In the 40 years since the fall of Saigon, the history of the Vietnam War — its causes, main military events and cultural impact — has earned a prominent place in American history books.
For the Southern Illinois teachers who teach the war, not much has changed in instructional content over the years. Students always have shown interest in learning about protest culture, and events such as the Tet Offensive and the My Lai Massacre remain focal points.
But as students become farther removed from the event itself, interest in the war — and students’ perception of it — has changed, teachers said.
“What I’ve found with Vietnam is they don’t know anything about it, and they’re so eager to listen that that’s usually a topic that, when I’m doing a lesson, they really are engaged,” said Brett Diel, an assistant principal at Carterville High School who taught American history for about 10 years.
These days, Diel said, it’s less likely for students to have relatives who fought in the war. A grandparent, an uncle or a neighbor might have served, but students typically enter the classroom with less knowledge to start with.
“It had some major events tied to it, some major effects, and they don’t really know anything about it,” he said.
With improvements in technology and the increasing availability of primary sources, methods of instruction have become more interactive, too, further piquing students’ interest.
“Maybe in late ’80s, you would teach it like a story,” said Dan Baker, a history teacher who recently retired from Murphysboro High School after a 27-year career. “But now, you can go find different sources from different sides.”
Presidential communiqués, U.S. State Department reports and local news footage offer rich context.
In his last year teaching, Diel took his class to visit the American Veterans Traveling Tribute, an 80 percent scaled model of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, set up on the campus of Southern Illinois University in September 2014.
The war typically is taught late in spring. Diel said it’s well worth the wait.
“It’s just something I feel needs to be taught,” he said. “I think a lot of times it’s skipped just because of the timing. I’ve been through that crunch, but it needs to be done.”