World War II in Social Studies and Science Curricula

By Mayer, Victor J. | Phi Delta Kappan, May 2000 | Go to article overview
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World War II in Social Studies and Science Curricula

Mayer, Victor J., Phi Delta Kappan

All educators have a responsibility to create and sustain a stream of memory of the horror of war that carries from generation to generation, Mr. Mayer reminds us.

DURING MUCH of 1996, I had the good fortune of living in Japan and working on a project in global education. While there, I visited Hiroshima several times. To help me understand the Japanese thinking about Hiroshima, a Japanese colleague suggested that I read Hiroshima Notes by Kenzaburo Oe, the 1994 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.1 Visiting Hiroshima and its Peace Park is an experience that educators of every nationality should have. Seeing firsthand the results of modern warfare is unforgettable. Coupled with reading Japanese literature relating to the Hiroshima bombing, that experience helps immeasurably to understand postwar Japan, but it also holds dramatic lessons for what we teach the world's children about war, especially 'modern' war.

Those of us in the West seem to have forgotten the need to impart the knowledge of the results of modern warfare ' and especially nuclear war ' to our schoolchildren. When I was in high school, just after the end of World War II and at the height of the Cold War, we learned about the nature of the A-bomb and its destructiveness to humans and the biosphere. This subject should be a responsibility of teachers at various levels and in several areas of the curriculum. Unfortunately, very little seems to be done in school curricula these days with regard to modern warfare, especially the impact of radiation on human and animal life.

Nuclear War in American And Japanese Science Texts

Just to be certain that I was correct in my assumption and because I am a science educator, I examined eight popular American high school science textbooks for any information they presented on nuclear radiation and the effect of its use in World War II. (For a list of the texts, write me at 111 W. Dominion Blvd., Columbus, OH 43214, or e-mail me at Two were high school physics textbooks. Conceptual Physics, written by Phil Hewitt and published by Addison-Wesley, devoted a page to a discussion of the development and use of the A-bomb during World War II. It included a reference to Hiroshima. In a different section, the text made a general reference to the biological effects of certain kinds of radiation. This is the only one of the eight books that devoted a significant amount of space to World War II and the use of the atomic bomb.

I also examined three high school chemistry books, one high school biology book, and two physical science books (used in the ninth grade). The biology book had no information on radiation at all. The others ranged from a general discussion of nuclear radiation and its uses in medicine to an occasional picture of a test explosion of the hydrogen bomb. Two did mention the Manhattan Project ' but only in a sidebar or on an incidental time line of the development of nuclear energy. The only exception to this almost complete lack of information was found in one chemistry book, Chemistry in the Community, published by the American Chemical Society. It had a single sentence mentioning the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, but again it offered no information on the potential effects of the use of nuclear weapons. None of these books contained any reference to the possibility of nuclear winter in the event of an all-out nuclear war.

It appears that science texts present very little information to American schoolchildren regarding nuclear war. Surely, I thought, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this would not be true of Japanese science textbooks. I was truly surprised, therefore, that a popular Japanese text for high school biology contained no reference whatsoever to the effects of nuclear radiation on organisms, much less on humans. Two Japanese physics texts contained very brief descriptions of nuclear energy near the end of the book. The sole reference to biological effects that I was able to find was the use of radiation in health services.

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