How teachers should address World War II in high school history classes continues to vex me, and others, too, I suppose. First is the problem that we have more than six decades of history after the war to cover in history classes, a problem my teachers didn’t have, or ignored.
More difficult is the connecting of the war to later events. Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation, argues a strong case that America is better because of the of work of the people who survived the war, especially the veterans. But often I’ve thought that a simple recounting of history cannot adequately cover the struggle with existence and its meaning that so changed the world after the war, especially for veterans who saw combat. Kids ask why we didn’t just negotiate with the communists to end the Cold War, and why the Marshall Plan could even exist. Why build tract homes, and get an education?
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five provided some of the best answers to those questions, which is to say that the answers themselves lack clarity, and confuse. I wish students could read it just before we cover the Battle of the Bulge in a couple of classroom sessions, both to understand and empathize with the soldiers in the battle, and to understand how much that battle and the end of the war shaped events of the 1950s and Cold War.
Billy Pilgrim came unstuck in time, but was stuck forever with history, by history, remembering history in some cases even before it happened. Billy Pilgrim knew Santayana and Santayana’s ghost at the same time. Pilgrim, and Vonnegut, appeared to understand how hopeless life can be, but found reason to plod on anyway. There is hope at the bottom of Vonnegut’s work, or the hope that hope might be found just around the corner.
Vonnegut died yesterday.
The New York Times piece on Vonnegut informs and tells why people liked him personally. The Boston Globe’s article is shorter (I include it because the paper serves areas where he lived and worked). The Indianapolis Star story by Christopher Lloyd shines as a good example of home-town journalism, and may be the best one for use in high school classes. (My recollection is that all three links will die in a week, so go quickly!)
Note, November 24, 2012: Interesting meditation on Vonnegut, on the anniversary of his birth, at the Automat; worth the read, you’ll see.