In the past few years, it feels like there’s been more outcry for historians to engage with the public and “explain” the present to them, but it exists alongside the perpetual outcry about historians who might discuss current events with the public they engage with every day: their students. Professors, on the other hand, often want to use current events to help explain something in the past, but grumble that “these students don’t know anything about what’s going on in the world!” All of these voices share a common assumption that “kids these days” don’t know current events, though they’re divided on what should be done about it.
In the college classroom, students are going to raise current events whether you like it or not – I can’t be the only one who’s had students raise a Trumpian term of art while discussing the concept of First/Second/Third Worlds – and I think we’ve all thought hard about how we manage those contributions, depending on the spirit in which they’ve been offered.
But counter to the prevailing mainstream newspaper opinion page notion, students are often aware of much more than their professors (or parents) think. That knowledge can be put to good use in the history classroom if we remember two things.
First, we want to be aware of the difference between what we and our students might consider “current” events and be reasonable in our expectations of what they will have heard about. Second, while our students are often very aware of current events, they are not always equipped with the abstract ideas that can help them make sense of either those current events or the related historical events you’re discussing in class. Putting aside any unreasonable expectations we have about what they should know can allow us use what they do know to help them grow as historical thinkers.
Every fall, that list comes out that tells you what a traditional 18-year-old college freshman raised in the U.S. has and hasn’t been alive for, though not, necessarily, what they have or haven’t experienced. As historians, we should always take some time with that list, and use it to think seriously about what events and ideas have shaped their understanding of what America is to them, as those ideas and events have also shaped their understanding of what America has been. We should also remember that our students may or may not have lived in the United States for any or all of their lifetimes.
Just as I aim to give them some sense of historical perspective in the survey, considering just how much or how little things have changed over time, I have to recognize that what is “current” to them is a very short period of time. That can be useful. For instance, the landmark gay rights decision of their lifetime, Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), happened when most of my students were young teenagers. The fight for marriage equality dominates their memory of what “gay rights” is and can lead them to assume that it had been the gay rights issue for decades before that.
Even though that court decision chronologically fits at the end of the course, students bring it up early in the US II course when I ask them to brainstorm the major “rights” issues we might cover over the semester. They may not know the name of the decision, but they know that it happened in their lifetimes.
Then I ask them if they know when the Supreme Court invalidated state laws criminalizing same-sex sexual activity.
The first response is almost always confusion. For most of them, the central issue of gay rights in their lifetime has been the exclusion of gay couples from the legal institution of marriage, not the criminalization of private sexual behavior.
So then I hit them with Lawrence v. Texas (2003). They gasp. But even though I teach in Connecticut, they’re not shocked because of any particularly liberal sensibilities. The first student to speak will almost always say “But that’s so recent!”
Then I tell them about Bowers v. Hardwick (1986). And they gasp again, because it means Lawrence wasn’t just about overturning some old laws still on the books, it means that the constitutionality of these laws had been challenged and upheld in a period that is, to them, the “recent past.”
From there, we talk about what it means when the Supreme Court issues a ruling and talk through the various ways that states recognized or rejected marriage equality before Obergefell. Despite having had civics and U.S. history classes in the past, they are often still a bit shaky on what the Supreme Court does, and it can help to refresh their memories on it at the start of the semester with an example that feels close. The discussion of state propositions, state laws, and state supreme court decisions also helps introduce them to states’ rights as a living issue, not just something from “the past.”
The point of the exercise, from my perspective, is to get students to consider what they think counts as “the past” and “the present,” to collapse their sense of distance from “the past,” and to ask them to think critically about narratives of progress that they may not have thought about before. It asks them to consider the different approaches and tactics available to people trying to change laws and the social status quo, and the risks they take on in doing so. It uses something they are somewhat familiar with to introduce them to the political and civic framework they’ll need to understand for the semester. It also lets them know, right at the start, that certain topics and time periods won’t be “off limits” in my class.
Displacing this issue in time and tackling it at the start of the semester is helpful in the short term even as it provides us a touchstone throughout the semester. In the short term, it unsettles ideas of what civil rights are and when and how “the civil rights movement” happened, past tense. It also provides an opening to talk about rights beyond civil rights. Using something current like Obergefell in the first week means that students are primed to think about these issues when we read Chief Joseph and Mary Lease and the declaration of the Niagara Movement.
Starting with this examination of a current event also opens up a dialogue on our own relationships to the past. I can come back to it when I ask them to think about what it means for an adult in the 1960s to have memories of living during the Depression. It helps us think about why cartoons from the past can be so difficult to decipher when they hinge on specific details that might be remembered by those alive at the time but never learned by those who came after. (My go-to example here used to be Scooter Libby, who I knew but they didn’t!) It allows us to have a conversation about older people angsting about “millennials in the classroom” – I am one, but many of them are not – and the utility of talking about generations. And it allows them to think about why many of them came in with these narratives of when and why and how “civil rights” happened.
Teaching U.S. history, we are often frustrated by two competing yet complementary impulses in our students: the tendency to see people in the past as backwards, unsophisticated, and dead, and the tendency to make sense of the beliefs and actions of people in the past as though they were living contemporaries. Helping students see, right from the start, how the questions of the past are not dead and gone and how the “backwards” past is closer than they might think sets them on the path to thinking historically by forcing them to confront their own personal sense of time and their relationship to it.
My use of Obergefell isn’t the only way I do this, nor does it have to be what you use. You just have to be aware of what sorts of topics can produce this kind of toehold for students. This semester, for instance, I’ve had more traction than ever when discussing tariffs in both of my survey classes. I’ve been able to use what they have heard in the news to help them understand both the mechanics of and the abstract ideas behind the tariffs that matter to the periods we’ve been studying, ideas which they can then turn around and apply to current events if they desire.
And you have to trust that students know things, and be willing to use what they do know, rather than what you think they should know. When discussing the 1970s with my current US II class recently, we talked about why it might be difficult for a president to significantly shift existing foreign policy. I was trying to get them to think about treaty relationships, and since I’ve had most of these students before and they’re an engaged bunch, I played a game of “guess what’s in my head” with them. I wanted them to think about NATO, and the clue I gave them was that it was a treaty relationship that the current president was unhappy with.
My students suggested NAFTA, Paris, and the Iran nuclear deal before getting NATO, and all of those ended up being way more productive toeholds for discussing the 1970s than the idea I’d had. They know things, so let’s use what they know.