Essay 16: Getting Students Thinking about the Future
Recognizing that inaccurate history often subtly promotes continuing white supremacy, the National Education Association (NEA) commissioned these articles and has posted some of them in slightly different form at its website. I thank Harry Lawson and others at NEA for the commission, for editorial suggestions, and for other assistance.
I intend this final essay to help teachers get students doing history and thinking about the future in a more thoughtful way than the endings of history textbooks now provide. It is not limited to race relations but also provides general suggestions on what to do with the last few weeks of the school year, when students have already taken tests like the advanced placement exams, graduation looms for seniors, and more study of the textbooks seems dreary and pointless.
One idea is to get students thinking about local history. The previous essay suggested proposing a historical marker about their school's journey through the civil rights era. Another idea is to get them thinking about their school's most important graduate(s). This leads immediately to a deep discussion about "important." Products might include a "Hall of Fame" or a series of historical markers, printed well but on paper, to line a corridor. Students themselves usually avoid over-concentrating on athletes, actors, and musicians, but they may need help to find alternatives. After all, the Basketball Hall of Fame is more famous than, say, the Ophthalmology Hall of Fame, even though many more people earn their living as ophthalmologists than as basketball players.
Another idea is to invite students to predict the future in a given sphere of life, applying principles and examples from history to support their speculations. In our past, African Americans made great strides, only to see a reversal. Then the reversal — the Nadir of race relations — itself reversed, and race relations improved. Will the gains of the Civil Rights Movement be reversed in turn? Why or why not? Do African Americans live mainly in certain parts of town? Or do you teach in a former sundown town? Fifty years hence, will African Americans still live mainly in certain parts of town? Will they wind up disproportionately in jail? Relevant data might include the number of African Americans who head corporations or hold positions in government now compared to in the past. As the change from Obama to Trump shows, those numbers may reverse. What about the number of families and individuals who class themselves "interracial." That might not be so reversible.
What will women be doing, fifty years hence? Just now, for the first time, more women than men entered our nation's law schools. Is that reversible? Why or why not? Will the rich be still richer, the poor poorer? Again, students must marshal evidence from history to buttress their assertions. Will we be endlessly at war, as we are now? If not, what will change? Can students back up their positions? What will this present era be called, ages hence? Surely not "modern times!" Thinking thoughtfully about these questions helps students see that history is never dead; understanding causality in the past helps them decide what policies to support, going forward.
Let me close with a personal note. Preparing students to become tomorrow's adults is the most important responsibility in our society. Textbooks in U.S. history are deficient, especially in race relations, making your job harder. In these all-too-short essays, I have done my best to fill that gap. I hope you have found at least an idea or two worth passing on and invite you to peruse the reading suggestions at the end of each essay. Henceforth, I wish you the very best. Please share your feedback and ideas with me at jloewen -at- uvm.edu, if you wish. Thank you for your attention. It has been an honor to address you.
Loewen, "Getting into a Dialogue with the Landscape," the final essay in Lies Across America (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1999), suggests ways students can "take back the landscape."