Preview of Teaching in the 21st Century Conference
History has always been taught at Avon Old Farms, but curriculums involving recent history, specifically history that has unfolded since the turn of the century, can be a bit more difficult to deal with because of extreme polarization, significant yet complicated events, and the fact that it's hard to put one's own moment into a larger historical context. With that in mind, for months History Department Chairperson Dr. Chris Doyle has been organizing an academic conference to take place on Avon Old Farms’ campus. The conference, “Teaching the 21st Century,” will occur on April 7 & 8, and aims to make sense of the twenty-first century, contribute to scholarship about it, affect how it’s taught, and historicize events over its first two decades.
“Teachers at all levels have become first responders for helping students make sense of the crises shaping their lives,” explains Dr. Doyle. “Practitioners of history find themselves called upon both to explain the larger meaning of events and respond to critics accusing them of presentism, bias, and political correctness. The discipline of history is simultaneously enjoying a popular renaissance and facing a crisis of confidence.”
When asked what prompted him to ponder issues from war and terrorism to climate change and modern technology in the history classroom, he explains that it was the COVID pandemic, which bears some striking similarities to the Spanish-Influenza epidemic of almost exactly a century earlier. “It got me thinking about how people cope with exceptional events, especially catastrophic events, and why we tend not to learn from the past, and, in fact, often end up rehashing what historians have identified as mistakes made in the past.”
However, it goes beyond that. Doyle explains that events of this century so far seem to indicate that certain fundamental shifts might be occurring. This happens from time to time in history. “Our century began with a terrorist attack that provoked a "war on terror" lasting at least through 2021. In that war, many combatants were non-state actors: extremist groups, mercenaries, and ethnic militias. It made the Cold War seem straightforward by comparison! And, our current level of polarization, not just political but cultural polarization, seems historically important. As disturbing as this may appear, it's fertile ground for history education.”
This conference seeks to clarify how historical methodology can help students, teachers, and society at large find meaning in and perspective on the recent past. Keynote speakers include prize-winning historian of the Gilded Age, capitalism, and the American West Richard White (Stanford University), and Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Ramita Navai (PBS and U.K. Channel 4).
Doyle included a quotation on the conference website from playwright Alan Bennett that reads: “There is no period so remote as the recent past.”
“What that means is that there's nothing more difficult than seeing the larger meanings of events that we're in the middle of. We lack perspective on them,” he shares. “I know that one of the keynote speakers, Stanford historian Richard White, is going to address this in his remarks. What's the line between current events and history? Which historical parallels are relevant to our own moment, and which aren't? I'm thrilled that we have a keynote of White's caliber--a historian at the very top of his profession--to lead us through those questions.”
Additional presenters include university professors, a career UK diplomat and OBE recipient, teachers, and, unique to this conference, students.
“We've got presenters coming from Stanford, the London School of Economics, University of Rhode Island, Central Connecticut State, and the University of Pecs, Hungary. Our students will be giving papers and presentations right along with them,” Doyle shares. “The students’ subject matter is provocative and important ranging from the war in Ukraine, to nuclear energy, political misinformation, and religious influences on the U.S. Supreme Court. They'll be sharing a stage with college professors and presenting to their peers, teachers, and educators who've registered to attend.
“The five students presenting deserve kudos. Essentially, they've chosen to engage in an independent research project on their own time. When I was in high school, I had no idea what an academic was, let alone what one did. Our students will be getting a glimpse into how scholars advance knowledge in their respective fields. That's an amazing opportunity, and I am unaware of any other forum like this, anywhere.”
This two-day conference is open to educators, administrators, and members of the Avon Old Farms School community. Details and registration information can be found on the conference website.
“This conference aims to shape understanding of and teaching about the early 21st-century. Those are ambitious goals, for sure, but it's why people should attend,” Doyle says. “I think we all want a sense of larger meaning. We want to understand how the events that shape our times matter, and we want to know how our own lives fit into those events. This conference seeks to provide that meaning.”
Any questions about the conference can be directed to Conference Director Dr. Chris Doyle at email@example.com or Co-Director Dr. Bob Naeher at firstname.lastname@example.org.