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High school curriculum considers science, morality and the atomic bomb
PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- No U.S. presidential decision has generated more lasting controversy and second-guessing than Harry Truman's decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as the recent controversy over the Smithsonian's 50th anniversary exhibit proved. Framed as an educational question, the controversy becomes more acute: What should our nation's schoolchildren learn about the bomb?
"Almost everyone has had those familiar arguments - whether the bomb prevented a land invasion, how many lives such an invasion would have cost, whether Japan somehow `deserved' what it got - but the arguments rarely get beyond personal beliefs; whoever talks the loudest tends to win," said Susan Graseck, director of the Choices for the 21st Century Project at Brown University. "That's not good enough for a classroom, and that is why we developed this unit."
Like other "choices" units, Ending the War Against Japan: Science, Morality, and the Atomic Bomb carries students beyond the simple record of events and involves them in the decision-making that led to the events. "The goal is to think through alternatives and understand what could have been expected from certain courses of action," Graseck said. "We want to examine the choices that were actually on the table at the time and recreate that moment for students to experience."
During the five-day unit, available this fall to high school teachers nationwide, students investigate the subject from several perspectives. They explore the evolution of the technology, values and ethics of war from the ancient Greeks to the Geneva conventions. They learn about the science that underlies atomic power and nuclear weaponry. And they learn about political factors of the time: the need to keep U.S. casualties low; the Allies' absolute requirement for unconditional surrender; the deteriorating relationship with the Soviet Union and the knowledge that it would soon enter the Pacific theater; the possible post-war emergence of other nuclear powers; and the genuine desire to advance American democratic values.
The choices approach takes history one step farther by involving students in the choice. In one role-playing session, small groups of students attempt to persuade members of the Truman administration to adopt various courses of action, from dropping the bomb to arranging a demonstration of its potential to negotiating a peace with a nearly defeated Japan. Students draw upon their earlier investigations to make their case. "In effect, we give students a chance to try out ideas with which they might disagree so that they understand the consequences of a given course of action," Graseck said. That has proven to be a very effective pedagogical technique.
The Choices for the 21st Century Project, an outreach program of the Thomas J. Watson Jr. Institute for International Studies at Brown University, produces three public affairs units every year and regularly updates them. It offers more than a dozen low-cost, high-quality units designed for high school students, covering historical as well as current events. Choices curriculum materials are being used in more than 3,500 high school classrooms nationwide.
"One of the advantages of the choices method is that it defeats the notion that history is somehow inevitable," Graseck said. "Students learn that history is a dynamic, complex process and that struggles over decisions really do matter. They come to see that the same history-making complexities are at work today, that real choices must be made, and that the informed opinions of citizens can make a difference. Ultimately, these units teach sound habits of mind and citizenship."
Editors: For additional information, a sample of the teaching materials, or information about possible local contacts for this story, contact Susan Graseck at 401/863-3155.