3. No need to be concerned. In a few years Oliver Stone and M. Moore will produce and direct the definitive history of WW II. At that point our children will have a full understanding of the events of the first half of the last century.

  4. But Pearl Harbor told us all we need to know about WWII: Ben Affleck got the girl and Cuba Gooding, Jr. was heroic.

    I’m still waiting for James K. Polk to get more than a They Might Be Giants song written about him.

  5. Knowledge just gets in the way of burger flippers anyways.

    No I’m not serious, but it’s a thought expounded upon by greater minds than mine.

  6. Mike from Oregon says:

    Too bad that the curriculum has sunk so low. In the “olden days” – back when I went to school, we had 3 years of history. One year of ancient history (greek, persian, china, etc.). One year of world history which was pretty much all nations except the Americas from the 1200 to present. One year of US history from discovery to the present. And yes, WWII was definitely included in our course – actually I think we had about a month on it.

    No wonder the kids no days think I know so much, I actually had to study and learn. It appears I studied a much more extensive body of knowledge than what is required of a person today.

  7. Heck, in elementary and middle school in Georgia, we never seemed to get past the Reconstruction when we were doing American History. But part of that was because we spent most of our time on the colonial and Revolutionary eras. I remember the year I did Georgia state history, and we skipped from Reconstruction to the Conservation Corps in the Appalachains to Jimmy Carter. My, that was fast.

  8. The History Channel presents a constant series of in-depth documentaries about World War II and the Cold War. Most of them are very good. They could pay more attention to what happened on the Soviet front, both during and after the war, and I think they will once the western front material becomes over-exploited.

    I know that this does not satisfy the requirement for citizenship that should be secured in K-12. The history is out there for the kids, if they want to learn.

    And, of course, the web is full of great historical material.

  9. Well,

    Then the take-away is that WE here must work hard, make our money, retire early and teach.

    I have no doubt that my current officership in the US Army has as much to do with Alexander McKusick, 6th Grade “world studies” teacher and Gunner’s Mate on a Tin-Can in WWII, as it did with any “Be all that you can be” TV advert.

    Pending any eventual discharge, e seeing you all at the teacher conventions in about 15 years

  10. I don’t have kids yet, but I already plan to send them to private school. Further, I’ve convinced my fiancee that it will be up to her and I to really educate our kids…and that will include alot of books I pick out, plus a healthy dose of evenings in front of the Discovery Channel and the History Channel.

    Besides the curriculum in today’s schools being a farce, a vast majority (despite the protestations of many politicians and “the union”)of US teachers is NOT qualified. I’m not saying they don’t try, they just aren’t up to snuff.

  11. Compare How the history of World War II is taught in Japan:

    “The way of writing about World War II in Japanese history textbooks is very passive and uses indirect expressions. The most remarkable feature is that they mostly write about domestic conditions in the war. For example, a high school textbook published by a famous textbook publisher especially in the history field uses only ten pages for all of World War II. In the ten pages, the Nanjing genocide is written about in the footnotes as ‘Nanjin jiken (trouble)’. On the other hand, most textbooks emphasize the atomic bomb.”

  12. My 8-year old is fascinated by WW2 history: he can tell you all about the SBD Dauntlesses at the battle of Midway and his grandfather’s division (7th Armored) in the Battle of the Bulge, he likes B-17s and P-51s, and his favorite movie is Battle of Britain. Most of this he picked up from his father’s history book collection and watching the History Channel. It’ll be interesting when he gets to his middle school history class.

  13. I guess I’ll see you there, pending my own departure, in a couple years, from the Navy’s Officer Corps. I hear more and more people in the military talk about becoming teachers. Maybe idle chatter, but if even a few go that route, it can only be for the good.

  14. Kids don’t learn because they are not engaged. Its hard to be engaged when everything centers on the bad America did and not on anything great or noble.

    We’ve let the far left control education for decades and evidence shows things have gotten progressively worse. Maybe its time for a change.

  15. Here is a Nissei cirriculum link for teachers. I think the first curriculum on the Nissei came from the Ford Foundation.

    Until teachers have a similar curriculum handed to them that balances the rape of Nanking and the Bataan death march vs. the Nissei internment — students will continue to get a very warped view of WWII social history.

    You can probably forget military history all together. The new meme in education is that teaching war breeds war. So, we’re probably going to see very little of it taught in the future.

    [side note] In my college 101 History, we had 2 Japanese exchange students. They learned about the Nissei internment, but they never learned about a single Japanese atrocity. I pointed this out to the teacher, who was quite upset by this glaring ommission, but she was working from a “textbook” so she couldn’t easily adjust her lessons in midcourse. We just moved on.

    — Jim
    Tech Writer
    (IL Type 09 Cert US History / Social Studies)

  16. Y’know … why am I not surprised that kids on Montgomery County Maryland aren’t getting it right?

    I teach a high school aged Sunday school class. Last Sunday, I had some kids not normally in my class. I was using the example of the charge of 1st Minnesota on the Second Day of the Battle of Gettysburg as an example of selflessness (leading later into some chat on the Stoning of Stephen in the book of Acts).

    I had already mentioned the phrase “last full measure of devotion,” a phrase penned by Lincoln as he addressed the dedication of the cemetary at said battlefield. I mentioned how Lee had in his pocket terms for a truce that he would have presented Lincoln had Wilcox’s men penetrated the Union’s center.

    I started asking some questions regarding what might have happened had the North failed. I got no answers, so I asked a group of “nice kids” … B+ students from Montgomery County schools … in which war the Battle of Gettysburg occured.

    One young lady piped up “Revolutionary?”

    Again, these aren’t “bad kids” but rather “good kids” who do great things on the SAT. Too bad they’re doomed to repeat history.

  17. We’ve let the far left control education for decades and evidence shows things have gotten progressively worse. Maybe its time for a change.

    An accurate description if there ever was one…

  18. Bruce Hayden says:

    I agree with Ivan. My daughter just finished 7th grade in private school, and we intend to keep her there through high school. My girlfriend transferred her kids to public school for high school to give them a view of the real world. But at what cost? It is amazing talking with parents with kids in public school and comparing. My daughter works less, but learns a lot more. If kids are disruptive or don’t study, they just don’t come back the next year. The result is that they learn in class, as they should. I sometimes wish I had had this advantage that we are giving her, even though when I went to school, we still learned much more about WWII than Viet Nam, even though we were already in Viet Nam.

  19. Jeff B. says:

    Well, I went to a public high school in Montgomery County MD (1994-1998), and we spent nearly a month and a half on both the run-up to the war itself and the progress of the war. We spent particular time focusing on major battles and how they affected the momentum of the war: the Battle of Britain, the Battle of France (such as it was), Stalingrad, Kursk, and the Ardennes campaign/German counteroffensive. Then afterwards we spent a week or so on the Holocaust, reading Davidowicz (whom I don’t much like now that I’ve read more Holocaust scholarship, but it was serviceable introduction) All in all, it was a spectacular intro-level survey on the war, and it was matched by similar sections earlier in the year on WWI (with an extensive discussion of how exactly the whole mess happened, untangling the skeins of alliances and arms races) and the Russian Revolution (with not a shred of “those idealistic Communists wanted equality for man! My teacher opened with Lenin’s secret order commanding gratutious slaughter – ‘hang the Kulaks! Beat, beat, and beat some more!’ – to make clear who these people were). These courses turned me into a history-lover, and I went on to major in Nazi/Soviet history at college.

    What’s the catch? I went to a magnet school, specifically Richard Montgomery High School’s International Baccalaureate program. It was quite literally the best secondary education money didn’t even need to buy, and not just in history but in English (where they REALLY taught you to both read and analyze the classics, from Hamlet to Joyce, Woolf and Stoppard) and Physics and even basic epistemology. Now this was clearly a result of having great teachers – I would say that the HS teachers I had in nearly every subject were just about the best you could get for a public school, ESPECIALLY my history teachers – but the European-standards curriculum played the major role.

    Mothers, fathers: try to get your kids into IB programs – they’re really the best chance a bright, energetic teenager has of really being taught well. I was a fairly intellectually arrogant kid when I was in high school, and even then I can remember being amazed, impressed, and grateful for the fact that my teachers NEVER talked DOWN to us, but rather taught ‘up’ to us – seriously challenged us to wrestle with intellectual complexities.

    I have no doubt that my experience was atypical, but being a Montgomery County kid I thought I’d stick up for a program that really got it right.

  20. “In 1844, the Democrats were split
    The three nominees for the presidential candidate
    Were Martin Van Buren, a former president and an abolitionist
    James Buchanan, a moderate
    Louis Cass, a general and expansionist
    From Nashville came a dark horse riding up
    He was James K. Polk, Napoleon of the Stump

    Austere, severe, he held few people dear
    His oratory filled his foes with fear
    The factions soon agreed
    He’s just the man we need
    To bring about victory
    Fulfill our manifest destiny
    And annex the land the Mexicans command
    And when the vote was cast the winner was
    Mister James K. Polk, Napoleon of the Stump

    In four short years he met his every goal
    He seized the whole southwest from Mexico
    Made sure the tarriffs fell
    And made the English sell the Oregon territory
    He built an independent treasury
    Having done all this he sought no second term
    But precious few have mourned the passing of
    Mister James K. Polk, our eleventh president
    Young Hickory, Napoleon of the Stump”

  21. pragmatist says:

    Mike, you are working in the right direction.

    I’m sure your 8 year old is learning from his
    parents examples. You and your spouse are
    probably reading constantly and discussing what
    you read. If you can, try taking him to
    some “living history” museums where he can watch
    “tradesmen” from a previous age do their jobs.

    He may still end up ‘left of center’ as my son
    seems to have; but at least he will have reasoned
    it out on his own. Rather than parroting back
    what some leftish thug of teacher tells him to
    believe. (Personally I’m sure that 4 years of
    college as a Physics major will change his
    perspective. I know that worked for me :-})

  22. Jeff B. says:

    I also might add that we read a lot of great historical texts, too, in these classes – Laurence Lafore on the diplomatic meltdown leading up to WWI, Richard Pipes on the Russian Revolution, Donald Kagan’s chapter from “On The Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace” discussing WWII, and Walter Lacquer on the Cold War era.

    It really was a great set of history courses.

  23. I was fortunate, I went to a high school (graduated in 2000) that made us take 4 years of history (ancient, mideval, US, and European [or Government]). Even still, my European History teacher never once mentioned any battle. As a result, every guy in the class (and I think most of the girls, too) wrote his term paper on World War Two. The most depressing part was spending about two weeks on Napolean, without ever mentioning Waterloo, Austerlitz or Trafalger. It was as if the rest of Europe just decided to be ruled by Napolean, without complaint.

  24. This is why so many of us as parents turn to home schooling.

    Basically, we see the deficiencies in the textbooks and start supplementing the kid’s education, then realize, it’d be easier and more effective to do it by ourselves.

  25. Bill Roberts says:

    I’m not surprised. I was talking to my college age son last night (in ROTC by the way) and he couldn’t name the SecDef, Chairman of JCS, or the National Security Advisor to President Bush. I was dumbfounded. No wonder our country is going to hell in a hand-basket. I learned about events, battles, and important moments in American history when I was in high school (1960s). Guess we’re more interested in being “sensitive” and “politically correct” today. What a shame.

  26. In the leftist ideology pushed by most colleges of education, to name generals, cover battles, and cite the heroism of American soldiers is “glorifying war”.

    How to cause them severe confusion: propose a module following a Japanese-American unit, the 442nd, through the war. (The 442nd earned more medals than any other American unit.)

  27. DEacon Blues says:

    I am a Civil War reenactor and this doesn’t surprise me at all. I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked by kids as old as 14 and 15 if I fought in the Civil War. They learn about the social issues of the time but not about the actual events.

  28. This is also an all too typical example of education designers ignoring the evidence — military history is enormously popular. If they actually wanted to engage boys (instead of medicating them down to some bearable norm) they would load up the military history.

  29. I am fascinated by history, and am always dumbfounded by the lack of interest most people have in either teaching or learning history. Everything from how we think, to who we are, and why the way the world is the way it is are found in studying history. Not to mention some of the most fasciniating character studies and compelling events. Oh well I’m an NHL fan too, so I guess I am passionate about two things the average person couldn’t care less about.

  30. Ken Two says:

    I’ll be 60 this summer but still have a fifteen year old at home. Both kids went to parochial schools yet the history curriculum was not very well presented by the teachers. I know that because I have seen the outlines for outcomes which are goals for the schools. And they are good goals.

    It’s great to read that Ivan and his wife-to-be are talking about their independent efforts to educate their family. Afterall, parents are the primary educators of the children. But at the end of your kids’ and your eight hour day at work/school, you’ll both have to start over to make up for the wasted time. That’s a long day. If we did it again my wife and I would home school.

    The statistics don’t lie. Something on the order of 34% of History teachers in the classrooms have a major in History. Read the curriculum in the online course bulletins for almost any college and you will see that in order to get a teaching credential or certificate in this country you spend more time reciting pedagogical pap than learning anything about core curriculum facts.

    The saddest conversations I’ve had are with really neat superintendents who measure success by the amount of water leaking from the dike in which their finger is permanently stuck, and who have no idea what is happening with kids facing adulthood with no grounding in what has gone before them.

    And this Fall, some of those kids will vote. Frightening!

  31. To see the coverage of the dedication of the World War II Memorial in DC, it has become abundantly clear that World War II was won single-handedly by the Tuskegee Airmen and the Navajo Code Talkers.

    Memorials, textbooks and curricula about that war tells us more about today’s veritable obsession into breaking down all elements of history by ethnic group – in strict order of oppression – than it does about World War II.

  32. I am a high school history teacher. I will not teach that educrap and psychobabble. I teach history, that we were the good guys, we saved the world, and that the Russians vs. the Germans was bad guys vs. bad guys, and the bad guys won. I might be an island, but there is one of us who teaches history.

  33. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool liberal and the warm fuzzy, content-free bent of public education gets on MY nerves. I preferred it when public education represented the Man. It gave me something to question.

    That said, I think maybe there’d be a little more balance in public education if there was any money in being a teacher. If you make it so that only a left-leaning idealist would be willing to be a teacher, you’re going to get left-leaning, idealistic education.

    In other words, you get what you pay for.

  34. What you are describing will result in the following…from yesterday’s Belmont

    “The fundamental fact is that the triumph of the Jihad must be momentarily preceded by the ascendance of the Left. Only the Left will pick up the gun, put the barrel to the temple of the Western mind and pull the trigger without hesitation. But their ascendance will only be momentary, and I for one delight in imagining how we will kick them as they squeal about their rights and their sexual entitlements once there is no one left to protect them.”

    IMO, with no connection to, or willing grasp of, our past, the future looks suicidal.

  35. Tollhouse says:

    It’s not just the schools though. Go to a Fine Art or History museum. They are completely devoid of any military content with the exception of Samurai armor. They’ve excluded such an integral part of history, all the art inspired by battles and war. You need to go to private or military museums to learn anything of war.

    On one hand I can understand wanting to shield people from the barbarity of war, but on the other hand, there is so much of our history that is intrinsically bound in warfare.

    A telling example that’s in the news lately, is Irshad Manji, she desires a Reformation of Islam. The impression I get is she thinks that a council of immans can just do it at a roundtable. She doesn’t seem to comprehend that the the actual Reformation was a bloody century long affair that only ended after all the combatants were throughly exhausted from all the killing and even then their were/are sectarian conflicts to this day. It strikes me that teaching history without the near constant warfare is inadequate.

  36. Seomthing is wrong if they think the Internment camps were the same as concentration camps.
    If they taught about both there should be no way they would be confused.

  37. “Memorials, textbooks and curricula about that war tells us more about today’s veritable obsession into breaking down all elements of history by ethnic group – in strict order of oppression – than it does about World War II.”

    And yet the irony of it all is leftism today holds that racism is the greatest of all sins (save perhaps insensitivity).

    It’s really no wonder at all that I simply cannot stand liberals.

  38. Cardinal Fang says:

    “It’s not just the schools though. Go to a Fine Art or History museum. They are completely devoid of any military content with the exception of Samurai armor.”

    What museums are you talking about here? I have experienced just the opposite. My son loves military history, especially medieval history, and so when we go to museums we end up seeing rather more armor and weapons than I’m interested in. We’ve had no trouble finding art depicting warfare in any major art museum we’ve gone to. My son says the Met has the best arms & armor exhibit; he was less impressed with the exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. The Prado, alas for him, has no armor, but there are certainly plenty of military pictures there.

  39. I didn’t learn a thing about either world war academically until I was in COLLEGE – all of my classes up to then seemed to stop at or before the Civil War, hideously enough, and move on to world history (or just recap US history). If it weren’t for my parents, grandfathers (one a WWII vet), and own insatiable curiosity about history, I’d have been a World War dunce, too. Thanks, school systems of America!

  40. John from OK says:

    An interesting take on the internment camps is made in “Why the Left Hates America” by Daniel Flynn. He states:

    1. The number of interned was 30,000, not 100,000. The higher number comes from using the terms “relocated” and “interned” interchangeably.
    2. Half those interned were Europeans living in the U.S.
    3. “5,000 Japanese Americans renounced their citizenship following Pearl Harbor, and additional thousands joined the Japanese war effort.”
    4. Joe Dimaggio’s father was barred from fishing, which was his occupation. Like other Italians, Germans, etc., he could not travel more than 5 miles from his home.
    5. “When the war ended, the Japanese American Citizens League sued to keep [the camps] open.” Free food, housing, and medical care.

    The point being that the left has always jumped at the chance to portray Amerika as racist to the core, hence the exageration of some repression and omission of other repression.

    Accept these statements as one author’s opinion. The book itself was not that good.

  41. D Anghelone says:

    Seomthing is wrong if they think the Internment camps were the same as concentration camps.
    If they taught about both there should be no way they would be confused.

    And something is wrong if they don’t know the difference between the Internment camps (Japanese, Germans, Italians and sundry) and the Relocation camps (Japanese-Americans.

  42. Bob Diethrich says:

    I teach World History and they will have to pull me kicking and screaming from the classroom before I take the “military” out of history.

    The PC mindset is so entrenched in some of the kids that I really, really enjoy popping their bubbles.

    I show a wonderful documentary on the Soviet Union from the Revolution through Stalin, with a lot of interviews with the survivors. As John Forsythe solemnly intones that over 3 million Kulaks were purged; I hit the pause button and ask them, “Did you get that number? Half as many Jews as were killed in the Holocaust!”

    And then we see the hearbreaking photos of the Ukranian famine, and Forsythe describes the 11 million casualties of Stalin’s collectivization famine! Usually one kid in each class asks, “How come WE NEVER LEARN ABOUT THIS?” (BTW a Jewish student once told me that those photos were the worst atrocity pictures he had ever seen!)
    I then discuss some of the reasons that the atrocities of Stalin were not covered, especially by the post-war American left.

    My first year I had a bright African girl who displayed this mindset when she responded to my statement. ‘Just think kids we allied with a bigger monster than Adolph Hitler, to defeat Hitler. She got this shocked look on her face and, said “YOU CAN’T SAY THAT!” As if I had just said slavery was justified or that overall apartheid was a pretty good system.

    BTW I also cover extensively the “Rape of Nanking,” the Bataan Death March and other atrocities while pointing out that Japanese militarism was as sick a national psychosis as Nazism! I have very few argue that dropping the atomic bomb was not justified when we spend a day discussing that!

    At the end of the year, I ask them to tell me the most remarkable thing they learned in my class for the whole year, and usally about 30 to 40 percent mention the crimes of Stalin!

  43. This is just another aspect of the Long March of the Left through the institutions. Same thing has happened in the Great White North. Years ago I translated a comic book used in some Italian schools on the Canadian Army’s liberation of Ortona, a town on the Adriatic. I thought it would be a natural for the curriculum here, but I was told that all the educational bureaucracy wanted to teach about WW2 was how beastly we were to the Japanese and the hardships of the home front. In my experience, many kids are angry when they find out what they have been kept in ignorance of.

  44. D Anghelone says:

    John from OK,

    Flynn seems correct enough but he is perhaps guilty of omission. The bulk of the Japanese-Americans supposedly interned were actually in Relocation camps which were better but in a sense worse than the Internment camps. Worse in that internment is an old and accepted practice (28,000 Japanese or Japanese-Canadians in Canada) while Relocation was probably unique.

    Relocation was applied mostly but not exclusively to the J-As. The Relocation camps were built because the large number of J-As had no where to go. Thousands of them did find jobs elsewhere and did not enter the camps. Some left the camps which were voluntary. The Roosveltians didn’t actually want them in the camps as they preferred them to be in productive labor.

  45. Once again, we see the extremes that occur when reactions to the extreme take over. When I was in High School, we had some history (nothing with social context, just dates and names). We also had Civics class, which was a class where you were taught never to question God or country. What we have now is a reaction to what we had then. What we will have in the future will go back to the fascist side of things. The pendulum will continue to swing unless someone with integrity and actual complete knowledge steps in. We need an education system that shows both sides of the picture. Not just the PC side or the conservative America has never done anything wrong side.

  46. Reading the comments of history teachers here bolsters my assertion that there are some good public schools and good public school teachers out there. No one should assume his neighborhood school is crap until he checks it out. Call and tell them you’re the parent of a prospective student, and ask if you can talk to the teachers and look at the textbooks. You may be pleasantly surprised.

  47. The similarity of all your comments is very telling. Nearly all of the people who respond to this blog, and read blogs in general, are current events fiends who, of course, all share a passion for history, both military and social. I love history too and pride myself on my knowledge of WWII, geography and so forth.

    My point is: not every high schooler in America shares this passion. I bet some of the students who can’t name a WWII battle *can* name the composer of a piece of music by hearing a few bars or quote the stat of a baseball player or even correct your term paper for punctuation errors.

    To claim that an unscientific poll (going off the above blog, I haven’t attempted to substantiate the claims) of ONE school system in the country means the Left has eroded our education system to the point of no reutrn is ludicrous. Why must we scapegoat our political opposites for everything wrong in our country?

    You should all be using your superior education to draw better conclusions than that.

  48. Former Historian says:

    Having studied both American and European history at undergraduate and graduate levels in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, I can’t say I am surprised at this artcle or any of the hundreds of similar articles I have read over the past 40+ years.

    My first school ‘history’ course (as opposed to “social studies”) probably came in 4th grade as California History. Not a lot of battles there, but we did learn about the Bear Flag Revolt and our class was bussed over to Sonoma to see where it took place.

    In junior high, an ancient history course taught by a teacher with an interest in the classics did include brief descriptions of a few battles, and an introduction to (a bad translation of) Caesar’s Gallic War.

    By high school, the history courses (American and World) using then standard textbooks had few references to battles, but at least a few of the biggest ones (Saratoga, Yorktown, Gettysburg, Waterloo) and WWII got some mention. Boys, who assiduously read books about the civil war (Bruce Catton’s Army of the Potomac trilogy, D.S. Freeman’s Lee and Lee’s Lieutenants), WWII and other wars learned alot about war and battles. Girls, most of whom did not read such books, ususally did not learn anything about wars. (Curiously, in college it was always the girls who first complained about history courses emphasizing what the professionals called “kings and battles”).

    In college, most professors avoided war and battles in teaching even political history. Again, lots of young men read military history, but few professors taught it. I remember being surprised at the few who were interested or who put military events into the context of their courses.

    The older generation of professors, trained before WWII, knew their kings and battles, and, I think, assumed we did, too. They were more interested in other things, and that’s what most students wanted too.

    I remember as a teaching assistant and teacher being appalled at how students wanted to move immediately to interpretation, even though they didn’t know enough facts to evaluate any interpretation, or to evaluate the facts offered in support of an interpretation. And this was 30+ years ago.

    As my children have taken high school AP courses in history, I have seen the same pattern play itself out, although in American history the texts are different, and worse. For modern Europe, at least, most high schools still use RR Palmer + friends’ The Making of the Modern World. Which mentions, without much discussion, a few of the most important battles and suggests why they were important.

  49. To the Career Military people on this thread:
    Please, please do what you are saying you will do. You have a perspective our children need.

    Our high school is by not bad (this is a one-industry town–a large land grant university). The best teacher my daughters had taught American history and was retired military. Some of our academic acquaintances pulled their children out of his class because he was a Republican (heaven forbid). It made me realize how often the left actually wills ignorance. Each year many of his students get 5s on the AP tests. He makes them work and makes them love it. To love requires acknowledging warts and ambiguity, but at the passionate core loving and respecting that history.

    Before the AP test is given, he explains that the questions will take a different perspective than he has. He doesn’t suggest they compromise their integrity but understand that the person reading the tests is quite likely to not be moved by the same values he has discussed. Therefore, their arguments should be substantial. I’ve never met him and never told him this but seeing his effect on my daughters is profound.

    My colleagues in history at the junior college where I teach are often retired military (people who got Ph.D.’s but late enough in life that a research career may not be open to them). They make history live not just for the students they teach but for those of us in other disciplines who hear their passion in the hallways.

    And yes, it is hard to teach American lit to people who seem to think slavery ended in WWII (that has been true of more than one of my students). They are so full of the warts that they can’t take pride in their own, quite wonderful if human, history.

    As an aside, the power of Bush’s speeches are often neglected by the media (who never seem to take sound bites from the powerful allusions to American history and literature – partially, I suspect from the columns and discussions because the reporters have never read the core documents to which these refer). At the least, the media seldom senses the way these speeches reverberate in American lit.

  50. M. Simon says:

    History is in the main the study of two major currents.

    1. The alpha male problem
    2. The advance of technology

  51. Well, I’m going to stake out some totally new territory here:

    History is too big to teach in school. It requires life-long learning. This is true of most subjects. It’s essential to get a good general overview in school, but the real purpose of schools should be to instill the kids with a love of learning.

    When I was a kid in the 1950’s and the idea that you had to be well-educated to get ahead in life was all around us. It was one of those things that everyone took for granted. We let that slip away, somehow, and school is now viewed by most kids as just something you have to live through until you’re out – an unpleasant but necessary task, like going to the dentist.

    I’ve read dozens of history books as an adult and I still don’t know squat about history. It scares me to think of a generation that doesn’t know Patton from Grant – or the values of the US from those of Stalin.

    Somehow, we have to find a way back to the love of learning for its own sake.

  52. Finlay wrote:

    I am fascinated by history, and am always dumbfounded by the lack of interest most people have in either teaching or learning history. Everything from how we think, to who we are, and why the way the world is the way it is are found in studying history.

    Too many students have all interest in history burned out of them by means of grading determined almost exclusively by their ability to regurgitate names and dates, no credit given for understanding of who fought, allied with or succeeded whom.

    That was me in 1976. Since then history has been a pursuit for understanding rather than grades, and it is a whole lot more appealing. But how many never recover from the mind-numbing experience of modern pedagogy?

  53. So we’re teaching children about the internment of the Japanese-Americans during WWII — but ostensibly leaving out the inconvenient fact that it was FDR, the father of modern liberalism, who sent 120,000 men, women and children to concentration camps, stripping them of their property and rights simply based on their race and nation of origin.

    Interesting to note that this is happening at a time when liberals are howling about the Gitmo detainees and the Patriot Act.

  54. Matt…”I’m a dyed-in-the-wool liberal and the warm fuzzy, content-free bent of public education gets on MY nerves. I preferred it when public education represented the Man. It gave me something to question.”

    Uh…hate to be the one to tell you this, but today liberals *are* the Man (if by the Man you mean one who enforces orthodoxy and fears change)

  55. Rita C. says:

    Every year, I get several research papers on particular battles, usually Civil War or WWII (they can choose their topics). When we do Julius Caesar, the kids are pretty hip to the battles, etc. So, maybe I’m living on Mars, but my students seem to have some knowledge of facts/dates/battles, etc. I know they all take geography, too. I may be one of those disgusting Democrats in the classroom that must be removed at all costs, but it seems to me my students know something. Not everything. They’re only 15. But they seem to have picked up a few things along the line.

  56. I graduated from 9th grade not a week ago, and I can tell you that the handling of WWII so far in my magnet high school has been dismal. We spent all of four days on each of the World Wars, from start to finish. And most people, becuase of the round-table station format, learned about the middle before the beginning.

    Do not despair, however. I educated myself as best as I can, and my dad has helped out a good deal. I read, I watch, I listen, in short, I take the initiative. I want to learn about such a huge time period, so I do. But, as has been pointed out, most of the other people in my classes have had all desire to learn about History drilled out of them. A girl who sat next to me once said to me, “Why do we have to learn about all this history stuff? It’s all, like, over and done.” I think her reaction is characteristic of the general teen population.

    But through supplemental education outside of school (we in the business like to call that education “life”), I have become the expert in my grade about WWII. For example, I was called upon to explain what the Gestapo, SS, and KGB was, and did, if I may say so, quite admirably. Another example is that I was the only person in my class who had any idea what the Maginot Line was, even thought it was on a map that we copied by hand out of the textbook.

    My dad is the one who referred me to this post, and who taught me everything I needed to know to be astounded at this. If you’re reading this, thanks, Dad.

  57. megapotamus says:

    flaime; Yes, this phenomenon as well as almost any in human experience is a pendulum ride and the current state of debasement IS a reaction to a curriculum unfairly presented in the past. Personally, I’m pretty optimistic and I don’t think it will take some White Knight of history to redress things. The pendulum is still swinging and this is far from it’s final arc. The result will be a more balanced approach as the facts do not dissappear and our access to them is more facile every day. Kids will learn when they want to learn and not before regardless of the circumstances in the classroom. Well, almost regardless.

  58. Laurie K. says:

    In my “advanced” history class in high school, the teacher made us hold a mock trial for Harry Truman, for his war crimes, mostly based on his use of the atom bomb. This guy taught three sections of the class and Harry got off in all three. I can still remember how pissed off the teacher was at all of us.

    Laurie K, proud member of the Harry S Truman defense team

  59. Anonymous says:

    We all know the least qualified people go into teaching. We know they are easily intimidated into teaching what the district orders. We know the district takes its instruction from the state. We know the state takes its orders from the grievance industry. We know the grievance industry is populated by the left. Why is anybody surprised the kids don’t know history?

  60. Two Tone says:

    “To see the coverage of the dedication of the World War II Memorial in DC, it has become abundantly clear that World War II was won single-handedly by the Tuskegee Airmen and the Navajo Code Talkers.”

    On Memorial Day weekend, NPR covered the dedication of the WWII Memorial. They featured three interviews with WWII veterans. The first was ordinary. The second was with two brothers who were upset with GW Bush and the war in Iraq. The third was with a black soldier who was treated better in England during the war than he was treated at home. Just a typical day in the NPR neighborhood.

  61. I had a great teacher in high school for world history and US/Nevada History and she had a talent for filling up blackboards full of material you needed to write down, because she enjoyed testing you on it.

    I remember stuff like the crusades, chinese culture, european contributions to society, africa being part of the triangle for gold, slaves, and rum, etc.

    In US history we covered the revolutionary war, french-indian war, WWI/II, Korea, and Vietnam. We also went through various stages of development in the US including the industrial evolution, inventions (telegraph, electric light bulb, telephone, etc), great depression and why it happened, etc.

    It’s been 23 years since I was in high school, but I can still remember the material like it was yesterday (I know I got a better education than kids get today, but that’s because I had to work my *** off).

  62. As a teacher of history, I am disgusted at what passes for history curricula today. There is no emphasis on American heroics or sacrifices, just the big bad ol imperial Americana crap, coupled with how evil we were to the Japanese, and that Hitler was bad because he killed Jews. And that there was a Cold War but we were stupid and mean to Russians. Give me a break!

    In fact, part of the reason I was let go was because i was teaching “too much” about the greatest generation of WWII and the Cold War, because I realized kids get plenty of the Civil War and the Revolution throughout school. However, when real patriotic times and the endeavors of modern heroes like Reagan are brought up, the establishment wants to poo poo them. Makes me sick….I hope in any future teaching job I get I can continue to teach the important lessons of WWII and modern history, and not be left to do the “social crap” that seems to dominate history. Great article… the way…

  63. In a science fiction novel written in the early sixties, the character mentions that his history professors at Princton (in the 50s) did not teach war, because it was a bad thing.

    In 8th grade (72-73), we did American History. We spent a week on the Articles of Confederation, a week on all the reasons for the Civil War (surprise, it was all because of slavery – but the economic conflicts of it – the social and moral ones were the ones people picked, but it was the economy)….and we did learn about the Rape of Nanking……and that Chaing Kai Shek really was the wrong horse to back (alas I do not remember who it was that we should have backed).

    My kids go to school in Frederick MD (just NW of Montgomery Cty MD), they are still teaching things properly here. So far.

  64. Laurie K.> In my “advanced” history class in high school, the teacher made us hold a mock trial for Harry Truman, for his war crimes, mostly based on his use of the atom bomb.

    Laurie, perhaps we need to hook your teacher up with my father … he was a SeaBee on a boat doing circles in the Pacific when they dropped “the big one.”

    Had they not, it would have been the job of him and some others to clear the beach of obstacles for the invasion of Japan. Estimated survival rates (determined by bona-fide experts who had survived places like Iwo Jima) were grim at best.

    Then again, as I recall, back in the mid-90’s there was a huge flap at the Air and Space Museum over the same issue.

  65. julia smith says:

    One of the most memorable (well, the only memorable) experiences I had in a K-12 history class was in my 8th grade honors history class. We were each assigned to play the role of one of the members of the Constitutional Congress and to vote on each of the Amendments with the concerns of that member in mind. Though admittedly a bit anachronistic, we still learned a lot. It was a challenge, and VERY engaging.

  66. Most of you went through the public school system in this country and yet you all have a knowledge and passion for history.

    Hmmm? *Something* must be working.

    Cynicism isn’t always the answer and life was never that great “back when you were in school.”

  67. Well, Greg, the readership of this blog *is* a rather self-selecting group, isn’t it?

    Culling stats from this comments thread doesn’t tell you much.

    Try watching “Jay-Walking” for a couple of years, then get back to us.

  68. Don’t know where you folks got your history degrees, but it seems like it was from the university of the bloody narrow minded! I hated History in High School. I love it now. I teach it now. Sometimes I teach Kings and Battles History, sometimes I don’t. Last time I heard, there were lots of acceptable approaches to History. Also last I heard, Social History did not equal “History taught with an Evil Liberal Agenda.” Me, I’m mostly an institutional historian, mostly — except that in my period, the institution of marriage is intrinsic to political relationships, so I get categorized as a social historian. I happen to like military history because it’s cool and fun, but it just isn’t the only way to teach, nor is it the only coherent way of teaching about wars. Nor, as much fun as it is to talk about, is World War II the be all and end all — given the choice, I’m going to spend more time in my survey on WW I than WW II, because I see it as being the more significant in the long run and am still not convinced that the two wars aren’t really one with a long pause. It’s a question I also ask my students to discuss.

    Anyway, have you thought that perhaps people teach to their strengths? Or to the kind of sources available?
    I teach very little economic history until we get to the Early Modern period, because I know far more about the development of governments and institutions and daily life and ecclesiastic history for the period before that. That’s where I concentrate.
    When I get to EM, though, there’s all that fun colonization, mercantilism, bubbles — so there’s more there and less on specific battles of the 30 Years’ War — which is far more imporant to understand, IMO, as a an example of the varying, shifting, dynastic and political and quasi-religious motivations between the countries involved than as a bunch of interesting battles.

    I teach Cannae, Zama and Agincourt whenever I can because I get the details and think they’re really fun and interesting. I do Dunkirk because it makes me cry to think of it, but more because it shows the students how an entire country was involved in the war effort. I also talk about German and British soldiers coming out of the trenches at Christmas and singing carols together from their trenches in the cold nights. We read primary sources on the Terror, the Great Leap Forward, and the Holocaust.
    But frankly, I’d much rather the students understand the causes of these wars how they were related to Industrialization, Nationalism (and how it changes from the 19th c to the middle of the 20th c), Communism, Colonialism and Post-Colonialism, Imperialism, etc., as well as the reciprocal effects the wars had on society and those same “isms.”
    There are countless (and fairly good) detail-oriented military history programs on the History Channel, and people who like the stuff (and this is from someone who spent much of last weekend watching war movies) can always find more. What they can’t get is a bigger picture that tries to relate a myriad of social, political, and economic forces to what was going on at the time in question. Knowing the details of Passchendaele may be interesting, but a good discussion of “Dulce et Decorum Est” will stick longer. Will the students be better served by knowing the details of Lepanto or by understanding the background to Islamist claims to Spain and Spain’s support for a proposal currently floated in the European Parliament to add a clause about Europe’s Christian tradition to the constitution. I’d rather have Santiago Matamoros and its imagery stuck in their heads. But then I’m one of those horrible, dangerous, incompetent liberals who teaches all of Western (and sometimes World) Civ in three quarters.

  69. Are you suggesting, Winston, that the selective editing of the irascible Jay Leno’s segments represents a clearer picture of America? Umm, I don’t think Leno let’s the people who actually know the answers make it on TV. It wouldn’t be “funny,” even though I question whether Jay Leno is ever funny. But again, you’d rather take the Our-country-is-in-shambles view than make an intelligent conclusion.

    Yes, some schools are inferior. But there is an equal number of schools and teachers who inspire and produce history(or any subject for that matter)-loving people. The testimonials which pepper this thread prove that. I especially liked the story of the mock-trial of Truman and find it ironic that the teacher was trying to present his own political beliefs but was foiled by his students own passion/interest on the subject.

    The evil liberals do not always prevail in our education system.

  70. Oh — and no one has ever asked me to lean one way or another in my classes (not the case in some area colleges), nor have any of my ex-military students complained about my approach. I generally have at least two (there are several bases nearby — naval air, sub, army, airforce, coasties — no marines, although I’ve had 5 marines in my classes over the last 2 years) per class.

    Of course, we consider it a strength in our department that we have historians with varying approaches. In my class, intellectual history rarely rears its ugly head, but a colleague teaches it more than anything else. Different strokes. I imagine if there were more history required in 7-12 and if it were taught by actual historians, y’all might not be complaining, though. So please stop complaining and work on your state boards of education to raise the bar. They won’t, you know.

  71. julia smith says:


    My guess is that most of us blogging here have been out of school for at least a decade or so, and things have changed a bit in the ensuing years–both in terms of what is taught in the classroom and our perceptions and understanding of such. I don’t think that anyone here thinks that history in elementary and secondary schools is in shambles at ALL public schools, but there does seem to be a general trend that is disheartening, to say the least.

  72. Cousin Dave says:

    Greg, I attended a mix of public and private schools and I can tell you that I only had one primary-school teacher who ever got me really interested in history, and that was in a private school. (8th grade: We are doing the unit on the European colonial era, and one particular week we are talking about colonialism in the Mideast. By concidence, that week the Yom Kippur War breaks out. The instructor shifts gears a bit and we spend the week bringing in newspaper clips and relating what is happening at the time to what had happened in the region over the past century. That was the first time I ever had it impressed on me that history isn’t just a bunch of dusty facts and figures; events have causes and history happens to everyone.)

  73. No, Greg, but I am suggesting that the segments on Leno hold true to my own experiences in the classroom. Too many of my students are as woefully ignorant as those interviewed on Leno’s segment, and I do not find Leno’s segment funny so much as I find the inability to answer the questions frighteningly familiar.

    Things have changed quite a bit in the last decade or so, particularly in the textbook department. You might check out Ratvitch’s The Language Police to see what sort of crap lies behind what is and what is not included in the textbooks used in this nation’s schools.

    I taught high school for three years before moving to teach college–I’ve seen the texts used in the history classes and I’ve seen the results of using those texts, having been forced to teach history in my high school literature classes to make up for the deficits of said texts and of a history department that was, by and large, Marxist.

    As for college history courses, take a look through the course offerings of a few universities and see for yourself the leftist bias evident through the names of the courses alone. This isn’t teaching history; it’s teaching a political stance towards history. Two very, very different things. And it also means that a lot of information is simply being discarded.

    Anymore, I find that I have to give mini history lectures on a regular basis in college composition classes, because students do not know basic historical facts. In a recent unit on utopias and dystopias, I was forced to accompany each reading with an historical lecture. No one could tell me anything about the Greek city-states. No one knew anything about the church and state conflict Thomas More was involved in, and only two could tell me who Martin Luther was. No one could tell me the principal event of 1789. No one knew who Henry David Thoreau was.

    They all knew quite a bit about labor movements and the evils of capitalism. They all knew about slavery and its evils. They all knew about American imperialism. Simply put, they all knew about the opinions of the left regarding those aspects of history the left is interested in. But beyond that, they knew very little about history. Their historical knowledge was the product of history texts written by and foisted upon our schools by the left and often taught by those on the left. And yes, they all knew about the Japanese internment camps, and most thought that Roosevelt allowed Pearl Harbor to happen in order to enter the war–and immediately made the comparison to Bush and 9/11. What side of the political spectrum do you suppose exposed them to that idea? They also “knew” that Truman was wrong to have dropped the atomic bomb. June 6, 1944? What’s that? They do, however, know about D-Day now, because they are aware that Bush is using D-Day and its casualties for his own political gain.

    So, Greg, why don’t you dial back the partisan bullshit a little and try hard not to take potshots at my intelligence when you respond. How many students have you dealt with personally? How many have you had the opportunity to quiz about history? How many times have you been forced to completely restructure a course in order to address an entire class’s ignorance of what were once considered basic historical facts?

    Try hard not to completely dismiss the experiences of others, just because they don’t fit into your world view.

  74. In Bill’s US history class they covered the “great depression and why it happened.” Since I thought that was still controversial, I would like to ask Bill what he was taught about why it happened. Everyone else, if you don’t like Bill’s answer, please don’t jump on Bill, just say what you think the cause was instead, and point to something (book, website, etc.) why?

    Thank you,


  75. Tom — that sounds like a baited hook — why don’t you show us yours?

  76. There is a very good reason why history education (and education in general) is failing in this country.

    Try to imagine, ladies and gentlemen, accounting for every grain of sand on a beach, each as individual entities, without the device of concepts in order to unify them according to principles.

    No human being could possibly do it, but this is nearly exactly the challenge facing today’s students in absorbing discrete, disconnected facts.

    Shall I beg? I can do that. (bended knee…)

    I am begging you: go find a copy of “The Voice of Reason” — the 1988 anthology of articles by Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff — and read “The American School: Why Johnny Can’t Think”.

    I beggin’ ya, already.

  77. Medievalist…I personally don’t object to social history; in fact I’m all for it (just rereading ‘Making of the English Working Class’) I think the problem is not too much emphasis on social history, it’s rather too much emphasis on particular preselected topics which someone has decided are fashionable. For example, kids learn about Rosie the Riveter, but they are unlikely to learn about the women who served as secret agents with OSS or SOE. They learn about the internment of the Japanese Americans, but they are unlikely to learn about the Rape of Nanking. Part of the problem is political correctness; part of it is fad-following; much of it is a strange atomistic view of knowledge and a de-emphasis on narrative.

    Your class sounds great, BTW.

  78. julia smith says:

    Medievalist’s comment about “Dulce et Decorum Est” made me think about what inspired my own interest in the World Wars: Wilfred Owen in an undergrad 20th-century British poets class and then, later, reading Pat Barker’s Regeneration. It’s made me think that, on the one hand, social history is a great way to spark initial interest in history in the world wars, but it is impossible to adequately understand that history without reference to the battles themselves and the unfolding of the wars, which helps us understand their effects. We MUST have full context.

  79. Ivan has the right idea. My kids (aged 17, 14 and 12) watch the History Channel for fun, especially the eldest. We’re going to our local history museum this Sunday for the D-Day festivities. This same daughter requested and received “Band of Brothers” on DVD for her birthday. She probably knows more about WWII than I do, since despite taking 2 years of AP US History I never got past the Great Depression. I think my kids’ interest in history comes from my husband, who told them historic bedtime stories when they were small. (I read a lot of history, too, but I don’t tell it as well as he does.) They got hooked on the narrative very early on.

  80. Thanks, David — I try, and constantly reinvent parts of it, because I’m never quite satisfied. I suppose part of my reaction is based on the fact that a huge number of my students think that they will have a hard time in class, not because they won’t get the concepts or understand how to read primary sources absent the help of the textbook (which is relatively difficult), but because they think they are going to have to memorize all those names, dates, and battles. I get a bit snarky when I think people are putting too much emphasis on them — just like I do when I read comments like Robert Mandel’s:

    I teach history, that we were the good guys, we saved the world, and that the Russians vs. the Germans was bad guys vs. bad guys, and the bad guys won. I might be an island, but there is one of us who teaches history.

    I don’t think that’s history. Just as I think names and dates aren’t history. The first couple of days of class, we do three things: I talk about History as analogous to language, in that, with a language, you have to learn both vocabulary and grammar. You can get by with a fairly week vocabulary if you understand the grammar well enough to be understood by others, but you will never really master a language unless you are willing to just learn the damned words — except with History, the words are those names and dates. The second thing we do is, on day one, go around the room and memorize each other’s names. It’s just an easy way to show people they remember more than they think — if they apply themselves. Finally, I pull out a short document and tell the students that they need to pretend they are living in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi world, where they know that their ancestors lived, and understand concepts like government, religion, etc., but have only this document to tell them about the particular society. After much prodding (“no way, that’s so obvious — you can’t want us to notice they have an army and a king”), they start to get into it.

    But I guess that’s where I differ from some of the rest of you — I want my students to learn how to be historians for the short time I have them, and I also want them to understand the big themes and how they are all interconnected. They have to know names and dates, but if I have to pick (and I often do, in survey courses) I’d rather they learned about(and remembered) the Munich Conference, the Nuremberg Laws, Kristallnacht, Potsdam, and Yalta than Patton, El Alamein, Coral Sea, and Iwo Jima. I just would rather they know why people were fighting, and what came out of it (for example, the Cold War and how it played out in other countries) than when and where the battles took place. In a survey, that seems to be gravy. Of course, they also get to write papers on topics that interest them, so I got a bibliographic essay on pirates this quarter and one on the importance of Trafalgar.

    But I don’t think it’s good history to talk about good guys and bad guys (except when people are just bad by any standards) and my students come out mostly understanding that “oppressed” is a loaded word, but it’s fair to say, “the documentary evidence shows that in society x, women had fewer civil rights, while in society y, the social position of a woman helped to define her civil rights, and in z, women had property rights, but not the right to worship with men.

    Oh — and I actually let my students figure out that entering a war late with fresh troops and better equipment makes it easier to be the white hats.

  81. General Lee says:

    Heaven forbid they see a photograph of someone with a flag and a gun.


  1. Cronaca says:

    History without war

    Joanne Jacobs links to a Washington Post article that discusses the teaching of WW2 in American schools. Not a lot…

  2. History and the Left

    Continually I am frustrated and angered by the trend of the Left to ignore history. Michael Totten has commented on it before. It’s amazing how the history of the Middle East is never seriously considered by the vast majority of…

  3. Tom McMahon says:

    WWII: The WW Means Without Whitemen

    Joanne Jacobs has a great entry on a Washington Post story about how nowadays American students learn how World War II affected Japanese-Americans, blacks and women, but not much about the actual war. The Money Quote is a comment left