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Teaching History Through Current Events

by Tony Silva

You’ve probably heard the old saying, “today’s journalists are writing the rough draft of history.” The idea that what we read in the paper now will have meaning 30 years from now is easy to grasp given the events unfolding in recent years. This article takes a look at how we can make history more interesting for our students by helping them understand that what we are living now is not only tomorrow’s history, it was yesterday’s future—and that is the basis for using current events to teach history.

It all started when…

One of the most important reasons we study history is to gain an understanding of what has contributed to our view of the world. The economies, the geographies, the distributions of power, and the social norms we experience today all have their origins in things past—in history. It is not realistic to pick up today’s paper and begin a unit study on the Middle Ages. It is possible however, to ask how events during that period of history contributed to what we are experiencing today. Go back far enough, and you can find the early echoes of what is now the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.

Whether you’re looking at the debate over changing the tax laws or the loyalty of a group of people to a political party, with a little practice, you can learn how to relate history to current events. In a very real sense, you’ll discover that the bridge between understanding history and making a better future lies in learning how we got where we are. Any of the issues above are easier to understand if we can complete the sentence, “It all started when….” To help do that, we’ll take a fresh look at historical timelines.

Cool borders…

If you’re like other homeschoolers I’ve known, you probably have a timeline that serves as a decorative border for your schoolroom. Maybe yours starts with the Earth being without form, and ends with a recent president. Take a closer look at your timeline. If you don’t have one, just close your eyes and picture what you’re missing. Is there any obvious link between the economic system in feudal times and any of the economic systems today? What about a link between the Moorish Conquest and the War on Terror?

If the connections between different places in history do not jump off the border and into your head, do not be alarmed. Timelines as we’ve come to know and love them are a broad brush of historical events in sequence. You could get the same effect by taking a snap shot of each event and making one of those cool “time lapse” films. It would be interesting to watch, but it really has no meaning. Let’s see if we can give the timeline more meaning by looking at the smaller brush strokes.

Just politics?

Before we dive in, take one last look at your timeline. There are actually three kinds of timeline—political, economic, and geographical. Economic timelines show events that are economic in nature, such as the emergence of an economic system, or an invention that influenced history. Henry Ford invents the assembly line…economic. Karl Marx explains socialism…economic. Geographical timelines show events that have a dramatic impact on the political map. The fall of the Berlin wall, and the subsequent redrawing of the Eastern European map, and the fall of Saigon are examples of geographic events. The political timeline shows the shifts in power. The rise of the United States. to world prominence from World War I through the 20th Century is a big example. The rise to power of a single political figure or party such as Hitler and the Nazis would be a smaller—though no less significant—example.

The reason we don’t break our lovely wall borders down into three categories may be apparent when you look at the examples I just highlighted. They are often interchangeable. An economic event may contribute to a change in geography, such as the Louisiana Purchase. This sudden change in geography may be tied to shifts in political power. The economic conditions created by the Great Depression caused shifts in population that still affect the outcomes of elections in some states.

Ultimately, history points to changing tides of political fortune, and how those tides are governed by the pull of economics—sometimes in ways so powerful that maps have to be redrawn. Our example this month is a powerful reminder that political timelines can sometimes stand alone.

Good Evening, Vietnam!

If you asked the average person on September 12, 2001 what the 2004 presidential election would be about, they probably would have correctly answered, “war.” They probably would not have thought much about a war that took place 30 years ago. In an odd twist of fate, the Vietnam War has become the focal point of the national presidential debate over national security.

Beginning with the 1992 election when Baby Boomers were coming of political age, the debate raged over Bill Clinton’s opting out of the war. Not being a war hero did not harm his electability. President Clinton served two terms in which national security was overshadowed by other issues. Even Senator Bob Dole’s status as a bona fide war hero didn’t put a dent in Clinton’s ability to garner votes. In spite of terror attacks around the world and on U.S. soil, the Giant continued to sleep. In 2000, the Vietnam War was not a serious issue. The nation was in a mood to consider character, and among imperfect mortal men, they choose George W. Bush as their Commander-In-Chief. The Giant continued to sleep, but only for President Bush’s first eight months in office. On September 11, the most devastating in a series of terrorist attacks against the U.S. took place. The economic vitality of the country was severely affected, and a defining moment for both President Bush and his eventual Democratic opponent marked their “political timelines.” The Giant woke up. We didn’t know it then, but in that awakening, the Vietnam War suddenly became relevant to our daily newspaper.

This year’s presidential election is a perfect opportunity to discover how to use current events to teach history. Each of the candidates has a unique “political timeline.” Follow them from their current positions as President and U.S. Senator back to their respective military service during the Vietnam War, and you may discover how pivotal that war and its aftermath are to the current generation. If you and your kids can do this study between now and the election, and consider historical events in that light, your student may just discover the importance of studying history. They’ll see that they are living its shadow.

Assignments & Such

I hope that this introduction has given you a taste of using current events to teach history. Your mission now, should you choose to accept it, is to guide your student through the process of completing the sentence, “It all started when…” Decide how far back you want to go in your research. You could go back to the time each man attended college, or maybe even back to the formative childhood years. The emphasis in this case will be how their experiences during the Vietnam era shaped the kind of men they became. More importantly, how did their experiences contribute to their current positions on national security issues? Between “then” and “now” you’ll find other important clues, including terrorist attacks, micro wars, and the war on terror that followed the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Here are some possible assignments:

  1. Create a chart that shows the major life experiences of each candidate.
    • How do these experiences compare?
    • What impact did activities of either candidate have on historical events?
    • What experiences seem to contribute most to each candidate’s current views?
  2. Choose some of the key events from each candidate’s life (you can use the chart) and create a photo display that highlights those events.
    • Describe the events.
    • Explain how each event contributed to the candidate’s current views.
    • This could be a “now & then” display, or other creative presentation.
  3. Create a timeline that shows the lives of both men. If you used the first two ideas, you can use the chart you created and the photos you have gathered.

We would love to hear from you. There are as many creative ways to tie our current events to history as there are homeschooling parents. Next month, we will look at other ways to use current events in our social studies curriculum. Your comments and suggestions are welcome.

“Future History” question: “Will historians view Michael Moore’s movie, Fahrenheit 9-11 as a documentary, entertainment piece, or political propaganda?”

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