Anyone who has taught history for any amount of time has undoubtedly bumped up against this question from students: Why do I have to know this? I know I did. American Revolution? Civil War? Great Depression? World War II? Why? Why? Why?
What students are asking about is the question of significance—a question that historians consider very relevant. Out of all the evidence left behind, what’s important to know? Why? One reason that some evidence is significant is that it helps us think about issues that we are facing today.
Here’s where nonfiction literature can be of help. When nonfiction authors make some of these connections for young readers, they show them why some evidence from the past is relevant today. This is what Steve Sheinkin has done in his most recent book, Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War. After sharing with readers enough background information for them to understand why Ellsberg thought it was necessary to release secret government documents about American involvement in the Vietnam War and narrating this dramatic story, Sheinkin writes an epilogue raising the bigger questions for readers to think about:
· Even though governments must keep some information secret, how much secrecy is too much?
· Is it ever right for citizens to leak information that they think everyone should know?
· If leaking information is against the law, should someone who does this be tried in court and possibly sent to jail? Is that person, instead, a hero?
Sheinkin then makes the connection to Edward Snowden—the former CIA employee who leaked classified information from the National Security Agency about global surveillance. This is a story of our times with clear connections to the Ellsberg case. Here is an instance of how the past can illuminate the present and help us think about the future. Here is an example of why history is relevant. In fact, Sheinkin entitles his epilogue “History Repeats.”
As I look back at the Common Core Standards I recall that they ask us to think about Key Ideas and Details. But if we are to think historically, we need to shape this standard to include historical thinking. We need to deal with historical significance and with the relevance of the past to the present and future. We can ask this question: Is this information important to know? We can use Sheinkin’s big questions—the ones I bulleted above—and use the specific details of both the Ellsberg and Snowden cases to help us think about these questions. In that way, we fold in disciplinary thinking into our teaching. It’s a start to answering that persistent question: Why do I have to know this?