With "The War," Ken Burns is showing us details that we didn't know could still be learned about World War II. Maybe the series should be required viewing in all our high schools:
If high school juniors' answers to a World War II questionnaire were strung together, here's how history would look:
World War II took place in 19-something, when Theodore Roosevelt was president and the Germans claimed to be the best race.
Hoping to aid Third World countries, the United States joined the war to stop racism and end the dispute over Jews.
The head of the Nazis was a killer named Hitler whose evil partner, Mussolini, was president of the USSR. Ultimately, the war ended with the bombing of Iwo Jima and Hitler's suicide. Then a treaty was signed.
Not every 11th-grader who answered a Chronicle questionnaire at San Francisco's Burton High School responded with such a fractured version of history. Eight of the 34 students said correctly that "Roosevelt" or "FDR" was president during most of the war, apparently remembering the subject they had studied as sophomores last spring. Most knew about the attempted genocide of the Jews, all but three recognized Hitler, and eight placed the war in the 1940s.
But others, perhaps suffering a temporary memory lapse, variously named George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon and Winston Churchill as the war's main president. Eighteen students wisely left the answer blank.
It's one thing to shake our heads in amusement as Jay Leno goes out on the street and illustrates with his questions the ignorance of people about the world they live in. It's another to think that it is our schools that are turning out those people.
If I may go into Old Coot mode for a moment: I've noticed a lot of young journalists coming through here in the past few years have had no interest in history -- not just of the world or the country, but also of the community they're serving. Everything is about now and moving forward. So they have no perspective or sense of proportion, no way to really measure the importance of what they're covering in the grand scheme of things.
When I came back to Fort Wayne to work at the paper, I spend as much spare time as I had the first couple of months just reading clips, even though I grew up here and already had a pretty good grasp of the town's back stories. Part of what a newspaper should do is provide a sense of continuity, both in what is covered and how it is presented. How a community is perceived through the newspaper is a part of people's image of themselves that they carry around.
These days, we lurch from one hyped scandal to the next, and in between there is too information to deal with. So we just wade through it and keep moving forward. We need now, more than we ever did, perspective and a sense of proportion.