Tuesday, December 05, 2006

thinking about war & history

In September, the Journal of American History published a really fantastic roundtable discussion, featuring some of the most prominent historians of the U.S. war in Vietnam. There were several bits that i thought were just exceptionally interesting, and potentially useful to folks who think about how to teach history in a time of war. in one section, the group explicitly takes on the question of what we might learn from the history of the war in Vietnam that might relate to our understanding of contemporary events. here are some excerpts from that discussion, featuring the thoughts of Mark Philip Bradley and Christian Appy.

JAH: ...Why or why not is Vietnam an appropriate historical analogy for thinking about current U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Mark Philip Bradley:
I am most struck by how little we know as Americans and American historians about Afghanistan and Iraq as real places with complex and contingent histories, and how much this parallels American understandings of Vietnam. Maybe seven universities and colleges taught Vietnamese history and language during the war. A handful of scholars produced work on Vietnamese history, society, and culture informed by Vietnamese sources. And many of those who did had to look beyond American shores for employment and venues for publication during the war. When we consider the field of United States–Middle East relations in the academy, the parallels to the Vietnam situation during the war are distressingly similar. How many of us have a real sense of Afghan history and society? Or of Iraq's? Or of the complex interplay of relations—political, economic, and cultural—between the Middle East and the United States? For myself, my honest if embarrassed answer is very little. I suspect the same might be said for many American historians and the public at large.

There are also problematic parallels in what passes for "culturally informed" understandings of the Vietnamese and Afghan pasts, suggesting a little local "knowledge" can be a dangerous thing. Frances FitzGerald's 1972 Pulitzer Prize–winning Fire in the Lake quickly emerged as one of the leading popular interpretations of Vietnamese history and society. Whatever its virtues, FitzGerald's book was organized around a concept of Vietnam that obscured as much as it revealed. FitzGerald argued that the "traditional" notion of the mandate of heaven continued to shape Vietnamese political consciousness into the twentieth century and helped explain why Ho Chi Minh rather than the leadership of South Vietnam enjoyed Vietnamese popular support. In doing so, she borrowed from earlier French orientalist scholarship and its static notions of Vietnam as a smaller and reified China, a set of assumptions that ignored the heterodox character of premodern Vietnam (and China!) and the political, social, and cultural transformations that shaped urban and rural Vietnamese societies during the colonial and postcolonial periods…

One could simply decry all this. Or put it down to a more general American parochialism about the wider world. But as historians we can and should pledge ourselves to recognize that these are serious problems and work toward redressing them. Those of us who have learned Vietnamese and French may not be the right people to now take on Arabic, Kurdish, Farsi, or Pashto. But we can encourage our undergraduates and graduate students to do so. And to cast their reading and research in the capacious ways that have increasingly allowed us to explore the complexities of American engagement in Vietnam, ways that depart from exceptionalist notions of United States history. At the graduate level in particular, if we are to encourage such work, we need to give our students some space, time, and institutional support to learn languages and to master multiple local, national, and regional historiographies. These tools will enable a new generation of scholars to craft a richer, more sophisticated narrative of American relations with Iraq, Afghanistan, and other states and peoples in the Middle East.

Christian Appy:
There is a danger that any effort to compare current events with historical antecedents will badly distort both past and present. I agree that Iraq and Vietnam are vastly different, and as Mark rightly argues, comparing those histories in any depth is beyond most historians, never mind commentators and policy makers. But surely there are commonalities, at least in a general sense, in the way U.S. officials justified their policies in the two countries, and these analogies can serve public debate. After all, as David indicates, one important connection is that U.S. policy makers then, as now, believed detailed local knowledge was largely irrelevant except in narrowly tactical terms (that is, where are the "bad guys"?) because Washington clung to the hope (in spite of massive contrary evidence) that U.S. technology and military firepower could hold the line long enough for modernization (or nation building) to draw each country into a stable global system amenable to U.S. economic and political power.

At the risk of gross oversimplification, I'd like to list a few linkages. Then as now, the president claims:

—We face a global threat (Communism/terrorism).
—The enemy we fight is part of that global threat.
—We fight far away from home so we won't have to fight in our own streets.
—We want nothing for ourselves, only self-determination for them.
—We are doing everything possible to limit the loss of civilian lives.
—We are making great progress, but the media isn't reporting it.
—Ultimately, the war must be won by them with less and less U.S. "help."
—Immediate withdrawal would be an intolerable blow to U.S. credibility and would only embolden our enemy and produce a bloodbath.
—Antiwar activism must be allowed but demoralizes our troops and encourages our enemy.

Then, as now, the president does not say:
—The enemy in Vietnam/Iraq actually does not pose a threat to U.S. security, but we're fighting anyway.
—We do indeed have geopolitical and economic interests in the region and will never tolerate a Communist/radical Islamist government.
—We are using weapons and tactics that don't distinguish between civilians and combatants.
—We will stretch and break the law to spy on and sabotage antiwar critics.
—We won't ask the nation as a whole to make a major sacrifice but will continue to send the working class to do most of the fighting.
—The progress we report is contradicted by our own sources.
—Troop morale is going downhill.
—Most of the people over there don't want us in their country.

(from “Interchange: Legacies of the Vietnam War,” a roundtable discussion. Journal of American History, September 2006.)

NCLB and the cutting of social studies

i'm posting, here, a NYT article from last March about how No Child Left Behind strips social studies, arts, and other critical thinking skills-building subjects from public school curricula. its becoming old news, this. and every day, there are new developments developing on this front, new reports, new critiques, new efforts to push back against the de-thinkification of public education that NCLB encourages. but i want to put excerpts from this article here because it captures something heartbreaking.

more soon, on this and other topics. i promise.

NY Times March 26, 2006
"Schools Cut Back Subjects to Push Reading and Math"

SACRAMENTO — Thousands of schools across the nation are responding to the reading and math testing requirements laid out in No Child Left Behind, President Bush's signature education law, by reducing class time spent on other subjects and, for some low-proficiency students, eliminating it.

Schools from Vermont to California are increasing — in some cases tripling — the class time that low-proficiency students spend on reading and math, mainly because the federal law, signed in 2002, requires annual exams only in those subjects and punishes schools that fall short of rising benchmarks.

The changes appear to principally affect schools and students who test below grade level.

The intense focus on the two basic skills is a sea change in American instructional practice, with many schools that once offered rich curriculums now systematically trimming courses like social studies, science and art. A nationwide survey by a nonpartisan group that is to be made public on March 28 indicates that the practice, known as narrowing the curriculum, has become standard procedure in many communities.

The survey, by the Center on Education Policy, found that since the passage of the federal law, 71 percent of the nation's 15,000 school districts had reduced the hours of instructional time spent on history, music and other subjects to open up more time for reading and math. The center is an independent group that has made a thorough study of the new act and has published a detailed yearly report on the implementation of the law in dozens of districts.

"Narrowing the curriculum has clearly become a nationwide pattern," said Jack Jennings, the president of the center, which is based in Washington.

At Martin Luther King Jr. Junior High School in Sacramento, about 150 of the school's 885 students spend five of their six class periods on math, reading and gym, leaving only one 55-minute period for all other subjects.

About 125 of the school's lowest-performing students are barred from taking anything except math, reading and gym, a measure that Samuel Harris, a former lieutenant colonel in the Army who is the school's principal, said was draconian but necessary. "When you look at a kid and you know he can't read, that's a tough call you've got to make," Mr. Harris said.
The increasing focus on two basic subjects has divided the nation's educational establishment. Some authorities, including Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, say the federal law's focus on basic skills is raising achievement in thousands of low-performing schools. Other experts warn that by reducing the academic menu to steak and potatoes, schools risk giving bored teenagers the message that school means repetition and drilling.

"Only two subjects? What a sadness," said Thomas Sobol, an education professor at Columbia Teachers College and a former New York State education commissioner. "That's like a violin student who's only permitted to play scales, nothing else, day after day, scales, scales, scales. They'd lose their zest for music."

But officials in Cuero, Tex., have adopted an intensive approach and said it was helping them meet the federal requirements. They have doubled the time that all sixth graders and some seventh and eighth graders devote to reading and math, and have reduced it for other subjects.

"When you only have so many hours per day and you're behind in some area that's being hammered on, you have to work on that," said Henry Lind, the schools superintendent. "It's like basketball. If you can't make layups, then you've got to work on layups."

Since America's public schools began taking shape in the early 1800's, shifting fashions have repeatedly reworked the curriculum. Courses like woodworking and sewing joined the three R's. After World War I, vocational courses, languages and other subjects broadened the instructional menu into a smorgasbord.

A federal law passed after the Russian launching of Sputnik in 1957 spurred a renewed emphasis on science and math, and a 1975 law that guaranteed educational rights for the disabled also provoked sweeping change, said William Reese, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and author of "America's Public Schools: From the Common School to No Child Left Behind." But the education law has leveraged one of the most abrupt instructional shifts, he said.

"Because of its emphasis on testing and accountability in particular subjects, it apparently forces some school districts down narrow intellectual paths," Dr. Reese said. "If a subject is not tested, why teach it?"

The shift has been felt in the labor market, heightening demand for math teachers and forcing educators in subjects like art and foreign languages to search longer for work, leaders of teachers groups said.

The survey that is coming out this week looks at 299 school districts in 50 states. It was conducted as part of a four-year study of No Child Left Behind and appears to be the most systematic effort to track the law's footprints through the classroom, although other authorities had warned of its effect on teaching practices.


At King Junior High, in a poor neighborhood in Sacramento a few miles from a decommissioned Air Force base, the intensive reading and math classes have raised test scores for several years running. That has helped Larry Buchanan, the superintendent of the Grant Joint Union High School District, which oversees the school, to be selected by an administrators' group as California's 2005 superintendent of the year.

But in spite of the progress, the school's scores on California state exams, used for compliance with the federal law, are increasing not nearly fast enough to allow the school to keep up with the rising test benchmarks. On the math exams administered last spring, for instance, 17.4 percent of students scored at the proficient level or above, and on the reading exams, only 14.9 percent.

With scores still so low, Mr. Harris, the school's principal, and Mr. Buchanan said they had little alternative but to continue remedial instruction for the lower-achieving among the school's nearly 900 students.

The students are the sons and daughters of mostly Hispanic, black and Laotian Hmong parents, many of whom work as gardeners, welders and hotel maids or are unemployed. The district administers frequent diagnostic tests so that teachers can carefully calibrate lessons to students' needs.

Rubén Jimenez, a seventh grader whose father is a construction laborer, has a schedule typical of many students at the school, with six class periods a day, not counting lunch.

Rubén studies English for the first three periods, and pre-algebra and math during the fourth and fifth. His sixth period is gym. How does he enjoy taking only reading and math, a recent visitor asked.

"I don't like history or science anyway," Rubén said. But a moment later, perhaps recalling something exciting he had heard about lab science, he sounded ambivalent.

"It'd be fun to dissect something," he said.

Martín Lara, Rubén's teacher, said the intense focus on math was paying off because his math skills were solidifying. Rubén said math has become his favorite subject.

But other students, like Paris Smith, an eighth grader, were less enthusiastic. Last semester, Paris failed one of the two math classes he takes, back to back, each morning.

"I hate having two math classes in a row," Paris said. "Two hours of math is too much. I can't concentrate that long."