Education and the Future

Maya Lin designed the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. After seeing it, a Vietnam War veteran wrote the following poem:


I didn't want a monument,
not even one as sober as that
vast black wall of broken lives.
I didn't want a postage stamp.
I didn't want a road beside the Delaware
River with a sign proclaiming:
"Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway."


What I wanted was a simple recognition
of the limits of our power as a nation
to inflict our will on others.
What I wanted was an understanding 
that the world is neither black-and-white 
nor ours.

What I wanted
was an end to monuments.1

Many believe that the best way to achieve that goal is through education. By studying the terrible events of twentieth-century genocide, we are vividly reminded of the power of the individual to make decisions that affect not only oneself and one’s neighbors but also the survival of the entire world. After seeing the destruction the atomic bomb wrought on Nagasaki, Japan, at the end of World War II, Jacob Bronowski experienced “a moment that dwarfed his imagination.” He called it a “universal moment.” Amid the terrible ashes of the city, he wrote that all decisions about disarmament and other issues which weigh the fate of nations “should be made within the forbidding context of Nagasaki; only then could statesmen make realistic judgments of the problems which they handle on our behalf.”2


The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is located in Washington D.C. and was designed by Maya Lin, an American architect.

Bronowski was never able to convince his colleagues in government and the United Nations of the merits of his idea. They told him that “delegates would be uncomfortable” there. Confronting the history of genocide is always uncomfortable but it is important work. By denying people access to that history, we fail to honor their potential to confront, to cope, and to make a difference today and in the future. A school principal expressed that idea more eloquently in a letter he sent out on the first day of the school year.

Dear Teacher:
I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness:
Gas chambers built by learned engineers.
Children poisoned by educated physicians.
Infants killed by trained nurses.
Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.
So, I am suspicious of education.
My request is: Help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns.
Reading, writing, arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human 


A view of the rubble in Nagasaki, Japan, after the atomic bomb was detonated. Debris surrounds the only structure to remain standing, a traditional Shinto gate.


  • 1 : "The Invasion of Grenada," is reprinted from Beautiful Wreckage: New & Selected Poems, W.D. Ehrhart, Adastra Press, 1999, by permission of the author.
  • 2 : Jacob Bronowski, Science and Human Values (Harper & Row, 1956), 3-4.

Connection Questions

  1.  It has been said that the last battles fought in every war are over memory – over the way that war will be remembered. How has World War II been remembered in the United States? In other countries involved in the conflict? How have those memories changed over time? What prompts changes in the way a war is remembered?
  2. The Vietnam War was one of the most controversial wars in American history. Americans today are still divided over how the war ought to be remembered. You may wish to research the controversy over Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial to find out more about that struggle over memory. You may also want to find out how memories of the Vietnam War affect the way Americans respond to crises in the world today.
  3. How does the way an event is labeled affect the way it is recalled? In 1949, communist controlled North Korea invaded South Korea. At the request of the United States, the United Nations sent troops to assist the South Koreans. Many Americans referred to the war that followed as a “conflict” or “military action.” Why do you think they chose not to call it a war? How important are labels to the way people view an event? To the way the event is remembered?
  4. What would you include in a curriculum that addresses concerns expressed in this reading and in this course as a whole? What readings would you insist students read? What films would you require them to see? What speakers would you invite? What would you omit? Add? How would you begin the course? How would you end it?
  5. In designing a curriculum, decisions have to be made. Whose history should be included? Whose might be left out? If everyone’s history is included, what may be lost? How do you discover universal lessons from a particular history without trivializing that history?
  6. The title of this course is “Facing History and Ourselves.” What does that title mean to you? How has it been reflected in this course? In the way you have come to perceive the past? In the way you approach the future?

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