Publication Date

November 1, 2014

The Cold War is an inherently interesting and engaging topic for students at all levels. There is a nearly endless supply of multimedia resources. There are stories, real and imagined, of danger and intrigue. There are flamboyant figures and everyday people just trying to live their lives—despite the ever-present fear of nuclear annihilation. There are also unsettled questions of cause and effect that present opportunities for students to develop their own interpretations of the past and to contextualize the present.

Given these intriguing topics related to the Cold War, why do students arrive at colleges and universities with relatively little exposure to the topic? As a university instructor, Beth noticed that students in her survey-level courses had noticeable gaps in their knowledge of the conflict. More than anything else, her students did not know why and how the Cold War ended, and rarely were they familiar with how the 1980s connect to developments from their own lifetimes, like American foreign policy toward the Middle East or the scope of the National Security Agency. Few students have any collective consciousness of the Berlin Wall being chipped away with U2 playing in the background or a mental snapshot of a congenial Gorbachev and Reagan summit. In some ways this is a good thing. It opens the door for a new generation to analyze the recent past unencumbered by memory; but it is the responsibility of history instructors at all levels to crack open that door.

In 2012, we began work on our second History Blueprint curriculum unit, The Cold War. We recruited a team of teacher leaders, graduate students, and scholars, and quickly realized that we would have to determine why many students were not learning much about the Cold War before we could develop the curriculum and, more importantly, before teachers would agree to try it in their classrooms. Our survey of teachers throughout the state and interviews with potential teacher leaders uncovered three major obstacles students and teachers faced in approaching this topic.

A Problem of Time. In California, as in most states, the Cold War is taught at the high school level, near the end of the school year. Many teachers report that they don’t have time to teach the topic in its entirety at the end of a busy school year. Some say they have only enough time to do a basic introduction to the conflict. Their schedules have been complicated further by administration of standardized assessments each spring.

A Problem of Perspective. Teachers of a certain age have personal memories of the Cold War: some remember the fear during the Cuban Missile Crisis, others watched Walter Cronkite reporting from Vietnam, more remember Reagan’s speech at the Berlin Wall. K-12 teachers often want to make their students understand how those moments made us feel and how they affected our behavior, and to have students sympathize with the fact that we didn’t know how or if the conflict would ever end. But teaching the end of the Cold War from one’s personal experience is of course problematic. Recognizing oneself as a primary source with a particular memory about the time period can certainly provide a teachable moment about subjectivity and perspective when dealing with the past. But it can also frame a lesson in ways that privilege certain voices over others; this problem underscores the benefits of teachers working closely with one another and with researchers in the field.


Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, US News & World Report Magazine Collection

The living room war. Watching film footage of the Vietnam War, 1968.

A Problem of Scholarship. There is also a real gulf between what teachers learned when they received training and recent historical scholarship. Teachers who attended college during the Cold War tend to focus their instruction on the United States and the Soviet Union. Teachers who attended university more recently sometimes include lessons about the global reach of the conflict, through topics like decolonization and nonalignment. We believe that this generation gap was the result of what teachers learned when they were students and of the difficulty of disseminating recent scholarship to the K–12 level. Cold War historiography has vastly expanded in the last 20 years; teachers who studied the conflict recently have had more access to a more global and comprehensive collection of resources and interpretations.

Time, perspective, and access to recent scholarship pose significant challenges to K-12 history teachers. But these obstacles aren’t insurmountable, especially given the many benefits to student learning and engagement. As we constructed our History Blueprint Cold War unit, and in our professional development programs with teachers, we learned to confront the issues of history and memory directly, we provided in-depth content to ensure equal access to recent scholarship, and we offered practical guidance to help teachers reorganize their instruction to help them expand student horizons within the constraints of a limited school schedule. These principles guided the development of our Cold War curriculum and programs. We hope they also offer assistance to teachers seeking to revise or expand their own teaching of the conflict:

Get the big picture. The Cold War was more than Joseph McCarthy, the Berlin Wall, and fallout shelters. For more than 40 years, the world engaged in a diverse ideological, political, economic, and cultural conflict that spanned the globe and manifested itself in diplomatic, scientific, and violent conflicts. These conflicts had roots in even deeper, longer-lasting struggles. To begin to understand this complexity, students need access to both primary and secondary sources from many countries and perspectives. They need time to digest why things happened the way they did, to discover patterns, and to understand domestic and worldwide connections. They also need space to discuss what implications this era had upon societies then and now. The question: “Why was the Cold War fought on so many fronts?” can frame a larger investigation.

But don’t let the big picture overwhelm. Because of the size and scope of the conflict, students can easily get overwhelmed with scale. It is difficult for students to develop a coherent narrative of the period, much less determine significance. Giving students multiple opportunities to discuss how individual events connected to the larger story is particularly important, as is asking them to rank or prioritize individual events to determine their significance. To narrow the scope but still impart important conceptual understanding, we designed a “Hot Spots” research-based activity that allowed students to focus on different topics, such as Afghanistan, Nicaragua, or Iran, but required all of them to tie their individual studies back to the central question.

Maps help. In order to understand the strategic importance of the Suez Canal, or why the United States was invested in Cuba, students need to understand where these places are on the globe. In addition to knowing the where, students need to analyze how location can provide advantage, influence behavior, and sometimes determine the outcome of conflicts or even predict whether it’s going to be a site of conflict.

Take advantage of resources. The National Archives, the Library of Congress, presidential libraries, and scores of other national and international collections provide up-close access to the conflict online and help to make it more immediate and emotionally compelling. Diplomacy and culture occurred through many mediums that have been preserved and made available on a wide scale. Students can read the entire declassified 1953 CIA plot to overthrow Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadeq through George Washington University’s National Security Archive; they can analyze posters from Communist China through international repositories; and they can watch ABC News document the significance of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This variety of online sources engages students and extends the learning beyond traditional class time.

Teachers who have used History Blueprint’sCold War unit report that students have deepened their disciplinary skills and have a better sense about the impact of the period on more recent or even current events. Moreover, students have found original ways to engage with the curriculum. For example, one lesson about the domestic Cold War directs students to create a museum exhibit on one of several topics. At one school in Folsom, California, students curated virtual museum exhibits by creating QRL codes whereby the audience used their phones to scan bar codes that directed them to specific sources. One group’s museum exhibit toured members through a site that responded to the question “How was American technology transformed by domestic containment efforts?” while another exhibit asked museum visitors to consider “How were the minorities of the world ‘really’ affected?” That students engaged with multiple sources while wrestling with questions of historical significance in their proper context is a goal all history teachers can and should support.

Nancy McTygue, executive director, and Beth Slutsky, academic coordinator, work at the California History-Social Science Project, headquartered in the Department of History at the University of California, Davis. McTygue also serves as a member of the California Instructional Quality Commission, an advisory body for the State Board of Education. Slutsky also works as a lecturer in the department and has a forthcoming book, Gendering Radicalism: Women and Communism in Twentieth-Century California (2015).

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