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“Anyone born after 1982 hasn’t a clue how psychological the Cold War was,” said historian Tim Naftali, co-author of “One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy” and former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library. “You cannot understand Kennedy if you do not understand nuclear terror and the fear of nuclear war. That’s what you have to convey to kids, and that’s tough because it’s not intrinsic to them. In fact, their parents probably don’t even get it. But good teachers do.”
Teaching nuance and mood is unusual at high school, according to Katherine Hayes, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota who specializes in historical memory.
“When history gets taught in school, the focus is on objective things. Significance and rationale are not part of the curriculum,” Hayes said. “That’s too bad, because kids don’t quite get it right.”
History can inform our understanding of current problems, she said, pointing to immigration policy as an example.
“We often appear to be repeating our mistakes because we don’t remember what happened in the past, like Japanese internment in World War II and profiling of Muslims today,” Hayes said. “As for JFK, if we seriously grapple with that history and what might have happened if he wasn’t shot, we might have better insight to the state of politics today. We desperately need younger folks to take a serious interest in politics and not let themselves be convinced by simple characterizations.”
Micah Varnado, a 16-year-old St. Paul Central student, appears eager to learn more about Kennedy. If only she had the time.
“Knowing a lot of these things about American history would be great, but we’re taught what’s going to be on the test. That’s what gets you an A,” she said. “The assassination is not going to be on the test.”
Mark Samels, executive producer for PBS’ “American Experience,” hopes his four-hour documentary “JFK,” which premieres Nov. 11-12, will help turn the tide.
“I don’t pile on my kids about knowing everything about my childhood, but I think there’s a natural time in our lives when we turn around and go, ‘What are those lessons? What really was that? I’ve heard of it, but I don’t really know it,’ ” he said.
“Our staff is made up of a lot of twenty-somethings. They can’t wait to watch the show and find out what’s behind this John F. Kennedy they’ve heard about.”
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