Thursday, November 5, 2009

Current Events

This will be a bit of a rant, but I’m posting it here because I’m curious whether others have had a similar experience.

I was reading this post Michael Kruse linked to about the fall of the Berlin Wall and I realize that I know almost nothing about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Which reminded me of something I’ve really felt is is lacking in our education system.

We really need a “recent events” class or something, because I took multiple versions of American History (middle school, high school, college) and not one of them got further than World War II. I know much, much more about the Revolutionary War than I do about the Vietnam War. I know much, much more about the Civil War than I do about the Cold War.

I suspect there’s a weird inverse bell curve to our knowledge of history, such that we know what happened 50+ years ago because of history classes, and we know what happened since we (hopefully) started paying attention to the news, but there’s a 30 year blind spot. The year in American history about which I know least is probably the year of my birth. And what I do know is unlikely to be very accurate. What I know about the European colonization of the Americas or the New Deal comes from textbooks. What I know about the ’70s and ’80s comes from Forrest Gump.

And yet this is likely to be the most relevant for understanding the world, right? Knowing about what precipitated World War I matters (the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand), but not much more than the French revolution. We’re still dealing with the fallout from the Cold War, and that is particularly relevant to questions about government involvement in the economic sector. Many folks hold up the example of the fall of Communism as why the free market is better, and I don’t even know enough about the events of my own lifetime to be able to evaluate that claim. I’m a pretty informed guy, and yet I resort to reading Wikipedia articles about Gorbachev, because articles written today by people of an older generation assume a level of knowledge I don’t have. And so we talk past each other because some of us think We already tried that in the ’70’s, you idiot, don’t you remember Carter but they don’t say that, and others of us only know Republican excesses, not Democratic ones, so we think There’s nothing self-evident about the idea that regulation is bad, so why are those old people such ideologues?

Ironically, we relate worst with the generation closest to us, because a common frame of reference is assumed, and yet nothing could be further from the truth. I can relate to my grandparents, because I learned about the world they came of age in, and we are socially conditioned to realize we come from different worlds, but my parents are a mystery to me, although we never act like it.

If my theory is right, the generation coming after me, who will live in a world to large degree shaped by 9/11 and the war on terror and whatever we eventually call the current economic crisis, will be those who know least about what happened. And I and people my age will act as if they know more than they do, because they were born in 1998, for Pete’s sake, they were there, but they weren’t, because they were 5 or 10 or maybe 12, and if they are very lucky they will have learned about American history up to the Kennedy assassination, flattened by history into being as relevant as Lincoln’s.


Anita said...

You guys tricked me into checking out your blogs. Anyway, my high school US history teacher started with the industrial revolution and went from there. We made it through Vietnam. What a great idea. I don't know why more history teachers don't do something similar. We learned SO much. Also, I remember the day the Berlin Wall fell. I was in 9th grade. Our World History teacher spent a lot of time explaining it all to us. Maybe you just went to the wrong high school.

Megan Putnam said...

Hey Travi! I happened to pop in to steal a video clip from your blog (thanks btw) so I thought I would join your ranting... We talk a lot about things like this in my classes. Textbooks tend to be an unfortunate idea - they're soooo watered down and it takes about 900 years to get them adopted, so by then they're not current anyway. Certain states are beginning to change their educational standards, but it's still largely up to the teacher to decide what is taught. Sadly we don't get paid a lot, so it's hard to find incentive to go digging for fabulous resources or create new lesson plans for current/recent events. In Florida teachers are up for tenure after 3 years and it seems no one cares what they do after that. It's also largely up to the social studies teacher to teach current events because we like to put our subject areas into little boxes... I have no point whatsoever, just joining the yelling!

Ethan said...

Hey Travis, I didn't pay attention in World History in 9th grade, except I do remember one assignment was to write a paragraph on every event in Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire," which is chock full of the type of history you are refering to. I have to agree with you, though, that I on;y learned about the Cold War, Cuba, Latin American coups, and the popularity of designer drugs through my own curiosity.

Travis Greene said...


I'm sure my high school's teachers did say something about the Berlin Wall as it was happening. But since I was in kindergarten at the time I wouldn't know :)


That's a good point about textbooks. I thought we were supposed to be a paperless society by now?


That's a great idea for an assignment. It doesn't have to be super in-depth. A couple creative assignments like that, maybe a documentary on the Cold War, and some newspaper articles would probably be enough.

Ethan said...

I was thinking about this a little more, and realized that the largest way we fail kids in this regard is not teaching them about how if we all band together with our efforts, and combine all of our resources, we as a society can develop much more fully. We could let one central organization divy up all of the fruits of our labor evenly, and by the sweat of our common brow we will better our country. We could look at it as a bundle of sticks, which is very hard to break, while a single stick is easy to break. Does anyone know if this has been attempted in any other societies?

Mcburns said...

Hey I justs tumbled upon this blog and think I have a bit of insight on this. Im 19, and just graduated last year form high school as an IB student. The IB program is an international college prep program (much like AP on steriods. In this program we learned everything form the industrial revolution to Vietnam, much like Anita said she did. The only difference is the depth at which we went into it, by relating the history to current issues in the world, or even issues that have happened before. IB classes are definitely much like the way you think school should be, but the problem is that no every school has it, and not everyone can get into it. So the curriculum exists, but not for everyone which is very unfortunate.