What Informs Teachers' Views: The Vietnam War as a Case Study in the Era of Standardization

By McMurray, Andrew J. | Education, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

What Informs Teachers' Views: The Vietnam War as a Case Study in the Era of Standardization


McMurray, Andrew J., Education


Introduction

Social studies teachers are charged with helping students learn about the past in a manner that develops effective citizenship (Engle & Ochoa, 1988; Jadallah, 2000; Mathews, 1985; McMurray, 2007a; NCSS, 1994; Westheimer & Kahne, 2003). Ideally, the events examined in a social studies course are approached as objectively and judiciously as possible, allowing for student expression of opinion. In the beginning, this process may include the use of uninformed information, but eventually the teacher facilitates the class to use informed information grounded in fact. Teachers may use both state and local academic standards to help guide and facilitate the instructional process, though recent policy developments at both federal and state levels have tied "progress" strictly to state standards for various subjects. Indiana is no exception to this practice. Romanowski (1997), however, has noted teachers may also be prone to step beyond the standards and inject their own attitudes and opinions into the instructional process of the classroom. Though it is unlikely that teacher bias is always harmful to students' ultimate understanding of history, it is nonetheless useful to recognize that teachers' biases can potentially influence students' opinions and even their understanding of what insights history can provide for a citizen in a democracy. Specifically, students, having little or no other knowledge of the topic, may accept the ahistorical bias of their teachers as valid historical interpretation. As the primary teacher/facilitator of social studies curriculum, however, teachers have an inherent responsibility to teach students to think of history in a methodologically appropriate manner, rather than in a more normative fashion.

This study focuses on what teachers report as informing their views of a particularly contentious historical topic, the Vietnam War. Though anecdotal and not indicative of any statistically significant relationships in an empirical sense, the information resulting from this study of Indiana secondary teachers may still prove to be useful, especially considering that those factors which influence teachers regarding their beliefs and understanding of the Vietnam War may directly or indirectly influence instruction and, subsequently, students.

The Cultural Relevance of the War

The Vietnam War continues to occupy a unique place in American history. As an extension of the Cold War, the Vietnam War occurred in a time of great international, ideological tension. Unlike the Korean War, which is not popularly characterized as a war that was "lost," the Vietnam War is universally thought of as a military defeat for the United States. Further, as McMahon (2002) observed, policymakers have been careful to maintain and influence the collective memory of the conflict. As a cultural phenomenon, the Vietnam War occurred in a time of significant societal change in America. Indeed, as Small (2002) has argued, the anti-war movement was at the heart of the counterculture movement of the 1960s. Consequently, to this day the Vietnam War occupies an iconic place in the minds of many Americans. Interestingly, judging from the vast number of published works on the subject, historians are also enamored with the Vietnam War. Whether considering historians or the American public at large, the Vietnam War has made an indelible mark in the minds of many and, by extension more recently, on the American social studies classroom (DallaGranna, 1988; Dunn, 1983; Dunn, 1990; Ehrhart, 1988; Fleming & Nurse, 1988; Glassman, 1988; Goodman, 1990; Israel; 1985; Schlene, 1996; Starr, 1989).

For secondary students of history, the Vietnam War is a historical topic that they may already be, to a certain extent, familiar with through popular culture. Given the many television programs, films, books and video games on the topic, many young people may consider themselves to be relatively "informed" about the Vietnam War.

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