A lot of students at American universities don't understand the impact of wars because they are so far removed from American soil.
As a young man, Professor Mark Sheftall, history, aspired to become a journalist, write about international relations and eventually become a foreign correspondent.
"I've always been interested in current events and how they're shaped by history," he says. "That's what led me to journalism." While he pursued a journalism degree, it was the history of the World Wars that captured his attention.
As an undergraduate student at Oxford University, Sheftall found the memorials dedicated to the British students who had died in World War I. The memorials, and their implications, fascinated him.
"People in the U.S. don't realize the national impact the loss of these students had on Great Britain," he says. "The numbers are huge — as much as 20 percent of the students in some classes were killed. Can you imagine what that would be like in this country?"
Upon graduation, Sheftall took a job as a newspaper reporter in Florida. During the first Gulf war, from 1990 to 1991, he wrote war stories with a local angle. Still planning to become a foreign correspondent, he decided to return to graduate school. "I realized that a greater understanding of the history of the Middle East would help me reach that goal."
Once there, he was surprised to discover a passion for research and teaching. After obtaining a master's degree in history, Sheftall pursued his doctorate and began to teach.
His field of expertise is World War I and the impact of war on society. Sheftall explores with his students what it means for a war to be defined as a "world" war.
"A lot of students at American universities don't understand the impact of wars because they are so far removed from American soil," he explains. "It's a bit easier with the World Wars because you're looking at events that have a large presence in our culture."
Family history makes it more personal. "My family's background includes a tradition of military service," Sheftall says. "My dad was in the Vietnam war, and my grandfather served in World War II. The students' parents might have no memory of the wars, but their grandparents likely do. They've heard family stories."
Sheftall is a sci-fi film buff, something that might seem curious for someone whose field is rooted in the past. He disagrees. "While sci-fi movies generally are about the future, in my experience what we know about the past shapes how we imagine the future."
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