I am a history teacher at Career High School in New Haven, Connecticut. For years I have been intrigued with how my students prioritize the decades of the twentieth century since World War I, generally in response to their teachers’ own personal likes and, even more so, the availability of useful teaching material. For example, the twenties are cool because of flappers, gangsters, and fast living. While the thirties are heavy with Depression, they are nonetheless packed with lots of powerful images. The forties have World War II, replete with just causes, Hitler, the Holocaust, and the Bomb. And who would not want to teach or study the sixties (Indeed, some schools have entire courses on that decade.) with the pill, the Beatles, the war, hippies, protestors, and assassinations? Besides, it is the decade that influenced most of my students’ parents. Of course the seventies are now fashionable, as everything in our culture recycles in twenty-year generations. Finally, the eighties and nineties don’t count because no history teacher ever gets that far before the school year runs out. So which decade did I leave out? The invisible, inscrutable, boring fifties.
Yet our students need to understand the fifties if they are to make any sense of the forty years since. After all, so much that informs their lives had its incubation in the fifties: civil rights, women’s liberation, the glorification of sport, the rise of teen culture, drugs, the Interstate, shopping malls, tract housing, urban decay, white flight, computers, modern medical techniques, television, and rock and roll.
Of course my students are attracted to explosions, crashes, loud noises and loud social movements. But they also need to understand the significance of social movements within times of seeming quiet, not to mention “social quiet” itself. Furthermore, it is extremely useful for me to teach my students an appreciation of historical subtlety. Einstein once said that he loved to sail on Lake Geneva in a calm because he could better understand the wind when it was still.
Another point: My students consider aspects of the fifties “corny” – the music, the fashions, the hair styles, the attitudes. Yet as we who have been there well know one day they will look back upon their present music, fashion, hair styles, and attitudes the same way. Can I begin to impart to my students the type of thinking that will help them put current fads in perspective, that will reveal the transience of fashion, its origin by manipulation, and help to lead my students into the realm of critical reflection and historical perspective?