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Before Their Time: Reflections on Education and War

by Shelly Halpern - 1967

The author is concerned with the problem of dealing with the Vietnamese War in class. She discusses prevailing oversimplifications and misconceptions with respect to the war; then she moves into a passionate exploration of the meaning of violence in our societyŚwith all its troubling implications for young men's images of themselves. She concludes with a plea for commitment on the part of public school teachers.

Miss Halpern is an English teacher who is much concerned with the problem of dealing with the Vietnamese War in class. She here discusses prevailing oversimplifications and misconceptions with respect to the war; then she moves into a passionate exploration of the meaning of violence in our society—with all its troubling implications for young men's images of themselves. She concludes with a plea for commitment on the part of public school teachers. They have a responsibility, she says, which must be redefined.

I had thought that the days of the Latin Grammar School were over. No longer was education to be isolated from the rest of the living process. The conning of verbs and the parsing of sentences and the so-called "intellectual discipline" for the "elite" was done with. I had thought that the function of today's school was to educate the student so that he might participate actively in the life of his community—local, national, and world.

Where, then, does education leave off and those things outside the ken of education begin?

How does the social studies teacher, for instance, having discussed the constitutional provisions for the declaration of war by the President of the United States, explain the war in Vietnam? How explain the death of American boys in a war that has not been declared? Or is the issue to be delicately skirted, much as parents skirt the issue of reproduction—"until later"?

Until when? The students in many of my classes are young men about to be drafted. Many of them are already eighteen, and it is only a matter of months until they are graduated or leave school and join the ever-increasing number of those who fight on foreign soil for a war they scarcely understand.

The war has, for them, something of the quality of a television spectacular—a western in color—the good guys versus the bad guys. Our side is, by definition, the good side, and the other side is the bad side. High Noon and Shane and Bad Day at Black Rock all rolled up in one. . .


Not too long ago, a national weekly family magazine devoted a large part of an issue to pictures, in color, of the torture of North Vietnamese soldiers and civilians by South Vietnamese, with American soldiers looking on. One of the local newspapers published a photograph of a South Vietnamese soldier "stomping" a North Vietnamese, to induce him to reveal information; the caption indicated that the North Vietnamese soldier later died.

My students and I talked about these pictures. We had recently read Thomas Hardy's poem "The Man He Killed"—in which Hardy speaks of the capriciousness of war, of how one's enemies are often poor men like oneself, men who join the army not out of ideological belief, but because they hope it will provide food for their children. One's enemies, under other circumstances, would be one's friends. I was curious to see whether the poem might have provided some insight for my students.

When we had read the poem some weeks earlier, they had been impressed by it. Yet the poem was forgotten in their responses to the pictures. "The dirty Reds deserve to die," they said. "But are they Communists?" I asked, reminding them of the poem. "Perhaps they are ordinary people just like us, who don't know too much about the war, but know that they need jobs." They would not be persuaded. What Hardy was talking about was different, they felt. For them the lines were drawn in black and white: the enemy lost the right to be considered human beings and were to be dealt with only as objects.

And the torture? The violence?

They did not object. They felt that violence was sometimes necessary to get one's point across, to accomplish one's goal. When I suggested to them that the North Vietnamese condoned violence just as they did, but saw events and justified their actions from the obverse side of the coin, they fell sullen and silent. An impasse. No conclusion. They did not want to discuss moral subtleties. For them it was a question only of right and wrong.


Many of them are eager to go to fight because "we are Americans and we have a job to do." It's "in," it's "hip," it's the style. But when asked just what the job is that the Americans are there to do, their answers are vague: "Get the commies," they say with relish; but they look at you blankly when you ask them to explain what the war is all about. They cannot place cities like Hanoi, Peiping, Haiphong, and Saigon: North Vietnam? South Vietnam? China? Korea?—"Somewhere in those countries," they shrug. They have never heard of the Geneva Accords or the National Liberation Front.

Then why do they want to go? What are they fighting for? "It's good to fight there," they say. "Makes you feel like you're really doing something. Makes you a man."

For these young men, to fight, to kill, to destroy—these things make one a man, give one a sense of worth. If we are not teaching this, it is what our young people are learning by example and through experience. And what they are learning touches us here at home.

No napalm bombs drop on our fields here to gut them and burn our women and children. We are not forced to leave our homes, taking with us of our possessions only what we can carry. We are not subjected to the danger of being shot and killed, unarmed, because we are in the path of a rapacious war. But we are touched.


These are difficult times, we are told, with violence and brutality ever increasing—violence on the subways, violence in the streets, violence in the schools. Additional protection will help, we are told—policemen on the streets, policemen in the subways, policemen in the schools. The temper of the times . . .

Shoulders are shrugged helplessly, as if things are the way they are in spite of us. Things are the way they are BECAUSE of us. Violence begets violence, and the lesson our young people are learning they are using. And it will not be easily unlearned unless they are given something else that will serve and satisfy as well.

To be a man—how? With violence, with brutality—that is one way. The Spanish concept of machismo sums it up. To be a man, to demonstrate one's masculinity and worth not through love, not through building something to protect those one holds most dear, not through gentle strength and sharing and patient persuasion, but through violence, through taking what one wants brutally and without love, through exhibiting and imposing one's physical strength by destroying what is not wanted violently and ruthlessly.

And if we do not deny this, then we are acquiescing in it. And it will destroy what we value and cherish bit by bit. I am a young woman. The difference in age between many of my students and me is not so great that we do not share many interests, many values, many experiences. I respect and love them because they are vulnerable and honest, loyal and clumsy, almost men and yet, without their being aware of it, very young. And also because I am continually learning from them—seeing things through new eyes, filtered through harsher and more bitter experience, and sometimes through an ingenuousness that is dazzling.


But when they say, with reference to Hardy's poem and earlier wars, that what happened before doesn't count, that this war is different, then I am painfully aware that there are some experiences that we did not share, experiences for which they were born too late or perhaps, more truly, mercifully late.

One can speak to them of what was revealed at Nuremburg or, even earlier, in Central Europe. One can speak of Hiroshima, of the twisted wreckage of human lives (perhaps the biology teacher will, in his discussions of genetice and the Mendelian laws, show that the effects of that day on that Far Eastern city cannot be forgotten, since they still persist in monstrous and grotesque bodies. Is it in the syllabus?). But the young men do not really understand. That all happened before they were born; they are impatient with the past and look forward to the future.

They do not understand, but we do. And it is for us to make them understand, to teach them.

But we are told that teachers should not involve themselves in such matters —that their job is within the school, that it is professionally unwise to bring such outside issues into the classroom. We are told—and by many teachers, too—that one's own values and beliefs are out of place within the school; that it is not for us, as teachers, either within the classroom or in professional publications, to question the existing order. We are told that our concern should be not with solutions or alternatives, nor with moral and ethical problems, nor with thoughtful criticism about our place in the world. It should be, we are told, with education.


Education? Does it end at the school door at the end of the day? Are we to teach by the book, reading the lessons as we are told? Are we to walk, looking neither right nor left, holding our thoughts to ourselves? Does our responsibility to our students, our community, ourselves, end at the school door at the end of the day?

In another time, people followed orders, did their duty, asked no questions; and, by doing so, they helped to set in motion and maintain a gigantic and ruthlessly efficient war machine. Our students do not remember: it was before their time. But it was not before ours.

The belief that one's responsibility goes no further is a mortal error. For the young man does not cease to learn when he leaves the school at the end of the day. His day, perhaps more vital, more real and important to him, continues, as do his experiences and his growth. And if what he learns apart from school provides sustenance and satisfaction, he will use it. If he learns that violence and brutality are the mark of a man, he will be violent and brutal, on the streets of the city as well as on the battlefield. And if he learns that destruction and rapacity are admired and approved, then he will be destructive and rapacious, in the subways as well as in Vietnam.

Are the subtleties of moral and ethical problems to be the province only of those who qualify, intellectually or financially, for university classes? What of those whose education stops with high school or less? If we are to teach them only the material out of which knowledge may grow, who is to help them learn what to do with that material? (Do they file it away in a drawer marked "souvenirs" to be opened only on special occasions?) Who is to teach them of loyalty to one's country coupled with awareness of its weaknesses? Who is to teach them that criticism does not replace love, but can strengthen it? Who is to teach them of compassion and the essential oneness of men in all parts of the globe? Who is to teach them that killing men may sometimes be a necessary thing, but never a good thing?

We have a responsibility to help them learn and, in teaching them, to learn from them and grow still more. We have a responsibility not because we are paid to, but because it is exigent, because this education and learning must never stop.

We have a responsibility not as teachers, or professionals, or intellectuals—but as human beings.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 68 Number 5, 1967, p. 423-426
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 2125, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 10:36:30 PM

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