Proceed with Caution: Talking Politics in Today's History Classroom

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My motto for class discussion this semester is “proceed with caution.”  In this era of  intensely polarized viewpoints it sometimes feels as though conversations about anything more controversial than the weather are wrought with raw emotions, often anger and frustration.  No matter how much we may try to disengage from the political disagreements that have become commonplace, we are faced with a seemingly endless onslaught of “breaking news.”  As a result I’ve tried with my students to limit our discussion of current events to focus on those topics about which students may see direct parallels to our course.  Many times this semester current political discourse has provided opportunities for history students to consider what we have learned in class in relation to debate among elected officials in Washington.

Take, for example, the March 3rd speech by Housing and Urban Development secretary Ben Carson in which he described African slaves as “immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships….” (Boston Globe, 6 March 2017) Rather than focusing on the outrage that many students felt towards Carson’s comments, our discussion centered around the historical facts we have learned about the Atlantic slave trade that directly contradict Carson’s argument. In particular, students focused on the sad reality that slave men and women were not free to make choices about their lives in the way that immigrants from Ireland during the Great Famine did, for example. 

I was reminded as I listened to my students’ perspectives on the Carson speech that we as historians are uniquely positioned to elevate our students’ critical thinking skills simply by asking them to pay attention to current events and digest some of what they’ve read and heard in the opening minutes of each class meeting. Rather than criticizing modern-day politicians in our history classrooms, we can -- quite productively -- ask students to compare what they have heard on the news with what we have learned in class.

We know as historians that connections between the past and present are endless: Can we help our students find connections between immigration policies in the 1920s and the modern-day calls for a travel ban? Could anti-Japanese sentiments in the 1940s provide context for contemporary discussions of discrimination based on race or ethnicity?  Were arguments made for/against repeal of Obamacare similar to arguments we read about New Deal legislation?  

These classroom conversations -- however brief and informal -- will (hopefully) help my students to cut through the murkiness of media coverage and talking-heads, to draw fact-based connections between the past and the present. As a teacher and historian watching this process unfold in the classroom has been immensely satisfying.  How about you? What’s going on in your classrooms?  

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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.