Why History Teachers Should Teach Current Events
June 8th, 2019
One day this May I woke up to the news that Georgia had banned abortions after the detection of electrical signals from the fetus - around six weeks into pregnancy, before almost all women know they are pregnant.
That same day I walked into my third period US History class for a class discussion on labor organizing in the early 20th century. A key issue: Muller v. Oregon, a 1908 landmark Supreme Court case establishing a state mandate for shorter working hours for women. Our teacher projected a part of the majority opinion on the board, which included this segment:
“As healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring, the physical wellbeing of woman becomes an object of public interest and care in order to preserve the strength and vigor of the race.”
I’m all for shorter hours and legal opposition to labor exploitation. But something about this felt familiar, in an odd and unpleasant way.
As we discussed in class, the writers of this opinion did not think a woman deserved decent working hours because of her basic humanity. Instead, the Justices based their treatment of women exclusively on what they perceived to be her societal function: reproduction. And because women were responsible for having children, her “physical well-being” - without too much of a logical stretch, her body, herself - became “object of public interest.”
Our bodies as objects? Our value and contribution to society decided by what we did with our bodies? The government, therefore, claiming responsibility over those bodies? Yes, it sounded familiar.
And yet besides a few pointed but veiled comments on the part of a couple of well-engaged girls, the connection I clearly saw, between the opinion’s language and and the evident attitude of many legislators formulating restrictive abortion laws, remained unmentioned. At that point in the year everyone knew that our history teacher had little interest in bringing historical discussions into their current context, at least during class discussions. Throughout the year, when students have tried to connect historical events to current ones, our teacher quickly diverted them back into the past.
It makes no sense to me that she - and most of the rest of my history teachers - have been so reluctant to set aside class periods to discuss what’s going on in the world. Instead of redirecting the few students who begin to make independent connections between the past and present, they ought to be encouraging us and guiding us towards developing those connections. It’s one of the most important things they could do, and exactly what students need right now.
We live in an era in which all of us - although especially students and teenagers - understand the news through a drastically different lens than we have in the past. First of all we receive our news in bits and pieces at a stunning speed - often at the cost of nuance and thoroughness.
I try to read a couple of longer articles on important issues every week and will read the New York Times on weekends, but the vast majority of my breaking news I get in fifteen seconds to a minute, tops. I get my news scrolling down my Instagram feed, watching videos with a sixty-second time limit, or tapping through Instagram Stories, reading an Apple News Alert headline on my phone, or, to repeat the (valid) cliche, by getting news in 240 characters or less.
When news comes this quickly, it’s impossible for even the most well-intending content creators not to devolve into posting “hot takes,” simplistic summaries, and sometimes misleading or false information.
For example, when news of new abortion restrictions in Alabama and Georgia began to circulate on social media, misinformation was rampant: one frequently reposted tweet stated that miscarriage had been criminalized in Georgia (the law was bad enough as it was, obviously, the miscarriage assertion was imprecise). Also, the appropriate scale of the alarm surrounding the issue, combined with the vague language used in framing the news, created a false impression on the whole that these abortion bans had already gone into effect - when in fact access to abortion will remain unchanged for at least several months more.
This kind of misinformation is dangerous. I’m using this relatively benign but still scary example because I was already talking about abortion, but I doubt I need to remind you of the larger-scale effects of the accidental - or not so accidental - proliferation of “fake news” on, say, Facebook.
In a related vein, social media has also made it easier for us to hear and read exactly what we want to hear and read, and nothing else. We can curate our own little echo chambers within our social media feeds. No one tries to make us step out and we don’t want to; they are exceedingly comfortable.
There is another main pitfall of social media and other get-your-news-quick sources, as news sources but more importantly as platforms for response: that they provide little encouragement or space for thinking through long-lasting solutions to what we see and want to change, let alone for the creation of a comprehensive vision for the future. Social media again moves so quickly and relies on such concise pieces of content that we are essentially encouraged to - and able to do little more than - see something we instinctively despise or love, say no! or yes! and move on. There is a whole lot in the world that ought to be “called out” for its evil and corruption and quickly dismantled, but social media doesn’t make space for us to think one step beyond the dismantling - to when we need to build something.
Teachers - especially history teachers - are in a unique position to mitigate the effects of this new age of media. The easiest example of this is that they can give us the facts to stop us from absorbing and reproducing misinformation. But they can do much more, too.
History teachers are tasked with teaching us how to think critically and analytically and to try to understand every factor at play to draw conclusions. That’s the kind of thinking that social media lacks, for the most part. History teachers need to more actively push us to apply that kind of thinking to the current era. They can help us move past instinct in our reactions to the news and towards a reasoned understanding of what’s going on.
They can also help us put together all of the scattered little bites of information we receive from all of our different sources - to form a broader synthesis of all the different current aspects of a present issue or event.
Even more, though, history teachers can help us bridge the gap between our history and the present, helping us understand the big picture not just across the complexities of the present day but across the span of time. This is what sets History teachers apart from other teachers whose curriculums stress critical thinking about the world. The present echoes the past. The past is where the fundamental ideas, strategies, and conflicts that we deal with today were tested out, and now we have the data. History teachers are in the best position to help us interpret that data, not just within the limited context of the past, but as it applies to the present, as well.
Finally, if social media is better at pushing us to destroy what’s rotten, history teachers can help us - especially those of us who want to engage in meaningful advocacy and activism - understand how to build. After all, history is all about people building, and trying to build things that last. History teachers show us how people responded to historical events - and what helped them achieve their goals, and what led them to failure. If we are given space and time to think about what these stories mean for the present day, armed with all of these tools we can move past just saying “no” to all of the injustices we see and move towards building nuanced and sustainable alternatives.
I don’t mean to suggest that the fury and exhilaration and lack of equivocation that social media offers is necessarily a bad thing. Videos and images that catch our attention emotionally as opposed to intellectually remind us that whatever fight we may be fighting, it begins with morality and humanity. Incisive and clever images or text make us laugh and nod our heads and want to move forward, like clever posters at a protest or rally. In fact, the “social” part of social media plays the same essential function in movements toward justice that physical social gatherings have in the past - rallies, parties, community meetings. It energizes, affirms, and motivates.
Social media can also be effectively wielded as a tool for gaining support for and publicizing extremely well-thought out and sustainable organizations, movements, and campaigns. But in these cases it is only the visual, emotional, attention-grabbing face of what is necessarily a more complicated and thoughtful endeavor.
However, social media carries greater risks of simplification and misinformation than its equivalents have in the past. And few things get done with only rallies and parties as tools. Just as any movement would stall if it consisted only of mathematical, analytical classroom discussions - in other words, you can’t just have the intellect - you also can’t just have the emotion. You have to arm it with education - by which I mean knowledge, context, curiosity, skepticism, and an expansive, thorough understanding of what’s going on.
That is what history teachers can - and must - offer us.