Earlier this month I did a post on my Hist 100 blog that might be of some interest to readers here, “Contemporary Politics and History.” My audience was primarily freshmen in their first semester at university, most of them too young to have voted in the last election.
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I am probably not alone when I say that I have a hard time taking GOP “socialism” rhetoric seriously. The same goes for right-wing attempts to equate Obama with Hitler. Apparently, however, I need to keep this rhetoric in mind when planning my classes, for it has entered my classroom in an unexpected way. In a blue book essay about totalitarianism this summer, one student explained nazism in terms of “socialism” and “big government.” There was no political intent behind these statements. The student simply drew on the language of everyday life, as students are wont to do.
This is a sad commentary on what rhetorical excess on the right is doing to our everyday vocabulary, but it also presents an opportunity. Without engaging in politicking, I can use this apparent linguistic and cultural deficit not only as motivation to be more thorough about how I teach socialism, nazism, and other modern political ideologies and systems, but also as an example for historical thinking. My instinct here is to talk about the use and abuse of history, which is probably what I will do. On the other hand, however, some of those who throw around the “s” word really believe that socialism is on the march in the United States. If I were to take such fears seriously, I would also use them to teach my students about how the meaning of language shifts and even mutates over time, sometimes meaning different things to different groups of people. This too would be a worthwhile lesson, although it would bring me closer to something that some students might perceive as politicking. I should probably take that chance.
I know my university history teaching and my work with adults learning to speak English is different than what Taylor Mali does with high school students, but I can still relate to his poetry about teaching. Maybe it’s because I often have teenagers in required courses. But maybe it’s because there’s something more fundamental to the craft, no matter who or what you are teaching. Here’s a piece he posted to his YouTube channel this year:
This blog post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.
George Mason’s Hist 100 courses are supposed to cover Western Civilization in one semester. To manage this Sisyphean task, I switched from a chronological to a thematic approach. While this makes sense from an analytic point of view, covering themes seems to alienate some students, because the themes appear in the foreground, not the events and personalities. Moreover, the themes tend to bridge larger periods of time. With “Religion and Society,” for instance, I cover the Investiture Conflict, the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, the Wars of Religion, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment. And “War and Society” goes from the French Revolution through the Second World War into the Cold War.
The material in my thematic courses has been organized in a more meaningful way than was possible under a broad chronological approach, but it has not held students’ attention. That is why I am thinking about covering a selection of specific episodes the next time around. I could put these up front and use the people, ideas, and issues involved as a vehicle to understand the broader themes that I want them to learn. A possible subtitle for such a course might be “Select Events and Ideas,” which might also make the history feel more manageable to the students.