With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Students Don't Know Much About WW II Except the Internment Camps

Jay Matthews, in the Wash Post (May 28, 2004):

Tiffany Charles got a B in history last year at her Montgomery County high school, but she is not sure what year World War II ended. She cannot name a single general or battle, or the man who was president during the most dramatic hours of the 20th century.

Yet the 16-year-old does remember in some detail that many Japanese American families on the West Coast were sent to internment camps."We talked a lot about those concentration camps," she said.

As Washington begins a massive Memorial Day weekend celebration of the new National World War II Memorial on the Mall, interviews with national education experts, teachers and more than 100 public school students suggest that Charles' limited knowledge of that momentous conflict is typical of today's youths.

Among 76 teenagers interviewed near their high schools this week in Maryland, Virginia and the District, recognition of the internment camps, a standard part of every area history curriculum, was high -- two-thirds gave the right answer when asked what happened to Japanese Americans during the war. But only one-third could name even one World War II general, and about half could name a World War II battle.

Diane Ravitch, an educational historian at New York University, said the big emphasis in high schools today is on the internment camps, as well as women in the workforce on the home front and discrimination against African Americans at home and in the armed services.

"Then, too, there was a war in the Atlantic and Pacific," she said.

Teachers and historians have been arguing for decades about how to teach World War II and other parts of American history. Many surveys, and interviews with students and teachers, indicate that there is less emphasis now on battles and victories, sparked in part by American failure in the Vietnam War, which had a significant impact on this generation of scholars and teachers.

At George Washington Middle School in Alexandria yesterday, seventh-grade history teacher Eric Bartels led his students through a spirited discussion of World War II that included mentions of Pearl Harbor, D-Day and other battles. But much of the emphasis was on the class's earlier visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a visit to the school by African American World War II pilots and the causes of several of the war's major events.

Instead of seeking the details of the Japanese assault on Hawaiian-based forces on Dec. 7, 1941, Bartels asked:"Why did Japan attack Pearl Harbor?"

He got a big response when he asked about American women entering the workforce:"Rosie the Riveter!" several students said.