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Current Events to History: What Will Students of the Future Need to Know about 2021?

suzanne_mccorma
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With so much focus this past year on COVID-19 I asked some of the young people in my life (high school and college-age students) to tell me which news stories from 2021 they wished they knew more about. While we have been necessarily hyper-focused on the pandemic as we live through it day-to-day, what do today's students think future generations will need to know about the year 2021 to fully understand its history?

 

Topping their list of lessons for students of the future is the removal of US troops from Afghanistan and the rebirth of the Taliban. Many young people have never known a time when the US military was not active in the Middle East. For those born after the year 2000, the “War on Terror” is to them what the Cold War was to children of the 1970s like me. While it’s likely that it will likely take decades before historians fully understand what went wrong with US policy in Afghanistan, I’m hopeful that future generations of students will have access to government and military documents that provide a more complete picture of our nation’s policies overseas.

 

The students I spoke with also emphasized the importance of future generations studying the environmental crises of 2021, both natural and man-made. From wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes to oil spills and air pollution, today’s young people see climate change as a fundamentally important topic of study for their lifetimes. Perhaps more than any generation before, students in 2021 have been charged with generating tangible changes that will benefit the environment. Issues relating to sustainability are becoming part of the business school curriculums and today’s students see the socially active young people of today as critical to the future of our environment’s survival. 

 

Finally, I was heartened to hear today’s students emphasize the changes in public discussion about mental health that have taken place around the pandemic and spread into nearly all aspects of American life as critical to understanding the year 2021. One student cited the Summer Olympics as a flashpoint in the way that we as a society talk about stress. US gymnast Simone Biles’s decision to withdraw from competition led to other athletes and nationally known figures publicly acknowledging the mental toll that anxiety, depression, and stress have taken on their lives. The measurable surge in demand for counseling services for people of all ages during the pandemic will add to the importance of future generations looking to 2021 as a time of significant challenges (and hopefully progress) in the field of mental health. 

 

Without question, COVID-19 with all of its variants has remained the most talked-about news story of the year. As a nation we’ve debated vaccinations (Moderna v. Pfizer v. J&J) and boosters (which to choose and when). We’ve seen major economic challenges as a result of the virus – job losses and creation, career changes inspired by the pandemic, unemployment, and work-from-home have all been part of public discussion. It could be argued that not one single aspect of American life has been untouched by the pandemic. As the year comes to an end, many of us find ourselves again facing COVID-based restrictions and shutdowns and wondering when this chaos will finally dissipate – hopeful that in 2022 the pandemic will move from being a current event to a topic for the history books. 

 

Happy New Year!

 

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.