When my Russian friend Vera visited schools in the States last fall, one experience shocked her so much that it dominated her subsequent conversations about education in America. In a high school history class, she asked students what they knew about World War II. In their telling, all was lost until the Americans swooped in and won the war.
Vera was appalled. She had grown up in a culture where the sacrifices made by the defenders of Leningrad against the Nazi invaders were held up and internalized at the very deepest levels: their courage had not only saved the city and the country, but the world. School and family alike taught students to revere this heritage of collective sacrifice.
She couldn’t believe that American students didn’t know about this. As she stood wondering, the American history teacher pointed out to his students the difference between the numbers of American deaths – certainly significant enough – and the unfathomable number of Russian deaths in World War II. The students were astonished at the difference between the story they had thought to be true and what they learned from this re-focus.
I heard Vera’s story with chagrin, and when she talked about it in Russian schools, I worried about the impact it had on people there – would they hate us for our disregard of their part in a war that united our countries? I felt responsible for the ignorance of my fellow Americans.
Vera had no such concerns. As she and I toured Russian schools, teachers and administrators emphasized the importance of basing ethical, social, and civic education in reverence for the history of the Russian citizens and veterans who defended the country in the Great Patriotic War. Vera was interested in poking at their belief in the all-importance of this history, so she frequently told her story of the American history class, to stir up a little cognitive dissonance.
I am drawn to the difference in the narratives represented here – not as a matter of historical accuracy, but as a question of social responsibility. The Russian students and American students in Vera’s story each believe their country saved the world, and the act that they see as saving the world illuminates what they see social responsibility to mean.
The Russian heroes of the Great Patriotic War, the soldiers and the citizens who withstood the 872 day Nazi blockade of Leningrad at the cost of their lives, were defending their land. We can see a corresponding emphasis in Russians’ views on history and civic duty that is protective, focused on safeguarding the past and caring for the present.
In the American students’ narrative, the U.S. flies in from beyond, and saves the day. The civic mythology that corresponds to the American heroism of WWII is one of quick and dramatic rescue. The Americans are the liberators, and our story of social responsibility is one of liberation: freedom from the oppression of the past and release into a bright new future.
I think this narrative of social responsibility is one that limits and confuses — rather than clarifying and expanding — people’s relationship with the world beyond themselves. I was impatient with the fixation on the past that I got from Russian views of civic education, but I also am disturbed by the disregard for context that I see in some American views of civic education. My hope, and I think Vera’s too, is that through cross-cultural dialogue on social responsibility, both Russians and Americans can gain self-awareness that is liberating, sustaining, and renewing.