Sunday, November 17, 2013

Teaching the JFK Assassination

This Friday will mark the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination. Although there is significant evidence to support the conclusion of the Warren Commission that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman, there is also a healthy amount of disconfirming evidence. This has led to doubt among the American public of the government's official findings. In a recent Gallup poll, 61% of Americans believed that Oswald did not act alone. When I was a classroom teacher, students would routinely ask me about the various conspiracy theories related to Kennedy's assassination. Social studies teachers should embrace American's skepticism and instead use the Kennedy assassination as an exercise in historical inquiry. It offers an excellent case study in historical thinking and can help students understanding the important role that science plays in understanding history.

I would suggest the following as the inquiry question for students to explore: Was Lee Harvey Oswald the sole person responsible for John F. Kennedy's assassination?

Teachers can start with an introduction of the incident. Most students have not had a chance to see the actual historical footage. There are some decent archives of the original CBS broadcast interruption and Walter Cronkite's report of Kennedy's death. Teachers may also consider using the Zapruder film, which is the only known film record of the assassination. This can be followed by one of the recent documentaries on the JFK presidency or assassination and an overview of conspiracy theories or NPR's recent story on why the conspiracy theories persist, as well as Oliver Stone's recent USA Today editorial that criticizes mainstream media coverage of the assassination.

Here is a list of websites where teachers can then seek primary sources to help students answer this inquiry question. I would recommend using shorter excerpts (300-400 words) for high schools students:

1. The National Archives website includes the full Warren Commission Report and images of evidence collected from the crime scenes.

2. The JFK Presidential Library has an in-depth discussion of the day's events, while PBS has the first speech Lyndon Baines Johnson gave after becoming president and the New York Times has the front page of their newspaper from the next day.

3. Digital History, Spartacus Educational, Mary Ferrell Foundation, the Assassination Archives and Research Center, and John McAdams at Marquette University all have extensive catalogues of primary source documents on the assassination.

4. There are several studies that support the "single-bullet theory," including Dale Myers (and a related ABC News Special), Michael and Luke Haag (and a Washington Post story summarizing their study), and Arlen Specter's work on the Warren Commission.

5. There are several studies that put into question the "single-bullet theory," including Cliff Spiegelman (and NBC News coverage of his study) and G. Paul Chamber, and the 1992 Congressional Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board.

By using the Kennedy assassination controversy, social studies teachers can engage students in a historical inquiry involving an incomplete record and no clear answer, which allows students created and recreated history themselves.

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