Students at Berkeley High during World War II busied themselves setting up Morse code clubs and selling enough war bonds to purchase two P-39 fighter planes. Across the Bay, Palo Alto High School students raised funds for a bomber with their school’s “Li’l Viking” mascot painted on the fuselage.
During today’s “war on terrorism,” students in K-12 classrooms from Washington, D.C., to Washington state are collecting donations for Afghan children or for the firefighters in New York City. But a researcher at the UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education predicts that, just as in World War II, the core curriculums in schools will see little change.
“Schools are looking more to the long term,” said Charles Dorn, 34, a fellow in the Graduate School of Education’s Center for the Integrated Study of Teaching and Learning.
He is examining how teachers and students fared during World War II in the public secondary schools of Berkeley, Oakland, Palo Alto and Richmond.
“There are all sorts of changes to the peripheral programs, but in English class they’re still reading ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” Dorn said. “They’re not replacing literature with typing to prepare students for clerical work in defense industries. The schools themselves do not really alter their core programs in response to the war.”
Richmond experienced dramatic wartime change as the Kaiser shipyards opened. School enrollment there swelled to 24,000 in 1945, the same population as the entire city just five years earlier. Richmond schools put into place four schedules every day in order to be able to educate all the students. One kindergarten class had 146 students.
In Palo Alto, Dorn said, two vice principals were drafted. Oakland and Richmond faced an unprecedented influx of workers to shipyards and defense industries primarily from Oklahoma, Arkansas and the Deep South.
The major pressures of the war forced some change in schools, such as a Cadet Corps at Berkeley High that replaced traditional physical education courses with military drills and marksmanship lessons. By October 1942, 60 percent of the secondary schools in California featured pre-flight aeronautics classes.
Dorn has interviewed about a dozen people who were students and about six who were teachers during World War II. He acknowledged that many more oral histories are in order. Other resources he has tapped include statements about the war and about education at the time by educators, school commissioners, education schools and professors.
Dorn said he also is interested in looking at how classes were taught locally in World War II and who taught them, considering the military build-up and flood of men into the military.
There is some school district archival material, such as newsletters and school board minutes, to review, he said, but teachers tend around their retirement to clean out their garages, tossing out the accumulated material from their classroom days.
School newspapers and yearbooks of the war days have been particularly helpful, Dorn said. “It’s fascinating to read what editorials students were writing at the time,” he said.
Dorn said he believes that examining the influence of wartime events on public education during World War II “helps illuminate what’s occurring right now. We’re starting to see similar things happen in schools in response to the attacks on September 11 such as the New York City Board of Education requiring the Pledge of Allegiance in city schools.”
Likewise, he said, today’s social studies teachers are likely to incorporate some lessons about war, terrorism and social change into their lesson plans. Dorn said the adjustments, however, “probably will be temporary, and teachers will resist permanent change.”
Teachers and school administrators may often be viewed as impervious to change and reform, Dorn said, but educators in wartime seem to cling to the concept of school as a foundation for consistency, stability and democratic traditions.
“During World War II, public schools seemed to demonstrate a significant commitment to previously articulated democratic purposes,” Dorn said.
“Although Americans debated the new role public education should take in a these debates, maintaining a sturdy dedication to fundamental democratic principles never fully realized in American society.”
This constancy can be a reassurance during our current conflict, he said.
This article was written by the UC Berkeley media relations office.