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
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
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.
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
- 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.