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California and the West

Curriculum Takes Fresh Look at All Sides of Vietnam War

History: Materials prepared by a veterans group try to show the conflict from a variety of perspectives.

April 26, 2001|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — When teacher Benee Hobson introduces the Vietnam War to his students at Luther Burbank High School, reactions are radically mixed.

Most of the students have little concept of the war, he said, seeing it as "part of the ancient past." Many others are children of Vietnamese refugees--some of whom fled their homeland when Saigon fell in 1975.

"It's a little tricky teaching it," Hobson said, "because there are so many different perspectives on that war."

To help educators tell the tale of Vietnam, a veterans foundation has produced a curriculum that examines the war through the eyes of soldiers, statesmen, draft resisters and other players from the tumultuous era.

Dubbed "Echoes From the Wall," the lesson plan arrived in the nation's middle schools--including 800 in California--this week. Because the materials are supplemental and not part of California's formal curriculum, they do not require approval by the State Board of Education. Teachers may choose to use them or not.

On Wednesday, educators, legislators and veterans held a news conference to publicize the curriculum, which was distributed free to school districts. They called it a creative, objective resource on a war that was once a taboo subject in classrooms.

"For my generation and older ones, there are enduring events and images [from the Vietnam era] that touched something deep in our hearts," Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante said in urging schools to embrace the lesson plan. But for many of today's schoolchildren, America's most notorious war is a remote event whose roots and legacy are fuzzy at best, Bustamante and others said.

The curriculum package was developed by a panel of historians and other scholars, including Stanley Karnow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Vietnam: A History."

It includes a 150-page teaching guide plus poems, antiwar songs, letters from soldiers, an interactive Web site (http://www.teachvietnam.org) and dozens of original source materials, such as the pivotal Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the War Powers Act of 1973.

The curriculum ranges from an initial unit on America's escalating involvement in the war to segments on the culture of Vietnam, conflict on the home front, the impact of Agent Orange and the significance of the memorial wall in Washington.

A spokesman for the state Department of Education said California officials have not reviewed the curriculum and could not comment on its content.

California students study Vietnam in 11th grade as part of a course on 20th century U.S. history, said the spokesman, Doug Stone. In middle school, some teachers refer to Vietnam in discussing Veterans Day, Memorial Day or in comparing the treatment of those who served in Southeast Asia with veterans of other, less controversial wars.

"It seems like the group's motives are positive and that the objective is simply to provide more information about the Vietnam era," Stone said. Whether the materials are integrated into the classroom is decided at the district level, he said.

One school board member who has reviewed and endorsed the curriculum is Paul Green, a trustee in the Grant Joint Union High School District in Sacramento. He praised its approach as richly diverse and free of "the sort of revisionist history you sometimes see with Vietnam."

Leaders of the Veterans Memorial Fund said their goal in producing the curriculum is to teach students to think critically about the conflict, recognize the sacrifices of those who lost their lives and develop an interest in service.

"We're trying to create a little passion for the past, and help students develop an appreciation of service," said Jan Scruggs, founder of the group, established in 1979 to build the Vietnam memorial wall in Washington.

Scruggs said the materials, provided to high schools in 1999, have so far generated no objections from parents or others. Acknowledging that "Vietnam is a controversial subject, wrought with emotion," he said authors took pains to include multiple perspectives.

Take the section titled "Conflict on the Home Front," which invites teachers to present students with the famous Life magazine picture of a Vietnamese girl burned by napalm as well as the popular 1960s bumper sticker "My Country--Right or Wrong."

"Pro- and antiwar sentiments often divided families and friends," the teaching guide says. "What tensions would this create in families and society?" Building on that theme, students are then asked to prepare an oral history based on interviews with a veteran or anti-Vietnam activist.

In another section on prisoners of war, pupils analyze a poem by James N. Rowe, who was held in solitary confinement in a small cage, and study international rules on the treatment of POWs.

State Sen. Mike Machado (D-Linden), a Vietnam veteran who served in the U.S. Navy in 1971 and 1972, hopes the curriculum will keep alive the lessons of a war that "challenged the moral conscience of our society."

"Schools should use this as a tool to teach about responsibility, leadership, courage and the heart of man," Machado said.

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