Enhancing Students’ Understanding of Bi-Polarity in the History Classroom

Introduction

Back when I was a history student in my secondary school days, I thought I had understood the dichotomy between Communism and Democracy, and how this ideological divide set the basis for the outbreak and development of the Cold War. However, my understanding of this dichotomy was challenged over the years when I began to recognize that merely stating the differences was insufficient to account for a global “event” that lasted almost half a century. Rather, it was the tension caused by the ideological differences between the USA and the USSR, and which manifested itself in different aspects throughout the period of the Cold War, that had led to the deterioration of relations between both superpowers. My decision to specialize in intellectual history – the study of ideas across time and space – during my university years eventually prompted me to re-visit some of the ideas and concepts related to Cold War history which I encountered during my schooling years. If I were to think about one important understanding from my university days which could be brought into the teaching of history in classrooms, it would be that ideas assume varying meanings across time and space, and that it would be worthwhile to track these changes.

My recent teaching experience in a contract school also led me to believe that it was possible to consider linking certain understandings behind intellectual history with the teaching of historical concepts in the classroom. Once, I had to teach the concept of détente to a class of Secondary Four students. The students’ confusion about the concept and the subsequent implication this had on their understanding of the Cold War struck a discordant note with me for two reasons. First, the students’ confusion about détente appeared to reflect their overly simplistic understanding of the Cold War as a monolithic struggle between the USA and the USSR. Second, their understanding of the various stand-offs between both superpowers also hindered their understanding of the moments during the Cold War when both superpowers had actually co-operated. In other words, their approach towards understanding the Cold War did not differ from the way they conceived the two World Wars. More specifically, they did not deviate from the thinking that “wars” in general entailed total hostility and military standoffs. It is perhaps such misconceptions about the nature of the ideological tensions and bi-polarity during the Cold War which prompted me to critically consider how teachers have approached the teaching of the Cold War, and how we treated the concept of bi-polarity in the history classroom.

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An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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