- Atomics in the Classroom: Teaching the Bomb in the Early Postwar Era by Michael Scheibach
Books on American culture during the early Cold War are numerous, but one sorely neglected aspect of this culture was the integration of nuclear issues into the curricula of American schools. There has been significant scholarship on the teaching of Civil Defense concepts in schools, but these have largely failed to place those teaching modules into the larger context of postwar education. Michael Scheibach's book takes a more holistic look at "atomics" in American schools during the early postwar period, from 1945 to the early 1960s. Scheibach's book is rich in source material and each chapter includes a primary document in its entirety at the end of the chapter. Scheibach makes abundantly clear that the advent of nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear warfare posed a crisis for American educators, and that their collective response was a broad integration of scientific data, emotional management and civics indoctrination aimed not just at preparing students for life in the atomic age, but to hold "democracy" together in the face of seemingly foundational threats.
The book is divided into five chapters. The first four track specific topics woven into American public school curricula and the fifth tracks those topics from the early 1950s into the New Frontier of the Kennedy years, when the nuclear threat was transforming from its early Cold War iteration into the much more existential threat of the later Cold War. The first chapter examines models of political survival educators presented to students immediately after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These were presented in two iterations, the first of One World government, and these second as the safeguarding of democracy through the retention of national sovereignty and cooperation via the United Nations. Scheibach examines how the focus shifted from the first model to the second as the Cold War intensified in the late 1940s. The second chapter outlines the process by which "atomics," the teaching of basics about atomic energy, nuclear physics and astrophysics, became strongly emphasized in the curriculum. Chapter three covers the familiar territory of the teaching of Civil Defense concepts for "fear management and panic prevention" (p. 14). Chapter 4 explores the training of students in democratic citizenship to prepare them to support civilization and insure the ongoing survival of Western style democracy. The final chapter tracks these themes into the era of intercontinental missile technology and the threat of global thermonuclear war and omnicide.
While Scheibach's book examines the place of "atomics" in the classroom during the early Cold War, the book itself is especially useful in college classrooms today where there is widespread teaching on American culture in the "Homefront" during the Cold War. The book does not engage in extensive historiographic debates, but rather substantiates an essential aspect of early Cold War American culture. However, Scheibach makes clear, as previous authors have not, that the impact of nuclear weapons and the threats of the Cold War extended much deeper into American pedagogy than simply the theatricality of Civil Defense training, and shaped the course of postwar American education in diverse and profound ways. [End Page 128]