Teaching Kent State, 40 Years Later


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Forty years ago today, National Guardsmen on the Kent State University campus in Ohio killed four students who were protesting the bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. This year, the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and some teachers still consider it one of history’s most important lessons. Yet for others, it’s barely worth a mention.


Forty years ago today, Americans heard this.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

NORRIS: National Guardsmen shot 13 students on the Kent State University campus. The students were protesting the bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Four students were killed.

This year, the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and some teachers still consider it one of historys most important lessons. Yet for others, its barely worth a mention.

From member station WKSU, Amanda Rabinowitz reports.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Unidentified Man: Somebody call the police. An ambulance.

AMANDA RABINOWITZ: Each spring, students in Dave Reese's high school psychology class in North Canton, Ohio, get a five-day lesson on the shootings of anti-war protestors at Kent State University.

Kent's about 20 miles north of Hoover High School. Still, many of Reese's students know nothing about the day the Vietnam War came home.

Mr. DAVE REESE (Teacher, Hoover High School): As we start, this is perhaps my favorite thing all year. I always like...

RABINOWITZ: Reese uses Kent State to teach his students about crowd mentality, leadership, power and perceptions. He shows a homemade video of the Kent State site, set to music by The Doors.

Mr. REESE: I'll show you just a little bit of this, and then we'll talk about the events that led up to the shooting.

RABINOWITZ: Reese says May 4th engages his students.

Mr. REESE: I fight boredom, lethargy. We're hit with proficiency tests, and we're not doing enough with thinking. Controversy makes people think. These kids are identifying with these students of 40 years ago, and they're captivated. They're spellbound.

RABINOWITZ: One of those students is Miranda Shrewsbury(ph), who sees a lesson for the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Ms. MIRANDA SHREWSBURY (Student, Hoover High School): You have to learn from the past, and at the beginning of this war, I probably would have demonstrated, but now it's kind of like nobody really thinks about protesting it.

RABINOWITZ: On the Kent State campus, May 4this an entire semester-long course organized by professor Jerry Lewis five years after the shootings.

Dr. JERRY LEWIS (Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Kent State University): Very much part of our culture. Students like to hear my narrative of the five days that I experienced leading up to the tragedy of May 4th. I think more and more, people will be studying the Vietnam era and linking Kent State to those events.

RABINOWITZ: But some Kent State University students, like Max Dunzik(ph), question whether they're being saturated with observances of an event that's no longer relevant.

Mr. MAX DUNZIK (Student, Kent State University): It starts to lose its luster after a while. Maybe like every 10, it's sweet, but the 41st, the 42nd, the 43rd, the 44th, like after a while, it's like okay, we get it.

RABINOWITZ: Outside of Kent State, any talk about the May 4th shootings is likely to be just a small part of discussions about civil liberties, foreign policy and activism. But in Boston, Emerson College professor Gregory Payne(ph) has made it the focal point of his advocacy and argument class. Payne has no formal ties to Kent State but calls the shootings a divisive moment in history that played out on a conservative, Midwestern campus.

Dr. GREGORY PAYNE (Professor of Communication Studies, Emerson College): It wasn't Madison. It wasn't Berkeley. There's something about that that really is, I think, symbolic and metaphoric of that whole era in America.

RABINOWITZ: But that view is far from universal. Gilbert Sewall is the director of the National Textbook Council, which reviews history textbooks. Sewall says the most widely used high school text, Prentiss Hall's "Pathways to the Present," contains nothing about May 4th, and he's okay with that.

Mr. GILBERT SEWALL (Director, National Textbook Council): There are plenty of other important things to cover in American history. I don't see a case being made that the Kent incident has to be in a textbook, or the textbook's no good.

RABINOWITZ: But Emerson College's Gregory Payne says May 4th is much more than just an incident. He thinks it was a pivotal moment in history.

Mr. PAYNE: We have to look at events like Kent State if America truly is going to be an example that we want to be throughout the world.

RABINOWITZ: Thousands gathered on the Kent campus today to commemorate May 4th. For many, even 40 years later, the Kent State shootings remain the day the Vietnam War came home.

For NPR News, I'm Amanda Rabinowitz in Kent, Ohio.

(Soundbite of song, "Ohio")

NORRIS: This song, "Ohio," composed by Neil Young in response to the shootings at Kent State, was performed at last year's Kent State Folk Festival by the Canadian folk group Dala. And thanks to member station WKSU in Kent for providing us with the recording.

(Soundbite of song, "Ohio")

DALA (Music Group): (Singing) Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, we're finally on our own. This summer, I hear the drumming, four dead in Ohio...


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