There is a post on Civil Warriors that I found through Civil War Memory that sparked my interest. I have been for the past 4-5 weeks in the throws of my first fulltime teaching experience at high school. I am teaching U.S. History B which in this district takes us from WWII to the present.
A month or so ago while putting together my WWII unit another teacher proceeded to tell me about a Hiroshima and Nagasaki â€œsimulationâ€ that I just â€œhadâ€ to do. I was then told how to teach it so that basically there was little chance that the students would not come to the conclusion that dropping the bombs were a morally unjust act and that Truman was guilty of some kind of war crime.
I took the materials and carefully looked them over and the simulation was actually a trial. We were to put Truman and the United States on trial for essentially war crimes. Needless to say, I did not do the â€œsimulation.â€ Simple reason, itâ€™s a classroom, not a courtroom.
Iâ€™m uncomfortable with asking my students to â€œjudgeâ€ much of the past, especially when moral judgments are concerned.. Obviously, in certain situations moral judgment is required: Hitler and the holocaust, and the vulgar racism that resulted in the slaughter of Emmett Till are easy examples.
But when it comes to something that was a judgment call at a time when nations were fighting for survival, and something that involved variables that may not mean as much to as today as then, I find it impracticable to attempt any kind of moral judgment. Things such as â€œpresentismâ€ get in the way.
Even if I was successful in conveying the historical context involved in a decision such as Trumanâ€™s to drop the bomb, I doubt in my general U.S. History class that it would translate to any real understanding once I present a trial simulation that required moral judgment. Cognitive dissonance would surely wreck any opportunity for real exploration and understanding. Showing my students pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should and do result in shock and horror. Trying to convey the reasons behind the decision to drop the bombs becomes lost in a convoluted emotional response that does not allow for any real exploration.
Not that I do not challenge my students to think critically, but the real difference here for me is the challenge to avoid moral judgments that lack historical context. It seems almost impossible. I want my students to understand the brutal nature of war, but also understand that altruistic motives can still be behind something that seems as vulgar as dropping the bomb on civilians. Instead we looked at photos, read an eyewitness account, and discussed total war. The result was a wonderful class debate about whether war was ever justified, and one that did far more to evoke critical thinking than a rigged trial that had but one inevitable result.
I think any kind of a desire to â€œjudgeâ€ certain parts of the past places one on a slippery slope. To me, the fact that Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and others owned slaves does not transcend their contribution to our nation. We must understand historical context and not seek moral judgment.