My little sister Grace is freaking out about the work she has to do for her A.P. U.S. History class, the same one I took four years ago. As part of the summer work, she has to answer a question about historical events in her lifetime. Shetexted me the prompt: “What is the most important event that has occurred in your life, the event that is most like to be in the history books your children will read.” First, I want to acknowledge the problems with phrases like “your children” in writing paper prompts. It seems inoffensive and commonplace, but the normalization of the reproduction ideal, especially in the minds of 16 year-olds, reproduces some ugly mores. A phrase like “the next generation”performs the same function without the call to continue the biological line.
Grace ended up writing about Obama’s election even though I told her I though 9/11 was a more interesting answer. Picking presidential elections seems like cheating because those have to happen every four years and the historians have to write about them. Semi-jokingly, I suggested she write about the glorious liberation of Iraq. This is the problem with grounding a question in terms of future histories. The compound question through it’s juxtaposition and false equivalence of two different questions assumes a future without jarring changes in geopolitics or perspective. There are possible futures that make a lot of events really important. History is nothing if not a story of seemingly unimportant events es changing the course of the future. Who would have said in the hours after that the police beating of Rodney King would be a national political event? Isn’t it pretty easy to imagine future generations in their underwater classrooms reading about the failure to combat global warming as the most important event of the past few decades? I’m pretty sure 9/11, the invasion of Iraq and President Obama’s election will all make the history books for a little while, but we certainly don’t know in what form. It should be history teachers’ job to dispel the notion that history is told according to the most important things that happen. I’m not sure Katrina will make the history books, but I’m also not sure it’s not the most important thing that happened in our country in the last decade. That discrepancy is a topic, if not the topic for history classes. Names and dates have nothing on historiography, sorry Mr. B.
Maybe I should have suggested she go with Zhou Enlai’s answer when asked about the impact of the French Revolution.