A teacher colleague whose job description was similar to my own once lamented that she was burdened with so many responsibilities that she would be unable to teach a designated unit on the causes, course, and outcomes of World War II. “Anyway,” she said, “these kids just can’t relate to World War II. It doesn’t have anything to do with their lives.”
What she really meant is that it’s hard to teach anything about WWII when one doesn’t know anything about WWII. I know this because I have been certified to teach Social Studies in two states. In neither case was I expected to complete a single history course. Rather, the typical Social Studies teacher takes courses such as “Methods of Teaching the Social Studies” and “Childhood Development” and “Collaborating in Education.”
It should come as no surprise then that my colleague preferred engaging in activities more suited to her background; staff meetings, department meetings, collaboration days, academic team meetings, curriculum development meetings, department head meetings, professional development days, teacher evaluation meetings, hiring committee meetings, lunch in the lounge, and other important moments like these unimpeded by the presence of pesky children.
It was hard to blame her. The environment in which we worked simply valued these activities over classroom moments when culturally literate teachers and their students interacted with one another. The most amazing thing about all this is that, more often than not, the preferred method of instruction—there had to be some of this; it was a school, after all—was to allow the children to direct their own learning.
There is something deeply disturbing with the notion that children can learn the ways of the world without some direction from the adults. Indeed, the most highly valued teachers at our school were those who sat back and let the kids go at it. For the supervisors and evaluators walking by, the best class was the noisiest class; kids all abuzz solving the world’s problems.
Yes, students engaged with one another can accomplish a great deal and, unfortunately, most of us can recall the teacher who let the textbook do all the work. My view, though, in the specific case of WWII, is that if we are to expect children to apply their knowledge of the most calamitous decade in human history, they must have some familiarity with the people, places, and events that constitute the language necessary for the application. I get the personal exploration thing; we just need to give them something to explore.
For my part, I expected my students to memorize a few things which led to the inevitable complaint that I had reduced history to a jumble of facts and dates. In my defense, I offered as an example that, it is indeed a fact that “Harry Truman ordered the bombing of Hiroshima.” There is a lot to explore with this, not the least of which is inquiry into one of the great moral dilemmas of our day. Of course, if one knows nothing of Truman and nothing of Hiroshima, the deeper questions have been watered down to thin soup.
My belief in strong content-based instruction often left me at odds with my peers. For example, in an attempt to introduce students to the background knowledge necessary to do some exploring, I was criticized for expecting students to read a chapter from their history book and answer a few questions using legible handwriting. I could handle, “Mr. Morgan, how do I write a cursive capital G?” What really threw me though was, “Why are you wasting their time with this boring textbook?”
The rather predictable result of teaching teachers how to teach instead of ensuring that they know what it is they will be called upon to teach, coupled with the remarkable ruse of “self-directed learning,” is that, in 2018, twenty-two percent of American millennials have never heard of the Holocaust. And, while this leaves us with seventy-eight percent that have, fully two-thirds of this same group could not identify Auschwitz.
What can one know of the Holocaust without knowing Auschwitz? And I do not refer to the memorization of the name of Nazi Germany’s single most lethal concentration camp. Rather, I refer to a certain “Auschwitz-ness” that embodies the horrors of the Holocaust and the broader, very personally felt deprivations of the larger war and, in turn, war itself.
Finally, just as I am convinced that our collective ignorance of WWII has diminished the vitality of our society, it appears that it is actually the eve of the First World War that speaks most pressingly to today’s problems; pathological nationalism, confusing and disjointed alliances, ancient hatreds, incompetent and belligerent world leaders, genocidal atrocities, weapons that maximize human suffering, and dozens of hotspots with the potential to ignite a larger conflagration.
Perhaps the most tragic lesson of WWI—one I fear we have failed to teach our children—is that, after laying waste to the landscape and the human spirit, the agreement signed a year after the bloodletting stopped did little to address the problems that led to the war in the first place. And we all know what happened then, right?*
I think we may be in for a bumpy ride.
* For those of you nutty about history reading, see “Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World” by Margaret MacMillan.