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War Courses Popular : Lessons of Vietnam in Curricula

December 19, 1987|LARRY GORDON | Times Education Writer

SAN JOSE — Some enrolled because their fathers served in Vietnam and they wanted to understand their parents better. Some enrolled because they had fought in Vietnam and wanted to understand themselves better. Others were in the class to figure out this city's burgeoning community of Southeast Asian refugees, human proof of war's upheaval.

Whatever their motivation, the students in history of the Vietnam War this past semester at San Jose State University shared a need to learn more about the conflict that ended more than 12 years ago but continues to ripple through American society. By doing so, they joined a growing national trend of treating the war as an academic topic, not just a source for family quarrels and Hollywood screenplays.

"Time enough has passed so the war can be looked at as history," explained Larry Engelmann, who has taught the class at San Jose State since 1983. "Maybe in 20 years we will be teaching a course on Guatemala or the Persian states. Better late than never."

'Lessons of Vietnam'

A generation ago, the Vietnam War brought informal teach-ins, enormous protests and, in the case of Kent State University in Ohio in 1970, death to American college campuses. Today, the war means three credits, long reading lists, guest lectures and final exams that, like Engelmann's, ask, "What are the lessons of Vietnam?"

In 1980, college courses devoted to the war and its effects numbered about two dozen throughout the country, according to a survey by the Indochina Institute at George Mason University in Virginia. By last year, that number jumped to at least 220. In addition, many broader courses in political science, history and communications are spending more and more time on what was America's longest and perhaps most divisive war. And, the results are trickling down to high school curricula.

Plans are in the works for a national conference this spring on teaching the Vietnam War, and next month's issue of the scholarly journal Social Studies is entirely devoted to the same topic, including such articles as "Pedagogical Implications of Teaching Literature of the Vietnam War."

'Trendy Now'

"Vietnam is trendy now, which is kind of embarrassing," said Carol Wilder, a professor of communications who teaches a course named Vietnam: Rhetoric and Reality at San Francisco State. "But I have been teaching college for 22 years and have never seen a topic that carries such inherent interest for students. They are learning what Mommy and Daddy didn't tell them, what their history teachers in high school didn't tell them and what their culture doesn't want them to know."

The most popular course by far at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is taught by Walter Capps of the religious studies department. His topic is the impact of the Vietnam War on American society, and his technique, now copied nationwide, is to invite veterans and other firsthand participants to share their often highly emotional memories with the 900 students crowded into Campbell Hall.

In a recent interview, Capps explained the popularity of his course and similar ones. "I was born in Nebraska in the mid '30s, and my father would always tell us about hard times in the Depression. I realized I couldn't understand the way I was brought up unless I understood the Depression," he said. "In much larger terms, the Vietnam War is the similar kind of event for this generation of college students--their formative event."

Many of the professors involved are veterans of Vietnam combat or protests. In astonishment at their own aging as much as anything else, they echo a common theme: Vietnam is to their students as World War II was to them. They ask: How do you tell students who were in kindergarten when Saigon fell about Madame Nhu, David Dellinger, Robert McNamara, the Tet Offensive, the Christmas bombing, the Pentagon Papers, Dien Bien Phu, My Lai, Khe Sanh?

Ignorance 'Frightening'

Engelmann at San Jose State decribed his students' initial ignorance about the war as "frightening." Thomas Maddux, a history professor at California State University, Northridge, who has taught aspects of the war since 1978, said many of his students at first "were lucky if they could find Indochina on a map, let alone Vietnam."

The reasons? High school survey courses on American history usually are chronological and rarely leave much time for Vietnam. Moreover, some high school teachers report that until recently they purposefully glossed over the topic to avoid political controversy.

But on a deeper level, some professors say the nation as a whole wanted to forget the war and its attendant sorrows. Students say older relatives often brushed aside their questions about the conflict and its causes.

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