Seniors in history teacher Bryan Dibble’s American Government classes will spend a part of their class time today commemorating — albeit a bit unusually — the 76th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
But remembering one of the most defining moments in American history won’t mean an interruption of the mock presidential campaign students have been participating in recently. Rather, students will use the fictitious presidential candidates they’ve crafted — based on celebrities such as Beyonce or Ryan Reynolds — to practice a key presidential task: the commemoration speech.
“Their job is to create a speech that not only commemorates the event, but clearly shows the point of view of their political character,” Dibble said.
The element of Pearl Harbor adds not only a level of complexity to the task for students — who are many decades removed from the attack — but also an entry point for gaining a better understanding an influential event in American history.
“I don’t know a lot, but I know the basics,” said senior Wyatt Frank. “What I’d like to know more about is the behind-the-scenes of what happened.”
That’s the challenge presented to Dibble and other educators who are teaching about Pearl Harbor — which led to U.S. entry into World War II — to a new generation. As time passes and more people who witnessed the event die — the youngest World War II veterans are in their late 80s — there’s less of a personal connection that would make the attack relevant to today’s youth.
“We’re now at the point (that World War II veterans) are the great-grandparents for my college students,” said Christopher Hamner, associate professor in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and a specialist in military history. “They’re far outside the lived experience.”
While Hamner studied Pearl Harbor as a student, his understanding of the attack was enhanced after a conversation with his grandmother in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Shortly after the attacks, Hamner, who was then living in Boston, called his grandmother to see how she was doing. During the call, he shared his experiences in the aftermath of the attacks — people holding candlelight vigils and others on the street shocked and angry at what happened.
“She said, ‘This is how the country felt after Pearl Harbor. People were scared, people were angry, people were feeling very patriotic,’” he recalled.
While 9/11 as an analogy worked as a way to explain the aftermath of Pearl Harbor for Hamner and others for several years, it isn’t necessarily as relevant for today’s generation of students. Some of Dibble’s students at Selah High School were not even born at the time of the terrorist attacks.
But Dibble still finds value in educating his students about Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks.
“I’m taking the opportunity to teach (Pearl Harbor) as a world-changing event,” he said. “And — if and when — their Pearl Harbor comes out, they’ll make that connection.”
The importance of that mission was evident during a recent class. Senior Kody Siebol said he knew what happened in Pearl Harbor, but “I don’t know the cause, and that’s what I’m hoping to learn.”
That curiosity is important to Dibble, who wants Siebol and other students to understand potential factors that preceded the Pearl Harbor attack and others like it.
For example, historians point to several events leading up to Pearl Harbor as turning points in U.S. and Japan relations. Among those issues was a U.S. oil embargo in response to Japan’s invasion of Indochina, a move that hurt Japan deeply as the country got nearly all its oil from America.
When the U.S. has used similar techniques to influence or punish another country, the ruling regime generally either collapses or it attacks, Dibble said.
“Japan’s regime did not collapse, they attacked,” said Dibble, who points out that a current-day example would be escalating tensions between the U.S. and North Korea.
Hamner, the George Mason University professor, also wants his students to understand the feelings and experiences of those involved in Pearl Harbor — from civilians living nearby to the Japanese pilots who carried out the attack against the U.S. naval base. To do so, he encourages students to listen to oral histories or read written accounts.
Exploring other perspectives may further pique students’ curiosity, he said. For example, some students want to learn more when they discover some Japanese pilots had misgivings about participating in the attack.
“It’s understanding how complicated events are and how things can look very different depending on where you sit,” he said.