It’s getting harder to explain the history of the cold war, at least insofar as students are less and less likely to relate to the era in any personal way. Gone are the days when the subject could elicit a visceral reaction from the under-thirty age-set. I distinctly recall that fear of the world ending with the push of a single button played a big role in my own teen angst, and I doubt I am special in that regard. Hell, I sorta figured it was actually going to happen at some point, all of us were going to die in one big final feud, but then again I’m fun like that. The point is that the subject hung like a cloud over the heads of some of us back in the day.
I suspect a lot of my students have trouble wrapping their minds around the whole thing. So, when you come to something like the Cuban Missile Crisis, it takes a little prep work to get across what would have seemed obvious to my own generation, that this little event, a paragraph or two in the average textbook, actually threatened all of life as we know it. Today, I usually just tell my students that none of us would have been born had things gone differently in that particular sequence of events.
I think they get it.
It’s not just the subject matter that is slipping away, so to speak; it’s also the imagery. This isn’t just true of the cold war. Many of my favorite pop-references are becoming less and less relevant to younger students as my youth passes further and further from the realm of things about which the kids at the cool table could be asked to give a damn.
One of my favorite teaching-gambits for the cold war has slowly faded into the realm of useless. For years I used to ask my students who lost the cola wars. This always got some funny looks, followed by suggestions of ‘Coke’ then ‘Pepsi’ both of which I would shoot down without the slightest hint of an explanation, …leaving them to give me more funny looks.
How could it be neither?
Sooner or later someone would suggest Shasta, Nehi, RC-Cola, or some other obscure brand of soda most likely consumed by cave men in the sad old days before Paula Abdul and Michael Jackson. This suggestion would then become a jumping off point for discussing the impact of the cold war on various third world nations forced to articulate their own interests in terms framed by the U.S. and Soviet Union.
Today my students still give me blank stares, but they are not the blank stares of students struggling with a conundrum; they are the blank stares of students listening to someone try and explain a complicated issue by means of a metaphor that is no more accessible to them than the full story in itself. Sadly, it is time for me to move this metaphor to the back shelf and put some other theme in the specials section of my intellectual supermarket.
(See what I did there?)
I once TAed for an instructor that used to compare the Cold War to the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in the colonial era, each bringing a vision of absolute truth to Native Americans, promising that truth was the key to liberation, demanding their loyalty, and taking everything they had in the process. (How’s that for a run-on sentence!) So, that professor seemed to be suggesting there was nothing new under the sun, just two new world powers playing the same old shell games with the rest of humanity. I like this analogy too, but it’s not so much a quick entry into the topic as a food-for-thought and what-does-it-all-mean kinda notion.
Today I was trying to explain the dynamics of proxy wars to a student when I could see the light go off over her head. A moment later she exclaimed that it was just like Pokémon. The other students quickly nodded, and after a brief moment in which I sort of wanted to cry, I thought actually that isn’t too bad.
So, here I sit, watching the next batch of students suffer their way through an exam and wondering if this is the wave of my pedagogical future? Will I soon find myself saying things like; “And then Nikita Kruschev said, ‘Fidel Castro, I choose you!'” Can I wrap my mind around the concept of West Germany as Picachu? Can I use this narrative without promoting anyone to the heroic status of Ash? Or should I just let John Wayne have that role? Can y’all imagine the Duke in his Green Beret uniform whipping out a pocket monster and saying; “have at ’em liddle pardner!” The imagery almost seems promising, but I just don’t know if I am up to the task. This isn’t my era, and I don’t know the game.
The whole project does have a certain amount of promise. I wonder if I can get faculty development funds for this? I wonder if the Dean of Instruction will give me money to go to the gym and develop my Pokédex?
Cause I really don’t think I can teach this subject without a fancy new gym badge!