Saturday, December 13, 2014

Kathy's WWII Awareness Survey

My co-worker at a previous job, named Kathy, once designed and administered a national survey under the guidance of a world-famous sociologist, to learn how much people still knew about World War Two.   This was in the late Eighties, when there were still millions of living veterans of that war in every town -- the numbers are thinning out considerably now.  The video stores were packed with titles like Hell In The Pacific, Ensign Pulver and Stalingrad, and TV was showing daily reruns of McHale's Navy and Hogan's Heroes.  College film courses required you to watch Night and Fog and Triumph of the Will  -- all of it! -- and English classes wanted you reading Hersey's Hiroshima cheek by jowl with Heller's Catch-22.  A lot of your teachers, your parents or grandparents, your neighbors, the TV repairman, your pharmacist, that guy with no legs who lived in the alley behind the house...they all fought in that war, or lost someone in it, or came to the USA to get away from it.  These people knew the war ditties, they remembered the ration coupons and recycling drives, the plane spotters and USO girls, and of course they remembered the Baby Boom after it was all over.  Kathy and I were both Boomers ourselves.  So Kathy set up a phone survey to see what erudite college students like ourselves knew about the biggest war that ever happened in human history.  She was targeting the educated middle-class kids, in other words, most of them attending college on money generated by that very war.

This was only about 15 years after the last man in active combat in that war, Hiro Onoda, who had been living in the Philippine jungles all this time, killing anyone who got too close and thinking the war was still going on, was convinced to come on home to Japan.   

What did Kathy find out with her survey?

  • Everyone more or less knew who Adolf Hitler was.
  • About half had heard of Joe Stalin.  Not everyone who recognized the name knew who he was, though.
  • Mussolini?  Who's he?  Never heard of him.
  • Practically nobody knew who Hirohito was.
  • Some of them who Franklin Delano Roosevelt was.  Not everyone knew his role in that war, though.
  • Only a few respondents knew what the key points of dispute were in the Second World War.
  • Most respondents did not know when the war happened.
  • Most were not clear on when the USA entered the war, or why.  To some, it was news that the USA fought in that war at all.
  • Not everyone knew whose side the USA was on.
  • Not everyone knew how it came out at the end.
  • Everyone had heard of the Holocaust.  Almost nobody knew why it happened or how many people died in it.  Not everyone knew it was connected to the war, and of those who did, not everyone knew how it was connected.
  • A handful knew Anne Frank's name.  They were far from clear on who she was -- one respondent said she was "a little blind and deaf girl who overcame her problems."
And this was decades BEFORE the Internet supposedly stopped up our heads with kitten memes and excised our ability to read anything longer than a paragraph-long Wikipedia article.

I wonder what the results would be if she ran those questions by college students today?


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