When I teach, I deliberately make an effort to connect big history to the personal lives of my students. At the heart of my world history curriculum are three main ideas:
|Walker Evans' photo, "In front of 310 East |
Sixty-first Street," 1938. Courtesy
of the Library of Congress.
- How each individual sees the world matters.
- Reality is a construction based on an individual’s worldview.
- It is difficult to reconcile an individual’s interests with those of a society.
Students in my class examine how ideas and concepts travel from generation to generation and arrive in their own lives. They can see that what drives them to interact with their peers in school—the search for a community, something to which they can belong—resembles what drove immigrants who arrived in the United States in the early 20th century. Does cutting a bad player from a team lead to better performance overall? Stalin rapidly industrialized the Soviet Union and the economy grew 400%. That progress, however, came at the cost of 20 million lives lost to forced labor and mass execution.
Ultimately, what is the value of a human life? Is the life of a Belgian worth more than that of a Congolese? King Leopold certainly thought so based on his European worldview. Is the life of an American worth more than that of an Iraqi? The 9/11 Victim’s Compensation Fund set the value of a life at fifteen times the annual earnings of a person. The average payout to the families of the 9/11 victims was $1.8 million. The United States government writes out a check for $2,500 to those Iraqi families who have lost a loved one from collateral damage.
These are not easy questions, and students have a difficult time grappling with them. Yet, by asking such questions, history becomes more than the study of the past, and more than the progression of events—history becomes a part of everyday existence. History now becomes personal.