What Having a Socialist Nazi in the White House Means for the Classroom

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.


This blog post originally appeared on Clio and Me on this date.

Fostering Historical Thinking with Brecht’s Galileo

Spring is almost here, which means its time to order books for the summer term. Summer in DC gets hot, and the summer terms are short, so I usually try to assign things that are both reasonably entertaining and not too long for the general audience I get in my introductory survey courses that are mandatory requirements for all majors. Besides covering a variety of themes and genres, I often try to pick one book that will jump-start historical thinking. I want a book that will make students more aware of how much “the past is like a foreign country” that we will not understand, if we do not try to fathom the conditions and assumptions of the time without letting our contemporary worldview get in our way.

Last year I tried Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo, which I had first experienced as a TA for Sandra Horvath-Peterson at Georgetown University back in the 1990s. Of course, Brecht adapts Galileo’s story to his own purposes, but it provides a useful point of departure for a discussion about the Scientific Revolution. It also forces students to come to terms with the limits of historical fiction.
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Across Generations

When I went to the student coffee shop on Friday, the student at the cash register guessed my order before I could tell him what I wanted. I remarked that I had had similar experiences with regulars when I worked at a Dunkin’ Donuts over twenty years ago. His response: “They had Dunkin’ Donuts back then?”

For me there has always been a Dunkin’ Donuts. Indeed, according to Wikipedia and the corporate website of Dunkin’ Donuts, the first store opened in 1950, which is close enough to “always” for someone born in the early 1960s. So why did the student think Dunkin’ Donuts was new? His own answer was eminently practical: “I haven’t even been alive for twenty years.” Still, his underlying assumption that so much of the world around him was new took me aback.

Maybe I should not have been surprised by his presentism. After all, the current generation of students has grown up hearing that they live in a completely different world than the one into which I was born. They have heard from their parents and teachers about a bygone world in the midst of a Cold War without personal computing, the internet, cell phones, iPods, and global warming. And then there are the many students who have grown up in new subdivisions, schools and strip malls.

What do these thoughts have to do with me and Clio? One of my main goals in undergraduate survey courses is to teach historical thinking, which in part entails helping students appreciate not only that the world has a past, but that the people in that past saw that world through different eyes. But it is not enough for me to ask them to see how the world looks when it is filtered through the experiences of earlier generations. In order to do my job, I find it helps if I meet them halfway and try to understand how the world looks when filtered through their experiences. Of course, I usually end up looking uncool in the process, but as the father of a teenager I am used to that.

This post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.

Politics in the Classroom

Do partisan politics have a place in the classroom? No. On the other hand, in a history class it is hard, even impossible to discuss many subjects without politics forming a subtext of the conversation. This difficulty is especially inherent in modern history. How, for example, can we talk about state-building, gender roles, participatory politics, and political ideologies without entering terrain in which we have a personal stake? And once we do that, how do we keep out partisan politics?

The trick is to make that difficult mental leap into the past and try to understand it from the point of view of people who lived in that time. We do not need to take sides with our ideological forefathers, and we do not need to attack their opponents. Nor do we need to respond to problems in the past with solutions from the present. Instead we need to try to think historically. We need to try to understand people in the past in their historical contexts. Making that leap is difficult, but possible.

Ironically, good civic practices are one potential side-effect of cultivating such historical sensibilities. If we can learn to imagine how people thought in the past, maybe we can imagine how our political opponents think in the present. Once we reach that point, a genuine dialog might be possible. The problems might be just as inextricable, but we might learn how to talk with each other instead of at each other. In other words, when we study history, it is possible to acquire the communicative habits necessary for a healthy civic culture. partisan politics do not belong in the classroom, but the classroom might have some lessons for partisan politics.

This piece first appeared on my former teaching blog, History Survey, on this date, then moved to Clio and Me, before landing here.