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Japanese internment set for short shrift in class

by Walt Gardner

Special To The Japan Times

The 70th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Korematsu v. United States is a propitious time to consider how American high school history classes will likely treat the still controversial internment of Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants during World War II.

At present, 46 states have established a set of rigorous knowledge and skills in math and English known as the Common Core State Standards. It won’t be long before history is included.

But if the past is any indication, students will continue to be given a bowdlerized version of events about a shameful period in American history.

Although all textbooks include the unprecedented event that began with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order No. 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, they differ in their details. The most common approach is to attribute the internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans and those of Japanese descent to 10 camps to fear and the need for national security.

Conspicuously absent or marginalized are other possible motives, including flagrant racism, since textbooks make scant or no mention of German-Americans and Italian-Americans, who were interned in far fewer numbers.

Curiously the Supreme Court has never explicitly renounced its 6-3 decision upholding Order No. 9066 that Fred Korematsu refused to obey because he claimed it violated the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He was arrested and convicted, even though no question was ever raised about his loyalty to the U.S.

The Supreme Court will soon get a chance to do the right thing when it hears Hedges v. Obama, which concerns a 2012 law authorizing the military detention without trial of those accused of providing support to terrorist organizations.

The plaintiffs are also expected then to ask the court to overrule the Korematsu decision.

Whatever the outcome, it’s unlikely that the internment of loyal Japanese-Americans will be given full coverage in future history classes. That’s because the prescribed curriculums and textbook adoptions in the U.S. are largely a political process, rather than an intellectual undertaking.

States decide which historical events should be included in the curriculum and what students are expected to know about them. In the past, teachers were able to exercise their professional judgment in deviating. But they are reluctant to do so under the Common Core because of the use of high-stakes standardized tests to evaluate their effectiveness.

Even the freedom local school districts have in selecting which textbooks to use from a state-approved list in their classrooms is subject to the agendas of pressure groups. As a result, school boards too often wind up selecting textbooks that airbrush controversial subjects.

Because of California’s size, the history books it adopts tend to be the same ones that schools across the country end up using. Not surprisingly, publishers fall all over themselves to get a piece of the $200 million in history books typically purchased there in a two-year period.

It’s ironic that California is in this position because it was there that the largest number of Japanese-Americans was rounded up for internment. Recognizing the injustice, on Aug. 10, 1988, Congress belatedly approved PL100-383, which offered an apology and the payment of $20,000 to each internee.

Korematsu had to wait until Nov. 10, 1983, to see his conviction voided when a U.S. District Court held that the government had knowingly submitted false information to the U.S. Supreme Court.

For the children and grandchildren of others interned, however, nothing will ever atone for the humiliation and suffering of that era. History textbooks and curriculums don’t help by their cowardly treatment of the subject.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.

  • phu

    I’m not really sure what the point is here. The author wants “other possible motives” covered? Where do you stop? There’s no way to cover every possible motivation a group of people might have had for doing something, particularly with the limited time and resources allowed our teachers. Do textbooks “airbrush” controversial subjects? Perhaps, but again, how can you cover every angle of every event? History is not the only subject we learn in school, and you can’t expect every class to issue every student an encyclopedia, to be read end to end.

    Then the author states that there were actually reparations made. Kids learn about this event in school, the government issued a financial apology, and… what? Because we don’t take Possibly Racist Historical American Internment Practices 101 as our first and most important course the education system is somehow deficient in this respect?

    There’s a lot to criticize about US education — it’s extremely important, undervalued, and hard to get right in any case — but this is trivial. At best it’s missing the forest for the trees, and at worst it takes attention away from more important issues.

  • phu

    They’re also mentioned as a side note, an attempt to suggest that racism was one of some largely undefined set of “possible motives” for the internment of Japanese.

    The article is entirely, specifically about the internment of Japanese Americans; the author never suggests the internment of other people should be covered more. He simply uses the fact that they aren’t as a speaking point.

    I’m not attempting to argue with you: Your point is well taken, but it’s not a defense of the author, who appears entirely unconcerned with the people you’re referring to outside of their value as a tenuous suggestion of racism (a ridiculous one at that, considering Italians and Germans are Caucasian, just like the particular Americans who interned them).