The Hanoi Train Station: Perspectives and Empathy in Social Studies Education

The Hanoi Train Station: Perspectives and Empathy in Social Studies Education

Jonathan Lee Lancaster

The picture above is “Hanoi station,” which is one of the main train stations in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. The train station has keenly unique features; it is centered with a modern, cement block-style design, which is flanked by stunningly ornate yellow wings.

Having conducted research in Vietnam for a few months earlier in the year, I had walked by the Hanoi train station dozens of times without taking much notice; the train station was simply just another building that I passed on my way to my favorite cafe. It wasn’t until I was sitting on the back of a motorbike with a Vietnamese friend while passing the train station that I inquired further about the building. My friend told me that the building was originally built by the French in the early 1900s during France’s colonization of the country; it was then bombed during the war with the United States in the early 1970s; then, it was reconstructed with the help of the Soviet Union later in the 1970s. All of these foreign influences throughout the course of Vietnamese history have given the Hanoi train station its unique look, with its French-style wings and cold, Soviet-looking center. I was baffled at this revelation. For months, I had naively walked by this building without an ounce of knowledge of its origin, supremely oblivious to the historical factors that created it, and – despite being a social studies teacher – ignorant to ask about it earlier.

The Hanoi train station became a symbol to me. It symbolized all of the history that I, as an American, had the privilege to be unaware of. I did not have to live the realities of the Vietnam War’s destruction of Vietnam or its legacies, even if my father’s generation were the ones who perpetrated it. I could simply walk by that history and move on with my day, while the Vietnamese people truly lived in the reality of the wake of the war. Though this was simply a building that embodied the legacies of the war, it symbolized the ongoing Agent Orange effects from the Vietnam War – which continue to produce birth defects – and the thousands of unexploded ordinances (UXOs) that continue to kill people yearly in Southeast Asia. These were the realities that I lived outside, never having to confront.

A few months later, after finishing my research and returning home to New Jersey, I met with some social studies colleagues who were planning their classes for the upcoming year. The overarching topic of discussion was making our social studies classes engaging and interesting for students. While our conversation ebbed and flowed between how to teach colonial American history, the Civil War, the Great Depression, and more, the topic of the Vietnam War emerged.

One colleague was passionately lobbying others to implement an engaging game that he had developed for students last year, in which students were to attempt to create the best strategy for Americans in Vietnam. Students would be put into groups and earn points depending on the evidence and argument for their strategy. The conversation continued, with sprinkled remarks from the other teachers about how they had overheard students talking about the game the previous year, and how students were so engaged. While the discussion continued, my mind started to stray back to one thing in particular: the Hanoi train station.

While American students have the luxury to make a game – no matter the intent or effectiveness – out of the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese people do not. While American students can, in their groups, pitch their argument for the best war strategy for 4 points and then proceed to hurry off to biology class, completely forgetting about the Vietnam War until the 41-minute block the next day, the Vietnamese people do not. While American students can “walk by” the realities of the war and move on with their days, as I had done, the Vietnamese people must live the reality of a post-war torn nation.

This is not a story of Vietnamese pain, nor an attempt to highlight the struggle for recovery of Vietnam after the war. This is about how we, as educators, frame and conceptualize history for our students. It seems that, especially with the passage of time, our empathetic sense weakens; educators are more prone to create seemingly harmless simulations and games in the name of “engagement” out of truly devastating historical events. When we, as educators, have students conduct a “World War II Twitter Project” where student groups embody different nations that fought in the war that must post “comments” to each other, or when students must engage in a simulation in which they are meant to see what it feels like to be {insert some group from history here}, or when we create games for students out of history, we are communicating that the history isn’t reality – it is entertainment. We are, in fact, hurting students’ abilities to empathize with others, as it promotes a dissociative outlook on history where the people described in their textbooks (which hopefully we have moved away from already) or readings are nothing more than mere ink blots on a page. It blends the line between reality and fiction, leading students to believe that it is appropriate to be ignorant of historical processes and products.

Though this is focused mostly on international events, the same applies with domestic history. The sad reality is that if you search for news articles regarding social studies teachers in New Jersey attempting simulations, a number of incredibly grotesque articles will appear of teachers having students do a “simulation” of a slave auction or having students lay on the ground to “simulate” being whipped after picking cotton.

For example, in March of 2017, a Maplewood, NJ teacher held a mock slave auction. Moreover, in the same year, a teacher in South Orange, NJ had students create slave auction posters. More recently, a Toms River teacher had students “pick cotton” and simulate being whipped through sounds of cracking whips. Though these selection of stories are from my home state of New Jersey, this phenomenon is occurring nationwide.

These examples are products of our distorted view of “engagement” in social studies education. It is simply not possible for students to “feel” what it was like to be in any historical event in which a peoples suffer, and it is problematic to attempt to do so. Our attempts to “engage” students seemingly to trick them into learning history while doing so hurts our students’ formulation of their worldview.

While making sure students have “fun” is an important element of a successful classroom, we must ensure that “fun” does not come at the expense of empathy. Unfortunately, the topics that are in humanities’ curricula are seldomly “fun.” It is not easy teaching about wars, plagues, racism, and more; however, social studies provides educators with the ability to leverage those underbellies of our societies and histories to promote cultural competencies, perspective-taking, and contextualization.

While I am not claiming that every simulation or game in social studies is inherently bad, I am saying we have to be very, very careful about what we are doing when we incorporate them. Is the point of the simulation or game merely engagement? If so, it could be extremely problematic. If the point of the simulation or game is towards genuine understanding and empathy, then it may be a sound pedagogical choice.

Nonetheless, bear in mind that history is real, tangible, and has consequences – even if those consequences aren’t felt by you, your students, or in your nation. Just because an event happened long ago or in some other area of the world does not mean we should feel tempted to take it less seriously. Truly reflect on if that game or simulation is presenting history as it should be: a tool to build empathy, analyze the past, and understand our contemporary realities.

So, I urge you to think of the Hanoi train station. What history are you possibly “walking by”? What history are you tempted to represent through a game, simulation, or creative project and what is it truly communicating to students? To what extent can we have “fun” in social studies classrooms while also staying true to fostering the cultural competencies and perspective-taking elements we are striving for? And how can we teach social studies in a manner that promotes global empathy?

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