Publication Date

October 1, 1996

Five years ago the Cold War died an unlamented death. Ever since then Americans have been concentrating their thoughts on what America's place should be in this new world, whether we should face across the Atlantic toward Russia and Europe, across the Pacific toward East Asia, or south toward Latin America. The first of these directions is familiar, the other two paths are trod less often. In life it is often the new that receives the most attention. In the historical and educational professions, a predilection for new interests is currently reflected both in a lively concern for world history and in what I regard as a regrettable tendency to downplay our country's European background and connections. I see this tendency as "the theme behind the theme" of the articles and correspondence published in Perspectives this year about the future of European history. (See pp. 3-4 of the February 1996 issue of Perspectives and pp. 1,4-6, 31, and 34-36 of the April 1996 issue of Perspectives.)

Countless Americans discover a special personal identity in Europe, a feeling of homecoming. When a friend asked AHA president Caroline Walker Bynum what she found most striking about life in Berlin during her yearlong sabbatical in the city, she responded, "[T]he fact that I feel so at home." (Perspectives, February 1996, p. 3). Similarly, in the April 1996 issue of Perspectives, James J. Ward noted “the instant sense of connection” he feels the moment his “plane sets down at Tegel.” (Perspectives, April 1996, p. 31.) Given the European roots of our own civilization, it is natural that this should be the experience of many educated Americans. Certainly European history can no longer serve as America’s sole intermediary to world history, as John R. Gillis argued in the April 1996 issue of Perspectives, yet it would be a sad mistake to take this European connection for granted and inadvertently let ourselves slip away into history labeled as the last Eurocentric generation.

With thoughts such as these in mind I have designed and taught a course for students in the upper grades of high school that is, so far as I can discover, unique for that age level both in America and in Europe. The course lasts for an entire school year and is devoted to Russia and Europe since 1945. In the process of developing the course in 1993, I asked Europeans of all ranks from cabinet ministers to train ticket collectors what they would think of such a course and how they would like their countries represented to young Americans. Some of my informants came to me through family connections or professional associations, some were public officials who agreed to be interviewed, and some were chance acquaintances that I struck up along the way. "It's a splendid idea," said Lord Carrington, former secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Sir Leon Brittan, vice president of the European Community, agreed, "It is essential, I am sure, for the Community to make a proper effort to be understood in the United States, and that process should begin in school" And Ferenc Rabar, former finance minister of Hungary and now professor of economics at the University of Budapest, said in August 1993 that "it is a crime on the part of the West to have lost three years, 1989 to 1992, failing to win the support of Eastern and Central Europe. This is an unacceptable, dangerous policy, based on American ignorance." Certainly educating young people in contemporary European history and issues is a significant responsibility for teachers in the United States.

A veritable transmogrification has taken place since 1989, and because the pace of change shows no signs of slowing, a real duty for world history teachers is to explore the nature of this change and to keep abreast of the flow of events across the Atlantic. Still, as Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic, has said, "History has been thrown into fast forward." This acceleration makes understanding difficult and uninformed anticipation rash.

It is not easy for any but the most single-minded to study with concentrated attention the history of Russia and Europe as it unfolds. Political and economic isolationism, as manifested in the 1930s, may be dead and gone in the age of instant and ceaseless communication along the information highway and across the global Village, but in some respects America still remains an ocean away from Europe, different and alone. When traveling in Europe by road or rail, one is struck by the fact that practically nowhere on the continent is one more than 500 miles from another country, language, currency, state system, or culture. For Europeans, domestic and foreign affairs are more closely blended than they are here. One impinges upon the other, and Europeans are daily concerned about such transnational issues as the future of NATO, the ever-growing pressure of the world's poorer peoples upon the more prosperous states, and the heritage of pollution bequeathed to them by Russian and European communism.

These topics are also of immediate interest to young people in the United States, who will be living their adult and professional lives in the 21st century and who look to their teachers for introduction. High school students are often eager to take up the questions of true democratic reform in Russia or international terrorism, for example, casting aside the Battle of Thermopylae, the Seneca Falls convention, or whatever it was the teacher had in mind to cover that day. Adults frequently wish they had had a course in school in understanding the world they were about to enter. What is more, adults usually agree that the period they never learned about in school was the one shortly before they were born: the grown-ups all knew it and had lived through it, but it was not yet presented in a comfortably managed form in history textbooks.

What is it that one can teach young Americans about the essence of European history since 19457 Gunther Renner, director of the European Teacher Academy in Berlin, explains it concisely: show it as an amazing success story. After World War II, western Europe seized the opportunity to make future wars between and among its states impossible. Western Europe is the only place in which the sovereignty of states has been voluntarily relinquished. The standard of living there is now higher than that of any continent. Can the rest of Europe follow suit? Can North America? Can the world? If this seems unworkable, what are the alternatives?

Issues of defense and security must be covered in any course on Europe since 1945. "Now that the Cold War is over," said Lord Carrington, "I can easily understand young Americans seeing no point to NATO." But the alliance has clearly been of great importance. "Tsar Alexander got to Paris," lamented Stalin at Potsdam, but NATO made sure Stalin never did. It has of course been NATO alone that has made any real headway in the Balkan tragedy, at least in this decade. Speculation on the future of NATO and its eastward expansion provides plentiful grist for students’ mills.

Unraveling the thousand-year-old knots of the Balkans may prove to be too much for NATO, the European Union, or the United Nations, especially since all the contending peoples of that region seem to hold fast to the belief that their rightful borders should be set at the mutually irreconcilable high-water marks of their various assaults upon each other in centuries past, and the contenders dwell in neighboring villages, streets, and houses—or at least they did before "ethnic cleansing." The upcoming generation of Americans would do well to consider whether any alliance of states has the perseverance to force order upon chaos and to hunker down in the harsh terrain of the Balkan Mountains for an indefinite future in order to keep anarchy at bay. Is such an unrewarding task worth the bones of a Pomeranian grenadier, or for that matter those of a Catalan, a Scot, or an Oregonian? Already the Dayton Accords unravel.

The dissolution of Yugoslavia is but onereason for the propulsion of refugees and asylum-seekers across the face of Europe and indeed of the world. What now if civil war descends upon Russia, or the economy of Ukraine fails entirely? Today, according to United Nations statistics, 1 in every 130 people in the world, a total of 44 million, is displaced, stateless, a refugee, or an asylum seeker. Worse, the number grows inexorably. In the United States there is pressure from Latin America and Asia; in Europe the pressure comes from the Balkans, Turkey, the Mahgreb, and the former Soviet Union. We know that the next genera tian of Americans will feel more of this than we do, and the sooner they begin to consider it the better.

As we acquaint students with these issues, we need to inculcate a sense of social responsibility in them on a more global level. Today's students need to consider how the world can possibly master the onslaught of AIDS when rigorously Catholic regimes prevent the use of condoms. "Das Boot ist voll (the boat is full)" and "Keine Raumung fur ersetzende Hauser (no place for settlement houses)" run the xenophobic graffiti even in gentle, peaceful Switzerland. For students to comprehend these problems, we need to raise the level of their consciousness, and as Americans we are well placed to look into Europe. In the April 1996 issue of Perspectives, John Gillis pointed out that “today, Europeans are the people in search of a history, and non-European historians have a good deal to offer them,” drawing attention to America’s experience with immigrants, ethnic minorities, and multicultural and multiethnic heritages.

It is to be hoped that Americans will shed some of their naivete as they travel across Europe and become aware of why Europeans view Americans as they do. What's the trouble with Americans? "Overpaid, oversexed, and over here," ran the saw in the 1950s. Today the images are more mixed. America means the Statue of Liberty to some; to others, the mean-spirited moneyman. To yet others, the United States is the only country in the world, moral or not, to enjoy power and prosperity while Europe languishes in its worst depression since the 1930s. If America does not listen to central Europe now, warns Vaclav Havel, the country will commit its third Great Betrayal, after Munich and the Prague Spring. There is, for example, no celebration of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the mind of the average Pole, and hence no Roosevelt Avenue to balance the many Wilson Boulevards. FDR is still widely regarded as the man who betrayed Poland at Yalta. In the Czech Republic even women's liberation, which is associated with U.S, culture, has fallen under suspicion, and feminists are actively disliked. These are but a few examples of what young Americans need to know if they are to be welcomed and respected as students and visitors, and later as businesspeople, professionals, and diplomats. There is a role for history here, as preparation for life.

Will a revitalized Germany pose a threat to its neighbors, east and west alike, after the departure of Helmut Kohl, arguably the last chancellor to feel a passionate attachment to the European Union? (Germany is far more influential now in central and eastern Europe than the United States is, according to a senior U.S. Embassy official in Prague.) Is the Czech Republic poised for a great leap forward, its own Wirtschaftswunder, such as the one West Germany experienced in 1950? The list of questions goes on, and educators must help students to look for answers and understanding.

A number of the Europeans I consulted in the course of developing my class on contemporary Europe stressed the importance of studying the increasing influence of Islamic fundamentalism. This was especially emphasized by the Earl of Gowrie, who served as minister for the arts in Margaret Thatcher's cabinet, and by Robert Bemis, public affairs adviser to the U.S. mission to NATO in Brussels. They argued that Islamic fundamentalism will be an important force in the future of Asia, Africa, Europe, and America. Already proponents have driven almost all foreigners from Algeria, and their presence has been felt in Egypt. Americans, Europeans, Africans, and Asians share a vision of a higher standard of living, but this is not an agenda item for the fundamentalists, who often react with hatred and violence to what they perceive as cultural and economic spoliation by the West. In this sense, Islamic fundamentalism presents itself as the last stage of colonialism, the final rejection of the Western world. Much new scholarship takes issue with the meaning applied to the term "fundamentalism" by observers such as Gowrie and Bemis, and we would want our students to understand the reasons for such complexities. Moreover, Islamic fundamentalism is not the only extremist force in the world today. We must also teach our students about the equally simplistic and dangerous approach of "militias," Christian fundamentalists, and extremists of any kind.

Let me now describe my course, Russia and Contemporary Europe, an elective for students in grades 10, 11, and 12. It opens with a study of Marxist-Leninist theory, for one cannot understand the history of the USSR and its satellites without that background. Most useful has been Masters of Political Thought, volume 3: Hegel to Dewey (Houghton Mifflin, 1969) by Lane W. Lancaster; it is unsurpassed for its combination of long extracts from original texts matched by passages of cogent analysis. As a principal text I use Rebirth: A History of Europe since the Second World War by Cyril E. Black et al. (Westview Press, 1992). Among the many good books available this one has struck me as just right, expecting in the reader some sophistication and a little previous knowledge of the subject. The two introductory chapters on Europe from 1300 to 1900 and from 1900 to 1945 set the scene, and the rest of the book is effectively divided into sections on the international story and the history of each state in turn. The instructor can select the most useful chapters and assign them to individuals or teams of students, who for the duration of the course follow the news from a particular region, such as Scandinavia or Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey. These make good subjects for portfolios composed of extracts from magazines and newspapers maps and illustrations, and commentary and interpretation by students.

The study of current events is a central feature of the course. Students subscribe to the New York Times, discussing virtually all the articles that appear on Russia and Europe. They also read the weekly London-based newspaper the European with its excellent editorials and coverage of all kinds of incidental issues often not to be found elsewhere. The soccer and lifestyles sections are very popular.

The journal Current History makes for serious and stimulating reading. Separate issues devoted to Europe and Russia are published every year. Those printed in October and November 1993, for example, contain articles entitled “Why Yugoslavia Fell Apart,” by Steven L. Burg; “Bosnia: The Tangled Web,” by Robin Alison Remington, which takes the story back to the Middle Ages; and “Ukraine’s Troubled Rebirth,” by Chrystyna Lapychak. More recent issues have carried these and other stories forward. Given the complexity of the Balkan situation, a useful project for all students is the compiling of a Balkan-related portfolio of maps, newspaper cuttings, and summaries of books, films, and articles.

Compiling portfolios has become one of the most successful features of the course: at the beginning of the year current events seem to many students far removed from "serious" history, but after a few weeks or months the two flow naturally together, and a connection can be drawn between, for example, de Gaulle's 1963 veto of, Britain's entry into the Common Market and John Major's 1994 reciprocal rejection of Jean-Luc Dehaene as a too-federative president for the European Commission.

Early in the course, it is hard to focus attention on a single theme, such as Lenin's manipulation of Marxist theory, while under the constant distraction of each day's news. Consequently, I address current events on alternate days or weeks. Each historical unit takes longer to cover than it would if no attention were paid to the passing scene, but this constant movement back and forth gives the class its vitality. Students' evaluations at the end of the course all commend this aspect of the class; they are proud of a well-deserved confidence in their ability to hold their own among peers and elders in discussions about the 'world of today and tomorrow.

Movies provide a valuable change of pace and of learning style. Here I would recommend, among others, The New Europeans (Ambrose Video, 1992); The Wall: The Making and Breaking of the Berlin Wall (Educational Video Network, 1991); Messengers From Moscow (Pacem Distribution International, 1995); and The Rise and Fall of Mikhail Gorbachev (PBS Home Video, 1991).

A course whose full length has been devoted to recent history and contemporary issues can move logically forward into the future toward its conclusion. So, after a review of the deepening or widening hopes for the European Union, students read Jacques Attali's Millenium: Winners and Losers in the Coming World Order (Times Books, 1991) and Paul Kennedy’s Preparing for the Twenty-First Century (Random House, 1993). Future studies are really enthralling for people who will be living their mature lives in those very times, and in an academic setting such study is far removed from science fiction. It is in fact the theme of the concluding chapters of many modern histories, including Ronald E. Stromberg’s Europe in the Twentieth Century (Prentice Hall, 1992).

From a course like the one I have developed, students ought to gain the excitement that will make them want to go further on their own and to acquire a corpus of straightforward factual knowledge and interpretation that will enable them to hold up their heads as informed equals among their international colleagues-avoiding such errors as those of the unfortunate Albanians who fled to Italy a few years ago to what they believed would be a paradise on earth where, according to the television advertisements, even the dogs eat off silver platters.

Students should also come out of the course with a sense of the variety, wealth, and multicultural identity of Europe. France, for example, is not only the land of champagne, chateaux, and Chartres; it also possesses one of the largest economies in the world and has taken a leading role in the construction of the Concorde, the Airbus, the Ariane rocket, and the fastest trains in the world.

Instructors in courses on contemporary Europe could do no better than to join the European Community Studies Association, based at the University of Pittsburgh. It sponsors conferences and workshops on such themes as "European Integration after 1992 and Maastricht" and "Immigration into Western Societies: Implications and Policy Choices." The workshops provide many opportunities for professional introductions and the exchange of useful information about new publications, as well as up-to-the-moment scholarly analysis through panel discussions with European and American experts.

Teachers in schools or colleges who do not have the luxury of a full year for a course on contemporary Europe could incorporate much of the material I have mentioned within a more traditional framework. Courses in modern European history could be inclined toward the 20th century with, for example, more attention devoted to the efforts to unite Europe since 1945 than, say, to the wars of dynastic ambition in the 18th century. The unification of Italy in the 19th century can be compared to the desire of many in the north today to cut their prosperous region free from the poorer south. Future studies call out for a mini-course that might meet once a week for a term, for a month between college semesters, or at the end of the senior year in high school.

Courses that combine a focus on current events with the study of history allow teachers to "mediate between past and present, sifting through and selecting what is both interesting and important from the material available and then presenting it intelligibly to students," as John V. H. Dipple urged in the April 1996 issue of Perspectives. Doing so is nothing less than our moral duty; it is part of our responsibility to act as couriers across the ages, preserving and explaining to the next generation what we have inherited from the last. We should not worry that the task is too great, for in John R. Gillis’s words, lithe present crop of graduate students and younger faculty is precociously sophisticated and remarkably productive. They… take on subjects previously beyond the range of their elders” (Perspectives, April 1996, p. 4). It is my conviction that the most promising students in the upper grades of high school are poised to join this group too. Only let us not take our European background for granted as we also pursue the more global history of tomorrow. In whatever way contemporary and future studies, European and worldwide, may be handled in our schools and colleges—and the task is not easy—this I do believe: as educators we owe such study to our students, the decision makers of tomorrow, and they will ultimately be profoundly grateful for our efforts.

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