Wednesday, July 28, 2010

How Do We Think About History?

Another hectic summer session is coming to an end, but rather than being rushed, hurried, and generally worn out, I've been thinking a lot about how my students think about history. My students have eight Discussion questions they must answer and debate each semester. For the final discussion I always give them the same question and there is no wrong answer because I am basically asking for their opinion. The question asks what they think are the three most important things that have happened in the United States since 1973. You can probably guess what the top five or six answers are (9/11, Katrina, the Internet, war on terrorism, Obama's election, etc.). However, I've thought more about this recently because I realize that the answers have changed quite a bit over the six or seven years I've been using the question. I think this points to a number of trends, and I've started to see all kinds of factors playing into my students' answers to this question. So this semester I decided to send an email to my students to hopefully get them to think more about this issue, as I've been thinking about it. I'm going to attach the text of the email below, so forgive the lengthy post. I'd like to hear what some of you, my blog readers have to say about this issue as well. Take a look.

I have just finished reading all of your discussion posts for Discussion 8. You will all receive the full 25 points available for this question because I asked simply for your opinion. I use this question every semester to gauge where students’ minds are in relation to the history that has happened in our lifetime. Over the years, the answers have changed quite significantly. Many of you listed events that have happened in only the last 10 years, not the last 35-40 years. While this partially reflects the age demographic of the class (many of you are under the age of 25 and therefore your memory is a bit shorter) it also shows how recent events can overshadow other not so recent events and relegate them to the back burner.

I choose the year 1973 as my starting point somewhat arbitrarily (it was the year I was born), but with some purpose as well. That year was nearly the end of our country's involvement in the Vietnam War, and really began a generational shift. It was the beginning of my generation, which eventually came to be known as Generation X. Loosely defined, Generation X kids were born between 1970 and roughly 1985 or so. So what I'm basically confining this question to is two and a half generations of history (Generation X, Gen Y, and what are tentatively being called Generation Next or "Nexters" although that generation is still being born). It is interesting to see the perspective that these two generations have. If I pushed the starting point back twenty years to 1953, I imagine the answers would change rather drastically because then the time period would include such monumental events at the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War, Kennedy assassination, moon landing, etc.

So, as you can see, this is partially a study on my part of how my students view history, particularly that which they have lived through. I find some of the choices you have made to be very interesting and can tell what influence the media and other outside sources, as well as environmental factors play in your decision making. A number of you mention the Beirut embassy bombing; I doubt that event would receive much mention outside of our local community (this is what I mean by environmental factors). That particular event has such a strong connection to this community that it still resonates with subsequent generations. I also find it very interesting that one of the top answers is Hurricane Katrina. I believe this to be a media influenced answer. Yes, Katrina was a catastrophic hurricane, but there have been others in this time period such as Hurricane Andrew in Florida and Hurricane Floyd right here in eastern NC. As devastating as those storms were, they did not receive the type of media coverage as Katrina and took place much further in the past. Therefore, we remember the recent and the sensational first.

I hope this email causes you to think a bit more about history and what you have learned in this class. I hope it will prompt you to think about what history is, and what we think it is in our minds. Finally, I hope you have enjoyed the class and I hope you have learned something from it. I realize that not everyone likes history (just as I pretty much hate math), but I hope that you feel like you've gotten something out of this class, however small that may be. Thanks for a great semester and best of luck in your future endeavors!

1 comment:

Cape Fear Museum said...

The answers you say you get to your questions about history makes me wonder, do you think your question encourages students to think of history as a set of dates? Or is that just what most people think history is, and so they default to that kind of answer?