Contemporary Political Rhetoric and Teaching History

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