12. What Is the Result of Teaching History Like This?
Learning social studies is, to no small extent, whether in elementary school or the university, learning to be stupid.
Yeah, I cut class, I got a D
‘Cause history meant nothin’ to me.
The truth shall make us free. The truth shall make us free.
The truth shall make us free some day. Oh, deep in my heart, 1 do believe,
The truth shall make us free some day.
—Verse of „We Snail Overcome“
All over America, high school students sit in social studies and American history classes, look at their textbooks, write answers to the questions at the end of each chapter, and take quizzes and examinations that test factual recall. When I was subjected to this regimen, I never answered any of the terms at the end of the chapter until the sixth week of each six-week grading period. Then the teacher and I would negotiate what proportion of the terms I had to define correctly to get an A“ (usually something like 85 percent) and I would madly write out definitions through the last two days of class. Three years later, when my sister took American history, student culture had developed a more effective technique. Students did the work on time, writing real definitions to the first two and last two terms, but for the thirty or forty in the middle they free-associated whatever nonsense they wanted. „Hawley-Smoot Tariff I have no idea, Mr. De Moulin,“ might be one entry. Or „Blue Eagle: FDR’s pet bird who got very sad when he died,“ Educational theorists call such acts „day-to-day resistance“—a phrase that comes from theorizing about slavery—but I did not know that then. I was just envious that my class hadn’t thought of such a marvelous labor-saving ploy.
Of course, fooling the teacher is of little consequence. Quite possibly my sister’s teacher even knew of the ruse and joked about it with his colleagues, the way masters chuckled that their slaves were so stupid they had to be told every evening to bring in the hoes or they would leave them out in the night dew. Some social studies and history teachers try to win student cooperation by telling them, when introducing a topic, not to worry, they won’t have to learn much about it. Students happily acquiesce.3 Students also invest a great deal of creative energy in getting teachers to waste time and relax requirements.4 Teachers acquiesce partly because, as with much day-to-day resistance during slavery, yielding does not really threaten the system. Day-to-day school resistance also provides students a form of psychic distance, a sense that although the system may have commanded their pens, it has not won real cooperation from their minds.
Indeed, it hasn’t. Study after study shows that students successfully resist learning American history.5 A few years ago I observed a class of students being tested on George F. Baer, the Hepburn Act, the Newlands Reclamation Act, the Northern Securities Case, and the Elkins Act—and this merely got them part of the way through Teddy Roosevelt’s first term! All they could hope to do was cram these items into short-term memory for the test, then forget them to make room for the next list. In the process, they failed to gain any insights or to distinguish airy facts as important enough to merit recall after the end of the grading period.
When two-thirds of American seventeen-year-olds cannot place the Civil War in the right half-century, or 22 percent of my students reply that the Vietnam War was fought between North and South Korea, we must salute young people for more than mere ignorance.6 This is resistance raised to a high level. Students are simply not learning even the details of American history that textbooks and teachers stress. Still less are they learning to apply lessons from the past to current issues. Students are left with no resources to understand, accept, or rebut historical referents used in arguments by candidates for office, sociology professors, or newspaper journalists. If knowledge is power, ignorance cannot be bliss.
Earlier chapters have shown, however, that American history textbooks and courses are neither dispassionate nor passionate. All textbook authors and many teachers seem not to have thought deeply about just what in our past might be worthy of passion, or even serious contemplation. No real emotion seeps into these books, not even real pride.7 Instead, heroic exceptions to the contrary, most American history courses and textbooks operate in a gray emotional landscape of pious duty in which the United States has a good history, so studying it is good for students. „They don’t think of history as drama,“ one teacher told me. „They all tell me they hate history, because it’s dead facts, and boring.“
Another way to cause history to stick is to present it so that it touches students’ lives. To show students how racism affects African Americans, a teacher in Iowa discriminated by eye color among members of her all-white class of third-graders for two days. The film A Class Divided shows how vividly these students remembered the lesson fifteen years later.8 In contrast, material from US. history textbooks are rarely retained for fifteen weeks after the end of the school year. By stressing the distant past, textbooks discourage students from seeking to learn history from their families or community, which again disconnects school from the other parts of students’ lives.
„Children, like most adults, do not readily retain isolated, incoherent, and meaningless data.“ „Since textbooks provide almost no causal skeleton, students forget most of the mass of detail they „learn“ in their history courses. Not all students forget it equally, however. Caste minority children - Native Americans, African Americans, and Hispanics—do worse in all subjects, compared to white or Asian American children, but the gap is largest in social studies. That is because the way American history is taught particularly alienates students of color and children from impoverished families. Feel-good history for affluent white males inevitably amounts to feel-bad history for everyone else. A student of mine, who was practice-teaching in Swanton, Vermont, a town with a considerable Indian population, noticed an Abenaki fifth-grader obviously timing out when he brought up the subject of Thanksgiving. Talking with the child brought forth the following reaction: „My father told me the real truth about that day and not to listen to any white man scum like you!“ Yet Thanksgiving seems reasonably benign compared to, say, Columbus Day Throughout the school year, in a thousand little ways, American history offends many students. Unlike the Abenaki youngster, most have-not students do not consciously take offense and do not rebel but are nonetheless subtly put off. It hurts children’s self-image to swallow what their history books teach about the exceptional fairness of America. Black students consider American history, as usually taught, „white“ and assimilative, so they resist learning it. This explains why research shows a bigger performance differential between poor and rich students, or black and white students, in history than in other school subjects.9 Girls also dislike social studies and history even more than boys, probably because women and women’s concerns and perceptions still go underrepresented in history classes.10
Afrocentric history arose partly in response to this problem. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., denounces Afrocentrism as „psychotherapy“ for blacks—a one-sided misguided attempt to make African Americans feel good about themselves.11 Unfortunately, the Eurocentric history in our textbooks amounts to psychotherapy for whites. Since historians like Schlesinger have not addressed Eurocentrism, they do not come into the discussion with clean hands. To be sure, the answer to Eurocentric textbooks is not one-sided Afrocentric history, the kind that has Africans inventing everything good and whites inventing slavery and oppression. Surely we do not really want a generation of African Americans raised on antiwhite Afrocentric history, but just as surely, we cannot afford another generation of white Americans raised on complacent celebratory Eurocentric history. Even if they don’t learn much history from their textbooks, students are affected by the book’s slant. Martha Toppin found unanimous agreement with this proposition among ninety high school students: „If Africa had had a history worth learning about, we would have had it last year in Western Civilization.“12 The message that Eurocentric history sends to nonEuropean Americans is; your ancestors have not done much of importance. It is easy for European Americans and non-European Americans to take a step further and conclude that non-European Americans are not important today.
From the beginning, when textbooks call Columbus’s 1492 voyage „a miracle“ and proclaim, „Soon the grateful captain wades ashore and gives thanks to God,“ they make the Christian deity God and put Him [sit] on the white side. Omitting the Arawaks’ perspective on Haiti continues the process of „otherizing“ nonwhites in this first diorama from our history. If the „we“ in a textbook included American Indians, African Americans, Latinos, women, and all social classes, the book would read differently, just as whites talk differently (and more humanely) in the presence of people of color. Surely it is possible to write accurate multicultural history that spreads the discomfort around, rather than distorting history to help only affluent white children feel comfortable about their past. Maybe we can even write and teach an American history that children of the nonelite would want to study.
Equally as worrisome is the impact of American history courses on white affluent children. This grave result can best be shown by what I call the „Vietnam exercise.“ Throughout the Vietnam War, pollsters were constantly asking the American people whether they wanted to bring our troops home. At first, only a small fraction of Americans favored withdrawal. Toward the end of the war, a large majority wanted us to pull out.
Not only did Gallup, Roper, the National Opinion Research Center, and other organizations ask Americans about the war, they also usually inquired about background variables—sex, education, region, and the like—so they could find out which kinds of people were most hawkish (prowar), which most dovish. Over ten years I have asked more than a thousand undergraduates and several hundred nonstudents their beliefs about what kind of adults, by educational level, supported the war in Vietnam. I ask audiences to fill out Table 1, trying to replicate the results of the January 1971 national Gallup survey on the war. By January 1971, as I tell audiences, the national mood was overwhelmingly dived: 73 percent favored withdrawal. (I excluded „don’t knows.“)
In January 1971 the Gallup Poll asked: „A proposal has been made in Congress to require the U. S. government to bring home all U. S. troops before the end of this year. Would you like to have your congressman vote for or against this proposal?“
Estimate the results, by education, by filling out this table:
|Adults with:||College Education||High School Education||Grade School Education||Total Adults|
|% for withdrawal of U.S. troops (Doves)||73%|
|% against withdrawal of U.S. troops (Hawks)||27%|
Most recent high school graduates are not able even to construct a simple table or interpret a graph. Accordingly, I teach audiences how the table must balance—how, if grade school-educated adults, for instance, were more dovish than others, hence supported withdrawal by more than 73 percent, some other group must be less dovish than 73 percent for the entire population to balance out at 73 percent doves. If you wish to be an active reader, you might fill out the table yourself before reading further.
By an overwhelming margin—almost 10 to 1—audiences believe that college-educated persons were more dovish. Table 2 shows a typical response.
|Adults with:||College Education||High School Education||Grade School Education||Total Adults|
|% for withdrawal of U.S. troops (Doves)||90%||75%||60%||73%|
|% against withdrawal of U.S. troops (Hawks)||10%||25%||40%||27%|
I then ask audiences to assume that their tables are correct—that the results of the survey correspond to what they guessed—and to state at least two reasonable hypotheses to explain these results. Their most common responses:
Educated people are more informed and critical, hence more able to sift through misinformation and conclude that the Vietnam War was not in our best interests, politically or morally.
Educated people are more tolerant. There were elements of racism and ethnocentrism in our conduct of the war; educated people are less likely to accept such prejudice.
Less-educated people, being of lower occupational status, were more likely to be employed in a war-related industry or in the armed forces themselves, hence having a self-interest in being pro-war.
There is nothing surprising here. Most people feel that schooling is a good thing and enables us to sift facts, weigh evidence, and think rationally. An educated people have been said to be a bulwark of democracy.
However, the truth is quite different. Educated people disproportionately supported the Vietnam War. Table 3 shows the actual outcome of the January 1971 poll:
|Adults with:||College Education||High School Education||Grade School Education||Total Adults|
|% for withdrawal of U.S. troops (Doves)||90%||75%||80%||73%|
|% against withdrawal of U.S. troops (Hawks)||10%||25%||20%||27%|
These results surprise even some professional social scientists. Twice as high a proportion of college-educated adults, 40 percent, were hawks, compared to only 20 percent of adults with grade-school educations. And this poll was no isolated phenomenon. Similar results were registered again and again, in surveys by Harris, NORC, and others. Way back in 1965, when only 24 percent of the nation agreed that the United States „made a mistake“ in sending troops to Vietnam, 28 percent of the grade school-educated felt so. Later, when less than half of the college-educated adults favored pullout, among the grade school educated 61 percent did. Throughout our long involvement in Southeast Asia, on issues related to Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, or Laos, the grade school educated were always the most dovish, the college-educated the most hawkish.
Today most Americans agree that the Vietnam War was a mistake, politically and morally; so do most political analysts, including such men as Robert McNamara and Clark Clifford, who waged the war.13 If we concur with this now conventional wisdom, then we must concede that the more educated a person was, the more likely s/he was to be wrong about the war.
Why did educated Americans support the war? When my audiences learn that educated people were more hawkish, they scurry about concocting new explanations. Since they are still locked into their presumption that educated people are more intelligent and have more goodwill than the less educated, their theories have to strain to explain why less-educated Americans were right. The most popular revamped theory asserts that since working-class young men bore the real cost of the war, „naturally“ they and their families opposed it. This explanation seems reasonable, for it does credit the working class with opposing the war and with certain brute rationality. But it reduces the thinking of the working class to a crude personal cost-benefit analysis, implicitly denying that the less educated might take society as a whole into consideration. Thus this hypothesis diminishes the position of the working class—which was more correct than that of the educated, after all—to a mere reflex based on self-interest. It is also wrong. Human nature doesn’t work that way. Research has shown that people of whatever educational level who expect to go to war tend to support that war because people rarely don’t believe in something they plan to do. Working-class young men who enlisted or looked forward to being drafted could not easily influence their destinies to avoid Vietnam, but they could change their attitudes about the war to be more positive. Thus, cognitive dissonance helps explain why young men of draft age supported the war more than older men, and why men supported the war more than women. While less-educated families with sons in the Vietnam conflict often formed pockets of support for the war, such pockets were exceptions to the dovishness that pervaded the less-educated segments of our populace.14
By now my audiences are keen to learn why educated Americans were more hawkish. Two social processes, each tied to schooling, can account for educated Americans’ support of the Vietnam War. The first can be summarized by the term allegiance. Educated adults tend to be successful and earn high incomes—partly because schooling leads to better jobs and higher incomes, but mainly because high parental incomes lead to more education for their offspring. Also, parents transmit affluence and education directly to their children. Successful Americans do not usually lay their success at their parents’ doorstep, however. They usually explain their accomplishments as owing to their own individual characteristics, so they see American society as meritocratic. They achieved their own success; other people must be getting their just desserts. Believing that American society is open to an individual input, the educated well-to-do tend to agree with society’s decisions and feel they had a hand in forming them. They identify more with our society and its policies. We can use the term vested interest here, so long as we realize we are referring to an ideological interest or need, a need to come to terms with the privilege with which one has been blessed, not simple economic self-interest. In this sense, educated successful people have a vested interest in believing that the society that helped them be educated and successful is fair. As a result, those in the upper third of our educational and income structure are more likely to show allegiance to society, while those in the lower third are more likely to be critical of it.
The other process causing educated adults to be more likely to support the Vietnam War can be summarized under the rubric socialization. Sociologists have long agreed that schools are important socializing agents in our society. „Socializing“ in this context does not mean hobnobbing around a punch bowl but refers to the process of learning and internalizing the basic social rules— language, norms, etiquette—necessary for an individual to function in society. Socialization is not primarily cognitive. We are not persuaded rationally not to pee in the living room, we are required not to. We then internalize and obey this rule even when no authority figure lurks to enforce it. Teachers may try to convince themselves that education’s main function is to promote inquiry, not iconography but in fact, the socialization function of schooling remains dominant at least through high school and hardly disappears in college. Education as socialization tells people what to think and how to act and requires them to conform. Education as socialization influences students simply to accept the tightness of our society. American history textbooks overtly tell us to be proud of America. The more schooling, the more socialization, and the more likely the individual will conclude that America is good.
Both the allegiance and socialization processes cause the educated to believe that what America does is right. Public opinion polls show the nonthinking results. In late spring 1966, just before we began bombing Hanoi and Haiphong in North Vietnam, Americans split 50/50 as to whether we should bomb these targets. After the bombing began, 85 percent favored the bombing while only 1 5 percent opposed. The sudden shift was the result, not the cause, of the government’s decision to bomb. The same allegiance and socialization processes operated again when policy changed in the opposite direction. In 1968 war sentiment was waning; but 51 percent of Americans opposed a bombing halt, partly because the United States was still bombing North Vietnam. A month later, after President Johnson announced a bombing halt, 71 percent favored the halt. Thus 23 percent of our citizens changed their minds within a month, mirroring the shift in government policy. This swaying of thought by policy affects attitudes on issues ranging from our space program to environmental policy and shows the so-called „silent majority“ to be an unthinking majority as well. Educated people are overrepresented among these straws in the wind.15
We like to think of education as a mix of thoughtful learning processes. Allegiance and socialization, however, are intrinsic to the role of schooling in our society or any hierarchical society. Socialist leaders such as Fidel Castro and Mao Tse-tung vastly extended schooling in Cuba and China in part because they knew that an educated people is a socialized populace and a bulwark of allegiance. Education works the same way here: it encourages students not to think about society but merely to trust that it is good. To the degree that American history, in particular, is celebratory, it offers no way to understand any problem—such as the Vietnam War, poverty, inequality, international haves and have-nots, environmental degradation, or changing sex roles—that has historical roots. Therefore we might expect that the more traditional schooling in history that Americans have, the less they will understand Vietnam or any other historically-based problem. This is why educated people were more hawkish on the Vietnam War.
Table 2 supplies an additional example of nonthinking by the educated and affluent: they are wrong about who supported the war. By a nine to one margin, the hundreds of educated people who have filled out Table 1 believed that educated Americans were more dovish. Thus the Vietnam exercise suggests two errors by the elite. The first error that educated people made was being excessively hawkish back in 1966, 1968, or 1971. The second error they made was in filling out Table 1.
Why have my audiences been so wrong in remembering or deducing who opposed the Vietnam War? One reason is that Americans like to believe that schooling is a good thing. Most Americans tend automatically to equate educated with informed or tolerant.16 Traditional purveyors of social studies and American history seize upon precisely this belief to rationalize their enterprise, claiming that history courses lead to a more enlightened citizenry. The Vietnam exercise suggests the opposite is more likely true.
Audiences would not have been so easily fooled if they had only recalled that educated people were and are more likely to be Republicans, while high school dropouts are more likely to be Democrats. Hawkish right-wing Republicans, including the core supporters of Barry Goldwater in 1964, of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and of groups like the John Birch Society, come disproportionately from the most educated and affluent segments of our society, particularly dentists and physicians. So we should not be surprised that education correlates with hawkishness. At the other end of the social status spectrum, although most African Americans, like most whites, initially supported U.S. intervention in Vietnam, blacks were always more questioning and more dovish than whites, and African American leaders—Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X—were prominent among the early opponents of the war.17
American history textbooks help perpetrate the archetype of the blindly patriotic hardhat by omitting or understating progressive elements in the working class. Textbooks do not reveal that CIO unions and some working-class fraternal associations were open to all when many chambers of commerce and country clubs were still white-only. Few textbooks tell of organized labor’s role in the civil rights movement, including the 1963 March on Washington. Nevertheless, many members of my audience are aware that educated Americans are likely to be Republicans, hard-liners on defense, and right-wing extremists. Some members of my audience know about Goldwater voters, Muhammad Ali’s induction refusal, Birchers and education, or labor unions and the war— information that would have helped them fill in the blanks in Table 1 correctly. Somehow, though, they never think to apply such knowledge. Most people fill out the table in a daze without ever using what they know. Their education and their position in society cause them not to think.18
Such nonthinking occurs most commonly when society is the subject. „One of the major duties of an American citizen is to analyze issues and interpret events intelligently,“ Discovering American History exhorts students. Our textbooks fail miserably at this task. The Vietnam exercise shows how bad the situation really is. Most college students, even high school students, would never put up with such obvious contradictions when thinking about, say, chemistry. When the subject is the social world, however, they are often guilty of nonsensical reasoning. Sociology professors are amazed and depressed at the level of thinking about society displayed each fall by the upper-middle-class students entering their first-year classes. These students cannot use the past to illuminate the present and have no inkling of causation in history, so they cannot think coherently about social life. Extending the terminology of Jules Henry, we might use „social stupidity“ to describe the illogical intellectual process and conclusions that result.
Students who have taken more mathematics courses are more proficient at math than other students. The same is true in English, foreign language studies, and almost every other subject. Only in history is stupidity the result of more, not less, schooling. Why do students buy into the mindless „analysis“ they encounter in American history courses? For some students, it is in their ideological interest. Upper-middle-class students are comforted by a view of society that emphasizes schooling as the solution to intolerance, poverty, even perhaps war. Such a rosy view of education and its effects lets them avoid considering the need to make major changes in other institutions. To the degree that this view permeates our society, students automatically think well of education and expect the educated to have seen through the Vietnam War.
Moreover, thinking well of education reinforces the ideology we might call American individualism. It leaves intact the archetypal image of a society marked by or at least striving toward equality of opportunity. Yet precisely to the extent that students believe that equality of opportunity exists, they are encouraged to blame the uneducated for being poor, just as my audiences blame them for being hawks on the war in Vietnam. Americans who are not poor find American individualism a satisfying ideology, for it explains their success in life by laying it at their own doorstep. This enables them to feel proud of their success, even if it is modest, rather than somehow ashamed of it. Crediting success to their position in social structure threatens those good feelings. It is much more gratifying to believe that their educational attainments and occupational successes result from ambition and hard work—that their privilege has been earned. To a considerable degree, working-class and lower-class Americans also adopt this prevailing ethic about society and schooling. Often working-class adults in dead-end jobs blame themselves, focusing on their own earlier failure to excel in school, and feel they are inferior in some basic way.19
Students also have short-term reasons for accepting what teachers and textbooks tell them about the social world in their history and social studies classes, of course. They are going to be tested on it. It is in the students’ interest just to learn the material. Arguing takes more energy, doesn’t help one’s grade, and even violates classroom norms. Moreover, there is a feeling of accomplishment derived from learning something, even something as useless and mindless as the answers to the identification questions that occupy the last two pages of each chapter in most history textbooks. Students can feel frustrated by the ambiguity of real history, the debates among historians, or the challenge of applying ideas from the past to their own lives. They may resist changes in the curriculum, especially if these involve more work or work less clearly structured than simply „doing the terms.“ After years of rote education, students become habituated to it and inexperienced and ineffectual at any other kind of learning.
In the long run, however, „learning“ history this way is not really satisfying.
History textbooks and most high school history teachers give students no reason to love or appreciate the subject. We must not ignore the abysmal ratings that history courses receiveand we cannot merely exhort students to like history more. But this does not mean the sorry state of learning in most history classrooms cannot be changed. Students will start learning history when they see the point of doing so, when it seems interesting and important to them, and when they believe history might relate to their lives and futures. Students will start finding history interesting when their teachers and textbooks stop lying to them.
James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me.
12. What is the result of teaching history like this?
1 Jules Henry, Culture Against Man (New York: Random House, 1963), 287.
2 Jungle Brothers, “Acknowledge Your Own History,” c. 1989. This African American rap group calls history HIS story, meaning “the Man’s.”
3 Linda McNeil, “Defensive Teaching and Classroom Control,” in Michael W. Apple and Lois Weis, eds., Ideology and Practice in Schooling (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983), 128-41.
4 Robert B. Everhart, “Classroom Management,” в Apple and Weis, eds., Ideology and Practice in Schooling, Ch. 7.
5 Probably the most important studies decrying what high school graduates don’t know about history and geography are by Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn Jr., What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), and the National Geographic Society, Geography: An International Gallup Survey (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1988). See also Allen Bragdon, Can You Pass These Tests? (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), 129-40, comparing 1976 and 1943 results. The National Assessment of Educational Progress also decried U.S. high school seniors’ knowledge of American history in 1994 and 2001. In 2006, however, they saw a bit of progress: the proportion scoring “Advanced” and “Proficient” increased in twelve years from 12 percent to 14 percent. “U.S. History 2006” at nces.ed.govtnations reportcard/pdf/main2006/2007474_ l.pdf.
6 Ravitch and Finn, What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? 49.
7 John Goodlad, A Place Called School (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983), argues that “affect—either positive or negative—was virtually absent” from the classrooms he and his associates studied. Flat is the adjective he applies to what went on.
8 Washington, D.C.: PBS Frontline video, 1985.
9 John Ogbu, “Racial Stratification and Education,” in Gail E. Thomas, ed., U.S. Race Relations in the 1980s and 1990s (New York: Hemisphere, 1990), 2730. See also Herbert Kohl, “I Won’t Learn from You!” in I Won’t Learn from You and Other Thoughts on Creative Maladjustment (New York: New Press, 1994), 1-32. National Assessment of Educational Progress, Report 1: 1969-1970 Science (Washington, D.C.: NAEP, 1970), shows only small black/nonblack differences in science. Jean Fair, ed., National Assessment and Social Studies Evaluation (Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1975), 56, 63-64, 77-82, shows large black/nonblack differences in social studies.
Richard L. Sawyer, College Student Profiles: Norms for the ACT Assessment, 1980-81 (Iowa City: ACT, 1980), gives norms in four academic areas, English, math, social studies, and natural sciences, by income, race, and so on.
10 Jeffrey Fouts, “Female Students, Women Teachers, and Perceptions of the Social Studies Classroom,” Social Education 54 (11/1990): 418-20.
11 Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., “When Ethnic Studies Are Un-American,” Social Studies Review, no. 5 (Summer 1990): 11-13.
12 Martha Toppin, “I Know Who’s Going with Me,” Social Education 44 (10/1980): 458.
13 On Clifford, see Tom Wicker, “An Unwinnable War,” New York Times, 6/12/1991; on McNamara, see Jonathan Mirsky, “Reconsidering Vietnam,” New York Review of Books, 10/10/1991, 44. The Gallup poll, 11/1986, found 71 percent agreement (excluding “don’t knows”) that “the Vietnam War was more than a mistake: it was fundamentally wrong and immoral.” In August 1984, the Roper organization asked “whether what this country did was the right thing or the wrong thing—or somewhere in between: fighting the war in Vietnam.” Sixty-five percent said “wrong thing”; since 17 percent answered “somewhere in between” and 5 percent didn’t know, 83 percent of persons making a choice called it wrong. For such proportions of the U.S. public in the 1980s to say that the Vietnam War was wrong, considering that the United States fought it and Presidents Reagan and Bush still defended it, shows strong opposition and independence of thought.
14 William L. Lunch and Peter W. Sprelich, “American Public Opinion and the War in Vietnam,” Western Political Quarterly 32 (1979): 33-34. Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson, 1957). Festinger’s theory also explains why male college students during World War II, who knew they were going to fight, were more pro-war than skilled electricians and welders, who knew they were going to be deferred to work in war industries. Both groups were bringing their opinions into line with their anticipated future actions, which they could not easily change.
15 John Mueller, Presidents and Public Opinion (New York: Wiley, 1973), 7074; Harris poll reported in Boston Globe, 7/14/1969, on support for the Apollo program; see also Samuel P. Huntington, The Common Defense, 235-39.
16 College students particularly have this reason to err, for they have “chosen” (under the influence of their parents and their class position) to get college educations. In line with the principles of cognitive dissonance, they are likely to agree that people benefit from being in college and conclude that education leads to tolerance and wisdom. Many Americans see schooling as a panacea for racial inequality, environmental problems, or poverty.
17 Richard F. Hamilton, Restraining Myths (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1975), 118, 159; Lunch and Sprelich, “American Public Opinion and the War in Vietnam,” 35-36.
18 The American Tradition encourages this wrong thinking by including a photograph of hard-hat counter-demonstrators supporting Nixon on Vietnam. “Who comprised the ‘silent majority’?” Tradition asks, implying that working-class Americans did. Land of Promise similarly claims that a backlash among less educated people against “students who were leading the peace movement” allowed Nixon to continue the war.
19 Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, Hidden Injuries of Class (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972).