I always found Jay Leno’s “Jay Walking” segment depressing. He would wander around Los Angeles, conducting man on the street interviews with passers by, most of whom showed complete ignorance about very basic American history questions. I never found it humorous, I found it disheartening, but also context for why things are the way they are.
This video is no different. Who fought in World War II? Who was Hitler?
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.
Students and teachers say it is difficult to get deeply into World War II in just two-week units in world history and later American history. Molly Rogers, a senior at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington County, said: “We never really got to the bottom of it in any of the courses I took.”
But Dan Fleming, professor emeritus of social science education at Virginia Tech, said his research shows that more high school time is given to World War II than the Korean or Vietnam wars.
“I would prefer to see high schools in America be required to have a class on 20th-century conflicts where World War II could be dealt with much more in depth than the two to three weeks a high school survey class can provide,” said Philip Engle, who teaches world history at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. “High school students don’t know enough about World War II because we don’t let them.”
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