There is a big discussion going on in Vietnam these days about high school history. The Ministry of Education and Training wants to subsume the topic of history at the high school level under a topic of “citizens and the fatherland,” and many people object to that. They see history as a critical subject for teaching people “who they are,” and apparently they think that this role of history will be diminished if it is no longer a separate subject.
Reading the discussions in this debate made me think about my own experience, and made me think about how studying history in high school affected me.
There are two things that I distinctly remember from studying history in high school: seeing a woman’s breasts and watching a dog vomit. Everything else I’ve forgotten. But those two things that I do remember played an important role in training me to (at least attempt to) be a conscientious and productive citizen.
I can’t remember if it was when I was in eleventh or twelfth grade, but I had a history course where we had a special section on the Vietnam War.
My teacher actually had a PhD in history, but his years as a graduate student had coincided with the anti-war movement, and all of the associated idealistic and anti-establishment ideas of the late 1960s and early 1970s. As a result, he decided to pursue what he felt was a more meaningful path than entering the ivory tower and becoming a university professor. He became a high school teacher so that he could actually have an impact on people’s lives.
The way he attempted to do that with us was by getting us to gain a well-informed understanding of Vietnam and the Vietnam War. As was the case with many other people in the anti-war movement, our teacher strongly believe that Vietnam had always been a unified nation and that the Vietnamese had spent the past 2,000 years doing less else than fighting off the Chinese, and that Americans were therefore foolish to get involved in that country’s affairs as the Vietnamese were completely determined to prevent outsiders from getting involved in their affairs.
He also strongly believed that Hồ Chí Minh was a nationalist first, and a Communist second, and that Ngô Đình Diêm was a US puppet with no legitimacy. Finally, he also believed that the US government was often misguided in its foreign policy and could not be trusted.
To help us learn all of this information, our teacher had us read Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History, a text which more or less presents the above ideas. There was a PBS TV series that accompanied that book, and that series had just come out on VHS, so we watched the episodes of that series as we read through the book. We of course also talked about all of this in class.
While the above comments might make it sound like I remember the content of this class in detail, in actuality I know it now because I read Karnow’s book again, and watched the TV series, many years later when I was studying in graduate school. It was then that I “learned” the content and the ideas that were brought up in my high school class.
However, if I had never re-read Karnow, then I would not remember much of anything from my high school history class, except as I mentioned above, two things: a woman’s breasts and a vomiting dog.
In addition to the PBS series on the Vietnam War, our teacher also had us watch the anti-war movie, Hearts and Minds. Hearts and Minds is a very powerful movie. It masterfully juxtaposes images and sound in order to reveal hypocrisy at multiple levels.
There is one section of the film for instance that shows a high-school marching band somewhere in the US. We see wholesome Americans playing music, and someone shouts into the camera “We are number one.”
Then the film switches to a scene in a brothel in South Vietnam. Some US soldiers are hanging around in beds with some Vietnamese prostitues, and one guy plays with the breasts of one of the girls.
I saw that in my school when I was maybe 16 or 17 years old. In those days, seeing a woman’s breasts on a TV or movie screen was a big deal for teenage boys. I remember my male classmates and I sitting more or less “frozen” through that entire scene. On the one hand, we were very excited, and on the other, it felt awkward to be sitting their with our teacher.
However, ultimately the reason why I remember that moment was because we were all very impressed with our teacher. We were impressed that he would “push the boundaries,” and do something which most educators at that time would not do (after all, some parents could find out and get angry that he had shown their child “pornography”).
From that, we could see that he respected us. He felt that we had the maturity to seriously engage with the movie even though it had scenes that might “distract” us. And for that, we also respected him, because we also understood that he wanted us to see a film like Hearts and Minds because there was a larger and more important message about the misguided way in which Americans thought about themselves and the hypocrisy of the US government that he wanted to get across, and that movie, with its scenes of GIs visiting brothels juxtaposed next to the “noble” statements of politicians, delivered that message very effectively.
So I remember seeing a woman’s breasts in my high school history class. The other thing that I remember is seeing a dog vomit. It was actually our teacher’s dog, a dog named Morgan.
Our teacher brought Morgan to class every day. The classroom was in a basement room with a carpet and bad ventilation, so our classroom always smelled like Morgan, and Morgan did not necessarily smell all that great. Making things worse, Morgan would occasionally fart. . .
One day, however, Morgan vomited. We all saw it coming. Morgan was in a corner behind the teacher, but in front of all of us. We watched her stand up, take a few steps toward the center of the classroom, start to heave a bit, and then. . . BARF!!
We all sat transfixed. What, we wondered, would our teacher do? And to our amazement, and ultimately to our great admiration, he just kept on teaching.
Our teacher was lecturing at that time, and without pausing from his talk for even a fraction of a second, he reached to a tissue box that was sitting on the table, grabbed a couple of tissues, walked over to the vomit, wiped it up, and threw the tissues away, all the while continuing to lecture and to make eye contact with us students.
That was impressive!! And from that experience I learned a very valuable lesson in what it means to be a professional. Our teacher was the ultimate professional. He was completely dedicated to his job and to his students. I can even remember that on weekends he would drive a couple of hours to a university so that he could conduct research related to our class in the library there. He was serious and it was great to have him as a model of how one should engage in one’s work.
That’s what I remember from high school history. As for the information that we actually learned, even if I had remembered it, ultimately I would have had to “unlearn” it later, because essentially much of what I “learned” in that class has been challenged by scholars in recent years.
What I was taught at that time is now referred to as “the orthodox school” of scholarship on the Vietnam War, and a new generation of scholars has produced a large body of scholarship that overturns many of the ideas of the orthodox school.
What this shows me is that in the long run, the content of high school history classes just isn’t all that important. At best it’s something to be “unlearned” later. In which case, it’s what comes later that is really important.
If a society has a thriving community of professors and scholars who produce scholarship on the past that improves upon existing knowledge, then that society will ultimately be enriched by their ideas.
As for “molding citizens,” my sense is that this is something that is learned by observing the actions of teachers more than the content of what they teach. This does not mean that high school history teachers should not care about the content of their classes. They should.
My teacher cared passionately about the content of his class, and he also cared about not disrupting the class when his dog vomited. I learned a lot from him.