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History Education and How Children Perceive Conflict

Sitting in my living room, checking the BBC every few hours for updates on Libya, watching my Twitter stream comment on Somalia, Egypt, Turkish attacks on Kurds, Israeli attacks on Palestinians, I’ve been thinking about what it’d be like to be a child or a teenager while all this goes on.  Is the way children perceive history different to what it was when I was growing up?  Is history education any different?

My immediate assumption is that the world is somehow different than it was in my childhood and teenage years.  It’s a world of conflict, wartime, lines being redrawn.  Children growing up now must have a different perception of America than I did–after all, we’re obviously not “at peace.”

But are things really so different?

Social studies and history classes, I think, tend to wash out conflict, especially if it’s taking place far away.  There’s the easy excuse that something happening now isn’t history, but I think it’s more than that.  I remember having the impression that history somehow stopped at 1990, that there had been conflict in the past, back when there was a Soviet Union, but peace and prosperity were what I had to look forward to.  I’d look at my dad’s 1980s world atlas and laugh at the funny country lines, not realizing that lines were being redrawn and argued even as I sat there, tracing over the Soviet republics with my finger.  In 8th grade social studies, we watched NATO bombings in Kosovo live on TV, but there was no real connection to that happening.  It was something “over there,” over which President Clinton surely had control.  From time to time, I had a classmate from Zaire, then the Congo, but “refugee” didn’t mean anything to me.

Of course, it’s easier to teach history from a point of stability.  Historiography isn’t taught till high school, when students start questioning where the history comes from, who wrote it all down.  In elementary school classes on the civil war, students learn about slavery, but there’s often no real connection to the fact that some black children’s ancestors were slaves and some white children’s ancestors where slaveowners.  “The Indians” are never portrayed with reference to existing, living tribes.  It’s convenient to portray conquest as a sad story that’s over now, erasing the current needs of indigenous people.  (For more on this, I strongly recommend the book Conquest by Andrea Smith).

For me, history became relevant and interesting in my senior year of high school, when I had an AP European History teacher who was passionate about social history.  She tied together social movements, governments, art, culture, and geography in a way that made history colorful and relevant.  At the same time, what I was learning in history class linked to the literature I was reading in AP English Literature (mostly British authors) and AP German.  It was the opportunity to think about how philosophical ideas, morals, and theories tied in with historical events that really sparked my love of history, and I can’t imagine that I’m alone.

I’m not an educator or someone who decides curricula, but I do have some hope that in the future, history and social studies classes will start in earlier on the relevance of history, and on the way historical threads tie to current movements.  In American classrooms, the US needs to be treated as a player like any other player, not as an infallible, unmoving reference point.  I hope that what’s going on right now in the Middle East and Africa isn’t just displayed to kids on TV screens as a bit of news that’s going on, but discussed in context.  If any of my readers are teachers, or have kids in school right now, I’d love to hear from you in comments or on Twitter (@queerscholar) about what they’re learning.