Past Perspectives on Teaching about the Vietnam War: Implications for Teaching about Iraq
McMurray, Andrew J., Education
History teachers must often face the question of teaching potential controversial and emotive issues. Within this framework of controversy, teachers must be sure to allow for objective, academic approaches to historical content that also includes both majority and dissenting interpretations (McMurray, 2005). Perhaps the most controversial of present contemporary events is the current conflict in Iraq.
Students often have a natural interest in the present Iraq situation, as they may have friends or family members serving in the armed forces. Further, they constantly see and hear reports about the conflict on national and local new media. But despite the great interest in current happenings in Iraq among students, many teachers may be understandably hesitant to approach the conflict in even a historical manner. To add to the difficulty, classroom time is typically limited by concerns for the coverage of more traditional content. Consequently, many teachers might likely contend that approaching current controversies, especially those that are potentially fraught with controversy like the Iraq War, are best left alone. Unfortunately, failing to address such an important happening such as the present war in Iraq, signals a failure of the history teacher to prepare the student for civic responsibilities. Conversely, there are ways in which teachers can adequately and objectively approach the present conflict in Iraq and, subsequently, allow students to have a better understanding of what is happening there and prepare them to make well informed civic decisions about their own views regarding the war.
Discovering efficient instructional strategies that allow for effective coverage of current controversial issues can be difficult. Teachers, however, may be well served to examine the past to discover strategies employed by predecessors dealing with similar circumstances. Specifically, the most recent historical example of a conflict that was reasonably similar to present day Iraq is the Vietnam War. Thus, history teachers may come to better understand how to approach the present conflict in Iraq by examining various instructional approaches and strategies which have been shown to be useful when teaching about Vietnam, an earlier divisive war.
The Instructional Quandary of Vietnam In "Teaching About Vietnam and the Vietnam War", Vickie J. Schlene (1996) of the Social Studies Development Center (SSDC) at Indiana University lamented the prolonged neglect of the Vietnam War in public schools. The author contended that textbook coverage of the war was "superficial and often distorted," and that time constraints, as well as the controversial and emotive nature of the content, greatly limited teachers (1996). Schlene suggested that to avert such obstacles, teachers should focus on home front issues and geography, as well as the conflict itself. Despite the specific criticisms leveled by Schlene in 1996, research indicates history teachers had progressed significantly in developing instructional strategies related to teaching the Vietnam War.
Approximately thirteen years following the end of American involvement in Southeast Asia, the academic journal Social Education dedicated an issue to teaching about the war. In this issue, a variety of individuals, including Vietnam veterans who happened to be teachers, teacher educators, and classroom teachers offered various approaches and rationales concerning teaching Vietnam. In addition, observations regarding how Vietnam was approached by classroom teachers were offered.
Starr (1988) noted that textbooks in the first decade following the end of the Vietnam War largely neglected the bitter conflict. He also observed that by even the late 1980s, the controversy surrounding Vietnam had not subsided completely and that biases still existed that prevented a rational coverage of the war in the classroom.
Fleming and Nurse (1988), echoing some of the sentiments offered by other authors, also noted the shortcomings of textbook coverage of Vietnam. …