I'm trying to organize my third year of literature-based U.S. history for my family and two other families, and as I've written before -- see my "History" category -- I'm considering organizing it not chronologically, but topically. Or rather, by "threads" connecting the start of the 20th century to today. I'd like to use it to explain "how we got here," that is, put into a hundred years of context the stories they hear about on today's news, on the radio and at the dinner table.
You can't teach everything. Time is limited. Whenever you design a history curriculum, really any curriculum, you must decide what's important enough to cover. I thought maybe my criterion for "importance" might be: Does this story help explain anything the children see around them, reflected on the news, in the lives of themselves and their friends, in the popular culture they are absorbing?
And when I started thinking about it that way, it made sense to arrange history by topic, in terms of what it explains, rather than strictly chronologically as most textbooks do it: "The Depression Era," "The Postwar Era," and so forth.
Here are my stabs at potential "threads" through the twentieth century -- which, in a topical and cultural sense, is not from 1900 to 1999, but rather is from American involvement in World War I to 9-11. (I say September 11, 2001 is the cultural beginning of the twenty-first century in America -- and I will bet you it will be regarded as such by cultural historians.)
I present them in no particular order. Within each thread we can cover the subtopics chronologically.
Thread 1. America as a superpower. World Wars I and II, the Manhattan Project, the UN, NATO, Marshall Plan, Truman Doctrine, Cold War (including Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Cuba), cultural opposition to and support for Communism, nuclear proliferation and fear of "the bomb" as a cultural meme, U.S. foreign aid, fall of Eastern bloc leaving China as the "other" superpower.
Thread 2. Establishing the current U. S. borders and holdings. Alaska, Hawaii, other U. S. holdings, how we wound up with U. S. military bases all over the place.
Thread 3. African-American history and civil rights/equality in general. Pick up where we left off with Ida B. Wells and WEB Dubois. Legal segregation, great migration of African Americans to north and to cities, female suffrage, Brown v. Board of Education and school integration, bios of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, civil disobedience in the civil rights movement, general civil rights legislation including for women and the disabled, election of the first African-American president.
Thread 4. Changes to American experience of childhood. The economic work of children changes with child labor laws; most children attend institutional schools; many gender-based restrictions are lifted; more children spend time with sitters or in institutional day care; more children grow up in divorced families; more children are raised by single parents.
Two special note on this one:
- This category contains some sensitive topics that our families will probably want to teach within our families rather than as a group. For example, as a historical topic, I think Roe v. Wade belongs here, I trust the other families will cover or not cover it in a manner appropriate to their kids' readiness. Ditto with any implications for sexual morality, etc.
- Much of this thread incorporates what is, in other history texts, folded into a "women's rights" chapter, but I'm shifting things like women's suffrage to the civil rights thread, and keeping here a discussion of how women's equality affected the experience of children. That makes it sound as if I'm going to stick to "children suffered when their women's libber moms went to work," but no -- remember that the experience of girlhood was transformed in many good ways, too, with more opportunities for education, athletics... more possible futures. The important thing is to put in context the purpose of work: for the good of the family. More options increases the potential for abuse, but for effective service as well.
Thread 5. Economics. Depression, war industries, GI bill, postwar baby boom, postwar industrialization, the "war on poverty," federal programs like Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid, inflation and recession cycles, waves of immigration, the housing bubble and the current recession. Talk about the tension between large government and small government ideals -- lots of entitlement programs and a big safety net, or a smaller safety net and lower taxes.
One of my philosophies about teaching that involves politics at this age (in the classical/trivium domain, rhetoric or "pert" age): It is my job to teach children that reasonable people can and do disagree. I like to point out the existence of, and the reasons for, a tension between two political ideals, and make sure that the children are able to articulate the basic arguments of both "ends." I don't want to impose a requirement that my kids think like me or agree with me in arenas where reasonable disagreement is, well, reasonable (and that's most of politics). It's especially important when I'm teaching children other than my own, as I am doing with history. The families I teach with share many values with me, but those same values can inform very different political positions! Anyway, at this stage, neither am I asking the children to argue or articulate their own political or historical opinions. Rather, I'm asking them to understand, and maybe to parrot back, the reasonable arguments behind each of opposing positions. These, I hope, will incubate for a couple of years and help them develop opinions that really are their own. And then they can discover the fun of attempting to convince and win over their reasonable opponents.
This has gotten long, so I'll continue in the next post, when I'll talk about the rest of my threads: [Update: Missed one -- added it and reordered these] (6) roots of the so-called "war on terror," (7) the environmental movement, (8) party lines, (9) American mobility, (10) mass communication, and (11) selected Presidential biographies. Can you guess which three presidential administrations I plan to highlight, and why?