|Seattle, Washington, at War|
By Kyle Greenwalt, Michigan State University
From: The Conversation, 9 November 2018
The centennial of the end of World War I is reminding Americans of a conflict that is rarely mentioned these days.
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.
When students are taught this nationalist view of the past, it’s possible to see the United States and its relationship to World War I in a particular light. Initially an outsider to World War I, the United States would join only when provoked by Germany. U.S. intervention was justified in terms of making the world safe for democracy. American demands for peace were largely based on altruistic motives.
When taught in this manner, World War I signals the arrival of the United States on the global stage—as defenders of democracy and agents for global peace.
World War I as World History. . .