Teaching for the present

Today I’m here to echo another blogger- Ed from Gin and Tacos. He teaches American politics, mostly to college freshman. Thus, he is an eyewitness to all the flaws of secondary education. Students often have issues following detailed directions, doing systematic research, and avoiding plagiarism. But besides those shortcomings, which we could call a lack of “study hygiene”, there are also the gaps in general knowledge. Ed’s point isn’t that American students don’t understand the past- they don’t understand the present.

In his April column “Out of Time” he asks a question that every history teacher must deal with at some level: why are most primary and secondary history classes taught in chronological order? As he writes

K-12 classes still overwhelmingly choose to teach history chronologically. This, in my experience and what I commonly hear from students, results in a seriously detrimental lack of emphasis on modern history. The academic year begins with ancient Greeks and Romans and ends sometime in May, usually having gotten no further than the Industrial Revolution or perhaps World War I.

In 9th grade world history, we started with the basic ancient civilizations- Rome, China, Egypt, Persia. 10th grade European history didn’t go all that far beyond the Five-Year Plan and vintage Stalin. 11th grade US history spent a couple months going from Columbus to Jamestown to the many reasons for the Revolutionary War.

These aspects of history are immensely important, but the world of 2013 is far more closely related to World War II than World War I, and both of those compared to the Civil War or the Revolutionary War. And what about even more recent history? Ed states that

I found a class of 25 honors students – excellent students – totally ignorant of the basic aspects of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent propaganda surge leading to the Iraq War. And why should they know? They were 8 when it happened, and it has never been taught to them.

I was born the year after the Berlin Wall fell. Incoming college freshmen now have no memory of 9/11. Unlike the high school history teachers I had, I was not around for the Cold War. Though for millions of Americans it is memory, everything from the Clinton Administration back is history for my generation.

Why is Barack Obama the president? Why is there a war in Afghanistan? Why did the world economy collapse? I know teaching history chronologically is very tidy and comprehensive for what it covers, but it also cuts out some of the most crucial parts if the class schedule falls behind. The Industrial Revolution is a world-defining process, but the deregulation of the late 1990s and early 2000s is one of the biggest reasons a student’s dad can’t find a job. The Civil War may have been the culmination of over a century of conflict and sectionalism, but modern politics also owes a lot to what happened in Vietnam.

Sitting in my college sociology class, I’m now five years older than the youngest student there. What do I remember that they don’t? And what does my professor remember that I don’t? Education is a continuum of memory, from the most senior teachers to the most junior students. The present needs to be tied to those important events in the past- going back centuries or millennia. But the focus has to be, in 2013, what is required to understand the world?

Author: AJM

Writer, sociologist, Unitarian Universalist.

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