It’s crazy when history comes to life. Traveling in Prague and Vienna the last few weeks has made me really think about on my world history classes from high school and realize just how real the stories we learn about are.
I don’t know how else to describe it other than a story coming to life. In America, it’s pretty standard to talk about the World Wars and communism and empires rising and falling, but to be honest, it always feels so “long ago, in a country far far away.” But it wasn’t that long ago, and in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that far away. That never seemed to really hit home for me before though.
It’s one thing to talk about Hitler, and it’s another to stand in the street below where he made his speech upon occupying Austria and hear from a native how Austria was actually fairly happy to be joint with Germany. Never before had I considered this perspective. Our tour guide described how after the first World War the Austrian-Hungarian Empire was divided up, and during this division, Austria lost a lot of their resources both agricultural and industrial, so the economy was really struggling. Thus the idea of Germany, a big country doing well for itself, taking over, sounded quite appealing to many Austrians. That’s not something we talk about in a classroom.
Furthermore, in terms of the “long ago” aspect, I think American schooling really puts too much of an emphasis on the idea that these things happened in the past and doesn’t talk enough about how the past is actually influencing the present and future.
As someone who has always had some issues with history classes (Summary version of this rant for those who don’t know me or haven’t read past blogs about this: I like history, I often have issues with how it’s taught, and I’ve had several favorite teachers be history teachers so it’s not on them either just really about the curriculum and how we try to chunk so much information into so little time.), I think this is a key feature missing from lots of history classes. The “why” behind history classes, in my opinion, is because we need to learn about the past in order to understand the present and make educated decisions about the future. However, this “why” often is only skimmed on and instead I feel like history often just feels like a series of facts we are told we need to know just for the sake of knowing. It’s more than a series of facts and stories from the past though.
European countries are still in a post-communism era; it truly wasn’t that long ago. Almost everyone we’ve met here in Europe thus far grew up under communist rule. It took talking to people here and hearing about their stories of coming into freedom for this to really sink in for me that the past is very much still present.
I wonder how this ah-ha moment can be better baked into high school history classes because it makes history so much more valuable when you attach this missing link of the implications history has on today: knowing why we study history and understanding why are different.
Perhaps it comes with better intwining current events into class, but not in a separated “here is a random current event.” What if, when we learned about the past, there was a specific current event relating how what we are learning about the past is affecting the present. Or maybe the key is bringing in more guest speakers to help remember the past wasn’t so long ago. Or maybe a solution is more field trips. Not every class can just take a trip to Europe, but there are always local places related to history, or maybe it could be a Skype field trip experience to bring Europe into the classroom.
Those are just a few ideas, thought up without much time, collaboration, or empathy, so I am sure there are better ideas out there, but I hate to propose problems without anything resembling a potential new direction, so that’s my bug and those are my thoughts for next steps. I’d love to hear about how someone else is/plans to run with that train of thinking.