Thematic US History: Power of Relevance

Students learn what matters to them. Sometimes they learn what matters to us, but it really sticks if it matters to them.

In the final unit of our thematic US history course, we look at economics and social class. This year I spent equal time on the Progressive era, the New Deal, and the Great Society. Despite my many references to the origins of much US government power and regulation in the Progressive era, it made only a passing impression on most of them. They remembered the New Deal as a response to the Great Depression, particularly Social Security and Public Works programs (specifically relating to the individual cities they were researching) to some extent. What really captured the most attention was the segregation created by federal policy. We listened to an NPR interview with the author of The Color of Law, which was just published.  Paired with an excerpt from Not in My Neighborhood, they could see the impact of government policies reinforcing and sanctioning societal attitudes. It explained their neighborhoods to them.

With the Great Society, there was great interest. Students remarked that they had never learned about it before. I don’t necessarily think that novelty explains their investment. It was the relevance. In looking at the battles in Congress and throughout the country, they see the Great Society programs as contested ground. The proposed immigration changes directly address the changes to immigration stemming from the 1965 act. Medicare and Medicaid are front and center in the health care debate in Congress. PBS represents a significant aspect of their education to them.

There are plenty of reasons to teach students a lot of aspects of history, some of which seem urgently relevant, and others which do not. For one, we really don’t know what will be most immediate next year or the year after. At this point, given our foreign policy concerns, it looks like it would be worth spending time on the Korean War. Next year, I don’t know what will be in the headlines.

Relevance leads to stickage (to borrow a term from our meteorologists). But we can’t accurately anticipate next year’s blizzards, much less respond to them. So – we need to help students learn about what matters to them now, find other connections to their lives where possible, and trust our own expertise to sell the rest of it as best we can.

This is where thematic history has an edge – we can start with what’s most immediate, encourage questioning about the backstory and then help students connect the dots.