I've been in education of some kind for over fifteen years now, and over these years I've had many history classes, concerning a variety of topics. Something strange happens in all of them, though - without exception, the classes never seem to spend more than a single session on anything that happened after the 1950s. In high school, we had a single class to talk about the Cold War; two other years of history didn't even go that far, except in the broadest of strokes with mentions of decolonialism. In a college course on American history, our last session was the origins and beginnings of the civil rights movement, with nothing beyond that. The social, technological, political and ideological shifts in the past half-century seem to be deemed unworthy of teaching. Why is this? Aren't the social and technological developments of the last sixty or seventy years at least as critical to the understanding of modern society as the sum of all that came before? What is the importance of teaching the history of the distant past, and why is it that the recent past isn't comparatively as important?

I agree entirely with the general point that you are making. I think that the events of the last 60-70 years are worthy of discussion in high-school history classes. Although I don't really know how to measure whether they are "at least as critical to the understanding of modern society as the sum of all that came before", I'll admit that they are pretty darn critical. I don't think that the reason that relatively recent events are less often taught in history courses is that they aren't believed to be important.

There are many possible explanations for the relative neglect of recent history in high-school history classes. One is that there is so much older history to get through that teachers do not leave enough time for recent events. Another is that recent events are so much more controversial than earlier events that it is difficult to write textbooks that will be approved by school boards that cover these recent events. Another is that the overall significance of recent events is not yet entirely clear and will not be clear until we see what happens after those events, and there has not been sufficient time for this to emerge. Along the same lines, many high school history courses seem to be taught with the simplistic idea that there are "good guys" and "bad guys." When it comes to recent events, there may well be much less agreement about who is who. (Your example of the civil rights movement is the exception that proves the rule here.) There are undoubtedly other possible explanations as well.

I think that courses regarding recent events are more likely to appear in colleges than in high schools (and in private high schools than in public ones) -- partly because college (and private high school) teachers are generally more free than (public) high school teachers in the material that they can teach.

When I was in high school (1977-81), the Vietnam War was history -- just. My high-school history teacher very controversially decided to teach a unit on the Vietnam War, but he was highly constrained in what he could say about it. Could he say that the US government had perpetrated a fraud in connection with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution? No, he could not. So he had to be very creative in how he went about it. Not every teacher is as creative as he was.

I've always thought it would be interesting to do a history course in reverse. Start with the later events (beginning in present) and have students consider what history might have looked like to lead to these later events, working backwards as far as possible. I always hated that my history classes ended before things got interesting (where "interesting" means, you know, when I am on the scene).

(If you are ever in DC, the Newseum offers some good exhibits to learn recent history.)

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