Marcia Butman, a teacher at East Boston High, writes about what her students think about the Vietnam War, for the Red Pencil in March 1971. Republished in issue 3 of Root and Branch, a libertarian marxist journal based in the U.S.
What should happen is the two leaders should fight it out. If they are too chicken to have a fist fight then they should play a game of checkers. Whichever leader wins, wins the war. The war has nothing to do with us so why should we fight it.
During my two years teaching at East Boston High, I've learned a lot about what kids think about the war in Vietnam and why they have the opinions they do. If we, as teachers, want to help kids think critically and understand the real reasons for the war, then it’s very important that we understand why they think the way they do. Without understanding what in their backgrounds—both economic and social—makes them have these opinions, we can't even begin to have conversations with them, much less open them up to new ideas and ways of thinking.
l. Macho vs Victim
I think we should have a military victory in Vietnam because it’s too late to have immediate withdrawal so I think we should stay in Vietnam until we win. What I mean by too late is that it’s too late to draw back because there are over 1,000,000,000 people already killed from the United States.
E.B.. High student (boy)
I think we should have immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. We can’t afford to lose more lives of those we love. Planned withdrawal is too slow and winning the war will prove nothing except more death and trouble.
E.B. High student (girl)
Boys and girls often have very different views on the war, and they have different solutions. Boys in working class communities are brought up tough; often their life, or at least their reputation depends on it. They know they have to be tough to make it in the world they will soon face—the draft, lousy jobs, a competitive world. They have to be rough to earn the respect of their friends and most important, themselves. Until recently, when drugs, hippie culture and music reached the working class, there were no alternatives for a boy at all. Ifyou weren’t tough, you were "queer". Boys were not expected to show emotions or feelings or be concerned about anybody but themselves. Therefore, a boy’s solution to the war is to bomb Vietnam off the map, to fight and win, to never give in. In a classroom, a teacher will never get anywhere arguing logically about why bombing is wrong until she/he reaches the root of the problem: the boy's attitudes towards toughness and violence, and why these attitudes are necessary for them in the world today.
Girls do not have to be tough to make it. Just the opposite. They expect to grow up and be somebody’s wife, take care of the kids and provide some warmth and emotion in their husband‘s otherwise brutal existence. They are victims; they have little to say about their lives, but always depend on someone else for their happiness and well being. Because they are “allowed” to express emotion and are expected to provide comfort and solace, they can identify with human suffering, and with other people who are victims. They usually think we should get out of Vietnam right away to end all the death and suffering. They see their son, brothers, boy friends and fathers being hurt all the time. They want to prevent any more sorrow than is absolutely necessary.
ll. Hearing vs. Knowing: The Media vs. Real Experience
l want military victory because I think we should win in Vietnam because America is the most powerful nation. it will effect the honor of the United States. Also I Think if we don't win then North Vietnam will start spreading to other countries.
I also want immediate withdrawal because a lot of people are dying there and taxes have been raised up to our necks, but the people don't earn enough because there are so many factories that are closing and people can't pay the tax.
P.S. Miss Butman I had to vote for two solutions because there are two sides to this.
Working class kids believe a lot of what the media and the government officials tell them. They think we are in Vietnam to stop North Vietnam from invading the south, to stop communism (instead of continuing imperialism) and to preserve the honor of the United States. They believe that it is necessary for the United States to be fighting in Vietnam. They accept all this because they have never been expected to think critically. The public schools they go to don’t even give critical thinking and independence token support. (That‘s not what they kids are supposed to learn: they’ll never have to use their brains.) The communities they live in are closed off from new information and different ideas and life-styles. They never get a chance to hear or think about different opinions. They don’t live on college campuses. They don't have the tools to challenge the information they are given.
On the other hand, they know real things about the war that contradict all that they have read. They get very confused when their real information conﬂicts with the information the media feeds them every day. They know that the war is bad for them and their families. Men are getting killed, taxes are going up. Kids don’t like the war because it is bad for them. Their attitude is very different than middle class kids who don't like the war because it is killing the Vietnamese or is morally wrong. The kids at East Boston rarely think about the Vietnamese. They don't know what is happening the the Vietnamese people. That information never reaches them. All they know is that the war is hurting them and they don’t like it.
The kids carry both what they know and what they hear around in their heads. Instead of realizing that the war is bad for them and then trying to figure out why we are there since it is bad, they believe both things. They don't always have enough confidence in themselves and in their own ability and intelligence to really trust their own feelings. (After all, they've always been told they were dumb.) When they begin to trust themselves and their experience (and a lot of them are beginning to) instead of what other people tell them, then they will want to figure out why we are really fighting this war. Now, many of them carry around confusion and contradiction in their heads.
lll. Anti-Communism vs. Self-confidence
What we need is one man to run the whole world. Then there will be peace. Unless there is a dictator then people will always be fighting and no-one will ever be able to get along.
But why can't we run free—and do what we want and get along with everybody?
from a conversation in a U.S. history class
Kids ideas about everything stem from their beliefs about human nature. They don‘t trust themselves or anybody around them. They can't, or they won’t survive in the dog-eat-dog world. They believe that human nature is inevitably bad and has to be controlled. People can’t possibly control themselves. After all, everything in their life is solved by repression and authority. Teachers have to be tough or the kids will go crazy. When I asked kids to write about their idea of a good parent, a lot of them said parents have to be strict and hard, even though many were fighting with their parents every night. When there's a disagreement in the neighborhood, call the cops.
They have never seen non-authoritarian solutions work. Often nice teachers with liberal ideas about freedom get trampled on by the kids. Even among friends, things aren’t usually talked out. Emotions are never expressed openly to each other. Thiﬂ belief in human nature—what they see proven in themselves and their life every day—makes it impossible for them to see non-repressive, nonauthoritarian solutions. When we discuss "ideal" communism, the kids say it would never work because people are bad and can't work together. They can't work together, they’ve never had that freedom. So why should they expect other people to do it. When a kid wants to “run free”, he is bombarded with questions like “who would work? who would grow the food? wouldn’t everyone just sit around?”
These kids have less feeling of control and power than any other group in society (except the blacks). They have been controlled all their lives. They have only an authoritarian relationship to the government and the society. They have no trust in themselves in their ability to work things out together, because they have bever had an opportunity to try it.
WHAT SHOULD WE DO?
As teachers. In the classroom kids need to know their opinions are respected, that they can think, that they are smart, that their experience is valid. If they begin to believe in themselves, everything else follows. Our country is built on people believing in everybody but themselves.
The classroom can also be a place Where new information is brought to the kids. My kids asked me what was happening to the Vietnamese people after I showed them some pictures of napalmed kids. They had never considered the question before and were shocked when they found out what was really happening. As a teacher, we can give them information with which to challenge the authority of the media and the government's version as complete truth.
As people. We are not only what we are in the classroom. We need to be much more than that if kids are really going to change, grow, and trust themselves. Before anyone can begin to believe in themselves, they have to have some vision of an alternative way of acting. Until they see something else working, they have no reason to believe that something else can work. We can begin to show them that something else can work.
Last year kids were very much influenced by our living collective which shared money and personal decisions. They began to act more collectively themselves. We have to be able to point out things that work: collectives, food co-ops, free health clinics, free schools.
We have to take ourselves and what we believe seriously if we expect the kids to take us and themselves seriously. This means taking risks and speaking out about what we think is wrong with the schools. It also means trying to change and grow and challenge ourselves to live in the way we think is right: combating chauvinism, racism, individualism, competitiveness and self-hate. It means actively trying to change the society that makes this difficult. We can't just be teachers, or we will never teach our kids anything.
Root & Branch No. 3 (1971), pp. 34-36.