I distinctly remember a particular conversation that occurred in my high school US history course. The class had just reached the truncated section on the 80’s and onward, concluding by just barely touching the vague “possibilities and challenges of the New Millennium”, as if the calendar year actually has an influence on what happens during it. One statement specifically from that conversation:
"Isn’t it odd how in just a few years, our children will be reading in textbooks about things that happened during our lives?"
Now the time frame may have been off, since if any of us had a child that day it would still have been close to two decades before they studied any of that material, but information that has come to my eyes lately suggests that this isn’t necessarily something we should look forward to. Events in the past few years may not be covered at all, and if the pattern continues, they may not be covered well even if they are addressed.
It seems that there are certain events in history so controversial that they must be avoided altogether. As mentioned in Lies My Teacher Told Me, the Vietnam War remains one of the most universally despised wars in American history. Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight title was stripped from him because he refused to serve in the military, and his was just one of the more notable objections. And although it has become a common reference in popular culture, especially during the 80’s, it is almost completely passed over in textbooks.
If your immediate response was, “We discussed Vietnam! It was an anticommunist war where we tried to protect Vietnam from becoming ‘another China’!” Well, you’d be right, but that’s not why the war is controversial. The issue is not in what the textbooks say, it’s what they omit.
The Vietnamese civilians were firebombed constantly as a means of “retaking hostile territory”. America and its supported government in South Vietnam were so hated that a Buddhist monk set himself on fire in protest (and others followed). GI’s committed war crimes not since repeated by troops. These acts are not justified by any political theory, but since “social studies” courses are designed to produce good citizens, not informed ones (what defines good, by the way?), textbooks skirt around the problems with American involvement. And there’s another, potentially more important reason.
The theme of the century so far has been “tolerance”, not necessarily actual tolerance, else I would not use quotations. This “tolerance” translates roughly into “nobody can offend anybody ever in any context”. This poses significant issues.
The “War on Terrorism”, actually a series of wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, has taken a similar turn as Vietnam in that it is generally disliked (with a sect of the population that adamantly defends involvement, just like the Hawks of the Vietnam era). Unlike Vietnam, actions and statistics from this more current war are not publicized, photographed, and televised to the same degree. And it is not yet over, so today’s populace cannot look at the conflict with historical objectivity yet.
But the error in our approach to Vietnam is that we dodge analyzing the issue at all. It is still so divisive of a conflict that textbooks worry about (it seems) inseminating ideas into students that might offend their parents (the students themselves are too young to recall the conflict). Such analysis may provide context for demonstrating how blind nationalism could be counterproductive to our long-term interests, or that no nation is inherently “good” or “bad”. It could also provide parallels for discussion when looking at our current war in Iraq.
The treatment of Vietnam has started a trend. The Gulf War, which occurred in the last thirty years, is almost unmentioned. The Lebanese Civil War, which we also acted in? Ignored. The Bosnian War? Untouched. The War on Terror? The only thing discussed is the terrorist strike of 2001. This foreshadows a period where students will learn nothing of the fifty years prior to their existence, instead making a hero of Columbus, Jefferson, and Lincoln and minimizing recent events.
Don’t think too highly about where your sons’ and daughters’ historical education is going. You will most likely be disappointed. The real question is, where will we be, when those of us who remember are no longer here to set them straight?
It’s very interesting how this plays out in currents events. Remember how engrossed everyone was with Syria, Sochi, Ukraine—whatever happened to SOS Venezuela? The World Cup protests, Hong Kong…
Take Ferguson, for example. After the [socially mandatory] initial outrage, I was left completely indifferent. We’re expected to be completely up-to-date with whatever atrocity is going on in the world, but only so we can repeat the pre-approved Talking Points™. Within a few weeks, everyone moves on to the next news fad (in this case, ebola).
Altogether, it’s quite Orwellian.