World War I memorial
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How Should World War I Be Taught in American Schools?

The two versions of WWI taught in most schools tell us as much about the present as they do about the past.
April 6 marks the centenary of the United States’ entry into World War I. But how should Americans remember the war?

In Hungary, for example, World War I is often remembered for the Treaty of Trianon, a peace treaty that ended Hungarian involvement in the war and cost Hungary two-thirds of its territory. The treaty continues to be a source of outrage for Hungarian nationalists.

In the United States, by contrast, the war is primarily remembered in a positive light. President Woodrow Wilson intervened on the side of the victors, using idealistic language about making the world “safe for democracy.” The United States lost relatively few soldiers in comparison to other nations.

As a professor of social studies education, I’ve noticed that the way in which “the war to end war” is taught in American classrooms has a lot to do with what we think it means to be an American today.

As one of the first wars fought on a truly global scale, World War I is taught in two different courses, with two different missions: U.S. history courses and world history courses. Two versions of World War I emerge in these two courses – and they tell us as much about the present as they do about the past.

WWI: National History

In an academic sense, history is not simply the past, but the tools we use to study it – it is the process of historical inquiry. Over the course of the discipline’s development, the study of history became deeply entangled with the study of nations. It became “partitioned”: American history, French history, Chinese history.

This way of dividing the past reinforces ideas of who a people are and what they stand for. In the U.S., our national historical narrative has often been taught to schoolchildren as one where more and more Americans gain more and more rights and opportunities. The goal of teaching American history has long been the creation of citizens who are loyal to this narrative and are willing to take action to support it.

When history is taught in this way, teachers and students can easily draw boundaries between “us” and “them.” There is a clear line between domestic and foreign policy. Some historians have criticized this view of the nation as a natural container for the events of the past.
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