We Need to Cover the Recent Past

In 2014, the former interrogator Eric Fair asked young undergraduates at Lehigh University to recall what it had been like for them to learn about the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. They gave him blank looks. To these students, who had been small children in 2004, a scandal that had been a landmark in Fair’s recent life (and a turning point in contemporary global politics) was mere history.

Not just history. History they had never been taught.

Those of us designing modern survey courses this spring can do our students a favor by making sure to cover things we still think of as current events—including material from the 1990s and 2000s and probably even the 2010s. More time has passed than we realize.

The youngest traditional undergraduates in American colleges today were infants on the morning of September 11. Their first original political opinions probably come from Barack Obama’s second term. As for earlier events that weigh heavily on our public life today? Some undergraduates have only the vaguest idea why Bill Clinton was impeached, and they may never have even heard of, say, the Branch Davidian siege or the Central Park Five. This autumn, some of my first-years seemed to think the older students and I were pulling their leg when we explained Y2K.

Meanwhile, my students still often tell me their high school history courses never got past the 1970s, or sometimes even the 1940s or 1950s. To them, therefore, history has no living connection to the world they live in now. The best way an instructor can address that problem is to bring her history course directly into contact with the student’s lifetime.

I know, there are reasons to resist my proposal. One I hear a lot: There’s not enough time to cover everything already—now we’re supposed to add decades of new material? But teachers probably said the same thing in previous generations. History courses didn’t achieve their ideal form in 1939, 1969, or 1989. History instructors have always made difficult choices about what to drop or deemphasize in order to accommodate new developments. It 2019, it may be more important to introduce our students to, say, Hillary Clinton’s political career than to the finer details of Hubert Humphrey’s.

Other objections seem more valid in principle: Not enough time has passed since the nineties and aughts. We don’t have critical distance and cannot hope to be objective. Most of the scholarship has yet to be written.

As a matter of theoretical rigor, those are sound objections. But as a matter of practice, our students need the information and analysis we can provide. In fact, it’s useful for them to watch us confront the provisional nature of our conclusions as we reconsider our own memories.

Moreover, there actually is quite a bit of scholarship available to draw upon. For example, I am currently reading Fault Lines, Kevin Kruse’s and Julian Zelizer’s new history of American political life since 1974. Its coverage stops at virtually yesterday. My later lectures in the survey already cite Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home and reflect themes from Daniel Rodgers’s Age of Fracture and Robert Self’s All in the Family, to name a few academic examples among many. They also draw on deeply thoughtful works of journalism—the second draft of history—like Nicole Hemmer’s recent podcast miniseries A12, the collected dispatches of the Middle East war correspondent Patrick Cockburn, and the second season of Slate’s podcast Slow Burn, which is a careful reconsideration of the scandals of Bill Clinton. Resources for thinking critically about the recent past are abundant—even if each history instructor will create a different list.

What we should try to do, as we rely on such sources, is model for our students the process of thinking provisionally and fairly. We should show them how we assign various weights of confidence to various kinds of conclusions, always admitting that our opinions have changed and may change again. That may be as valuable a form of teaching as anything else we do. It could change the way our students think about the 1890s almost as much as the 1990s.

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