ARE BRITAIN'S CHILDREN IGNORANT OF WORLD WAR II?
ST. ALBANS, ENGLAND
A recent Sunday Times survey of several groups of schoolchildren found that a quarter of them did not know who Hitler was. Forty percent didn't know what the phrase ''V-E Day'' stands for. A few thought that Winston Churchill, Britain's wartime leader, might have been an American president, or a song-writer ... or an insurance salesman.
Here at the Loreto Girls' College in St. Albans, educational standards are rigorous and, some would say, old-fashioned. In the hallways, girls in navy-blue uniforms jostle past British flags and posters for V-E Day. Most have written essays about what their grandparents did in the war.
But there's only so much a 14-year-old can be expected to remember. When asked if they knew who led the D-Day invasion, the girls laughed.
''Was it Hitler?''
More laughter. ''Or was it England? Oh.''
Still, unlike the 1,600 children surveyed by the Sunday Times, all the girls could identify Adolf Hitler, and most knew a thing or two about Mr. Churchill.
In recent years, history courses in state schools have been a source of great controversy in Britain. Before the war, it was standard practice to teach a unapologetic version of British history: monarchy, democracy, and empire.
Fashions changed, however, and the emphasis shifted to the lives of ordinary people. Grammar and Greek began disappearing from curricula. In the process, critics argue, crucial elements of a student's education were lost.
Seven years ago, the government established a national curriculum to keep all schools roughly on the same track. Students now can study a wide range of modern historical subjects, among them the rise of Japan as a major power; the Western front; the role of an individual, such as Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, Mussolini, or Gandhi; or the United Nations.
But, time devoted to one subject comes at the expense of another. So, a student who concentrates on the Great Depression may not spend much time on World War II.
But for this 14-year-old, the 50th anniversary of the end of the war matters very much indeed: ''I think it has a lot of meaning, you see how many people suffered. In a way, it's like we're celebrating deaths, but we're celebrating for a good cause now that it's over.''