Paper abstract
Hiroshima/Nagasaki 2005: Memories and Visions (Tufts University, April 2005)

Teaching Hiroshima for Life
James Orr
Associate Professor, East Asian Studies, Bucknell University
jamesorr@bucknell.edu

How does one teach Hiroshima to American undergraduates? One might take any number of approaches.  Here I would like to share a way to treat Hiroshima in a college curriculum designed to foster critical thinking, autonomous judgment, and lifelong learning.  Spurred by the controversies over the 1995 Smithsonian Enola Gay exhibition, especially by the single-minded advocacy that dominated that debate, I developed a senior seminar on Hiroshima with the aim of fostering in students a capacity for dispassionate objectivity informed by a humane subjectivity.

“Hiroshima: Eros or Thanatos?” took shape within the parameters of my home institution’s “capstone” requirement. Intended to be taken at the end of a liberal arts and sciences curriculum, “capstone” seminars are supposed to help students integrate the knowledge and methods of their respective disciplinary and area studies majors, preferably in relation to a real world problem and in a collaborative way that prepares students to “make committed choices as participants in our complex world.”  The course requires students to become their own experts, applying and explaining to their peers their own recently developed disciplinary expertise as we treat Hiroshima from various angles.  In examining the (non)decision to use the bomb, for example, international relations, management, and political science majors help their peers understand and critique diplomatic, organizational, and political analyses of the Asia-Pacific War endgame. History, English and film studies, psychology, philosophy, classics and Japanese studies majors provide their own insights as we look at the history of the Cold War in America and Japan, and at the various artifacts from that era.

Originally I had intended merely to cultivate in students the capacity for comprehending how, on the one hand, American war veterans could see the Hiroshima bombing as deliverance, and on the other hand, anti-nuclear peace advocates understood it as a symbol of death.  The course would conclude with an eventual Lifton-esque appreciation for how impending nuclear holocaust could lead to our potential salvation through species consciousness.  But as students learned from and challenged each other, with the instructor serving at times as ad-hoc devil’s advocate, we were ineluctably led to recognize: the power and limits of the authority of the expert and witness (be he/she veteran or victim); the epistemological and ontological constraints of the human condition that holocaust culture reveals; and more generally the ambivalent relationship of citizen and scientist, soldier, poet, and artist to nation, state, and humanity.

The nature of the approach precludes deeply theoretical analysis, but this is probably appropriate to the well-educated non-academic member of society that most students become.  I hope that my discussion of “Hiroshima: Eros or Thanatos?” would fit well in a panel including other presenters’ experiences in teaching Hiroshima.