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     In an editorial for the Washington Post published earlier this week former First Lady Laura Bush compared images of children being separated from their parents by the Department of Homeland Security to scenes from the home front during World War II: “These images are eerily reminiscent of the internment camps for U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.” Her reference reiterates the importance of helping our students to understand historical time and place. As we witness the public outcry over the current administration’s policies towards families seeking to enter the United States, it is a meaningful moment to consider ways in which we can connect students’ thinking about current events to the historical eras we cover in class. Engaging them in discussion of public opinion, past and present, is a great way to stimulate conversation. Here are just a few examples of ways in which the home front of the World War II era offers fruitful connections to current events.  


National Interests versus Human Rights


Ask students to think about the United States’ role as a world leader and military power during the Second World War: did our leadership require that our nation hold itself to a higher standard of morals? What responsibility did our leaders have to the nation’s citizens and did that responsibility eclipse responsibilities to the men and women of other nations? How did economic debates factor into political decisions? Ask students to apply those same questions to modern-day political issues.  


Students can think about these questions through the historical lens of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust and through the contemporary example of how the United States is responding to refugees from Syria and other war-ravaged nations. On the web, ask students to visit The Jewish Virtual Library to learn about the Wagner-Rogers Bill. The excellent, though somewhat dated, PBS series The Great Depression (see Episode 6 “To Be Somebody”) contains a short segment on how public opinion influenced President Roosevelt’s decision to not support an expanded refugee program in 1939, which can easily be shared in class through YouTube.




The debate over immigration will likely continue to rage into the fall semester. Ask students to think about how their opinions are being shaped by both the news media and the government. What sources do they find credible? How might they seek out additional sources to challenge their long-held beliefs?


Milton Eisenhower, head of the War Relocation Authority (WRA), narrated the short-film “Japanese Relocation” which was presented to the public in 1943 to explain internment. I use this 9 minute piece as a staple of my discussion of World War II. Eisenhower offered viewers a succinct explanation for government policy broadcast over images of relocation in progess. As they watch, ask students to weigh the pros/cons of Eisenhower’s argument. Today’s students --  comfortable with questioning government policies and pronouncements -- are able to poke holes into Eisenhower’s justification of Executive Order 9066 with surprisingly little background information. My students have expressed particular interest in Eisenhower’s argument that the US Government was “protecting” those of Japanese descent. Use this short film in conjunction with the National Archives site “Japanese Relocation and Internment” which provides images and lesson plans.


Political Cartoons


In virtually every print or web-based news source today we can find visual analysis of current events.  “Daily Cartoon” (New Yorker) and are good places to start for opposing (liberal v. conservative) viewpoints. Most daily newspapers contain at least one editorial cartoon. Ask students to bring cartoons of interest to class and allocate the first five minutes to sharing.


My students have enthusiastically studied the World War II-era cartoons of Theodore Geisel (aka, Dr. Seuss) using the web collection Dr. Seuss Went to War  (University of California at San Diego). The site is indexed both chronologically and thematically making it accessible for discussion of nearly any topic for the period 1941 to 1943. Ask students to consider Geisel’s depictions of the Japanese versus those of Germans and Italians. How do modern-day cartoonists depict people of color or people who are not American?


These are just a few ideas I’ve been thinking about as I watched and read the news over the past week. If you have additional ideas to link current events to any historical era or topic, please share!

Suzanne McCormack

Turn Up the Music

Posted by Suzanne McCormack Expert Jun 5, 2018

As of June 5 the music video for “This is America” by Childish Gambino (aka, Donald Glover) has been viewed more than 239 million times on YouTube. The New York Times, NPR, Variety, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic and Rolling Stone, among others, have dedicated web and/or air space to discussion of the artist’s vision of race relations in twenty-first-century America. As politically-charged music/popular culture released in 2018, the reach of “This is America” is unparalleled. Had this video been released earlier in the semester I have no doubt that my students would have discussed it in class as it offers a great starting point for a discussion of modern-day politics, including race relations and the debate over gun culture.


The wide reach of Glover’s work should make all classroom teachers pause a moment to think about the mediums we use in our classrooms and whether they are truly reaching our students. Over the last twenty years of college teaching I have accumulated hundreds of images to use with classroom lectures and as assignment prompts. I’ve shown documentary films and video clips of varying lengths. I have not, however, successfully integrated music into my courses. I have not yet figured out how to effectively utilize music (including music videos) as a teaching tool.


Inspired by the public's fascination with “This is America" (and a conversation with my wonderful officemate, a sociologist), I spent some time recently searching the web for college-level assignments that utilize protest music.  Since my courses are a mix of social and political history we spend a lot of time examining public response to political debate, economics, and international events. Music would seem to be a natural addition to these discussions.


The lack-luster results of my web search were not a total surprise to me: the overwhelming majority of politically-themed, music-based assignments shared on the web are for middle and high school students. Either college faculty are not sharing or we do not know where to start.


If, like me, you do not know where to start, here are a couple resources that I will utilize as I plan some new lecture and discussion material for the fall semester:


Lesson Plan: Teaching with Protest Music  Published on the web as part of “The Learning Network: Teaching & Learning with the New York Times” this site offers teachers some background history on musical responses to political events since the early 20th century. Most helpful to a novice like myself, the authors include a thematically-organized list of songs that work well in student assignments.


Protest Music of the Vietnam War is a site developed by Historians for Peace and Democracy in concert with the Peace History Society. The site offers helpful analysis to someone (like myself) new to examining song lyrics and an extensive list of Vietnam War-era music.


Finally, if you have an interesting college-level assignment that involves music (protest or otherwise), I invite you to share it here!