April is the Cruelest Month: Teaching History Now

tags: higher education, teaching history, coronavirus, COVID-19

Carolyn Eisenberg is Professor of History and U.S. Foreign Policy at Hofstra University. Her book Never Lose: Nixon, Kissinger and the Illusion of National Security will be published by WW Norton Press.


As the death toll mounts, and the devastating consequences of governmental incompetence unfold, many of us have almost a month left to teach our classes. We have been inundated by elaborate instructions on the use of technology and encouragement to preserve the curriculum, though flexibly. And for those of us, who aren’t ill or dealing with personal loss, there is a natural inclination to keep doing whatever is most familiar.

But does that make sense? This is the most challenging, heart-breaking teaching moment in our lives and that of our students. It is the culmination of intersecting crises that have been building for decades, from the neglect of the planet, the grotesque levels of inequality in our country, the militarization of our government at the expense of vital domestic needs, and the sheer horror of this virulent, irresponsible, out-of control Administration.


Isn’t this moment to talk about these matters with our students? Not just how we got to this place, where the United States is leading the world in mishandling the corona virus and causing needless death? But what this might mean for all of us going forward? What steps might we take in conjunction with others to alter the longstanding patterns which have produced this disaster?


Not that this is easy—how to discuss these matters of public policy at a point when we and our students are dealing with frightening situations back at home. So it obviously requires careful thought and sensitivity.


One of the endlessly repeated points about American politics is that we are a “polarized nation.” And while there is considerable truth in that assertion, it is often overstated.  Over the years, in conversations with students, what seems more apparent is the “failure to pay attention.” Whatever their political affiliation, I think there is almost nobody in my classes for whom not planning for an imminent pandemic, or not making sure there is an adequate supply and distribution of respirators, or not guaranteeing every seriously ill person medical attention, is a political virtue.


Depending on the particular institution where we teach, the demographics and outlook will vary somewhat. But it is a fair guess that at the most elite private college, as well as the most thinly resourced community college, there is a significant body of students who don’t follow the news. So if there was ever a time to address that state of affairs, the moment is right now---when the cost of inattention is measured in thousands of deaths.


As historians, most of us are used to teaching about decisive occasions in the past when people have needed to step up. This is such a time. And while “front line” health workers are risking their lives every day all that is required of us is to overcome our resistance to altering the curriculum and encourage our institutions to do the same. Of course, there are many college teachers who are already doing so —and it would be helpful to share those examples.


Zooming or not, we have an extraordinary opportunity to engage our young people with the most important issues of their life-time. And while we are justifiably hesitant to impose our own ideas on our students, one message is appropriate: “Time’s Up! Wake Up!”


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