'History of Now' helps students understand roots of current conflicts

By April Hunt | Emory Report | March 23, 2017

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Astrid Eckert, associate professor of history, lectures in Emory's "History of Now" course. Covering European history from the devastation of World War II to Brexit and the rise of Vladimir Putin, the class gives undergraduates deeper context for today's headlines.

The steady drumbeat of news about the alleged Russian interference in the American presidential election draws regular critiques of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a strongman or dictator.

But inside room 205 of White Hall, 60 students in Emory College of Arts & Sciences learn why Russians routinely give Putin high approval ratings.

“If you want to understand populism and nationalism under Putin, why he could win any election on his platform that was essentially ‘Make Russia Great Again,’ you have to see the collapse that starts in 1989 and deepens in 1991,” Matthew Payne, associate professor of history, explains to students taking “The History of Now," an introductory course offered the Department of History.

Payne isn’t talking about the collapse of the Soviet countries to the east and full-fledged end of the Soviet Union in those years. He displays a chart showing the gross domestic product (GDP) in Russia.

The economy bottomed out under Russia’s first president, recovering only when Putin served his first term as president between 1999 and 2008. GDP plunged again in 2009, when Putin was prime minister, but it has climbed since his second presidential term, which started in 2012.

“You would like anyone who would help feed you,” says Samantha Carp, a senior in Emory College double majoring in history and business, who decided to take “History of Now” as her last history course in college. “We weren’t alive when the Berlin Wall fell, when communism collapsed, but we can’t overlook how the events that happened since World War II explain how we got here.”

Helping students understand those connections in postwar Europe – from both eastern and western European perspectives – was the goal Astrid M. Eckert, associate professor of history, had in mind when she conceived the course.

Eckert and Payne tag team the course, lecturing on events at different ends of Europe through time, as well as the different reactions to topical events, such as the Chernobyl nuclear crisis and German reunification.

“I started with the idea of Brexit as our last lecture and worked backwards, so we could understand how that came to be,” says Eckert, who spent last year in Germany watching the profound changes happening in Europe such as the refugee crisis, the Turkish coup and the British referendum to leave the European Union.

The class is less about rehearsing names and dates than about the broader contours of postwar European history, she adds. 

“I don’t expect anyone to remember all the factual detail, but if they encounter the shifts that the various European economics and societies have seen, they will understand the larger trajectory of the postwar development of the continent,” she says.

Broader understanding of history

Junior Shea Fallick, who is majoring in math and economics, has had his light-bulb moment in the course, just as he considers whether he will pursue a graduate degree in public policy or potential data analysis work in government or business.

Fallick says most of his economics courses go over the models and formulas, and the math coursework covers applications, but they don’t offer the perspective on those theories the way the history course has.

The History of Now gave him his first readings by John Maynard Keynes, who overturned the economic world, challenging the notion that free markets will always provide a job for those who want one by arguing for state intervention.

The pendulum swing to neo-liberalism, with its push for unrestricted markets and privatization, widened income inequality — and helped usher in a return to the nationalism now making headlines here and abroad.

“It’s a cycle,” he says. “I hope that what I’ve learned about the 1940s – about globalization with innovation – will come back and we won’t repeat the same mistakes. A broader understanding of history makes for a better understanding of the economics.”

Matt Gorin, a first-year student who has not declared a major, also thinks understanding the economics explains why governments takes the actions they do.

Getting perspectives from both the East and the West further explains how Europe, and the world, moved together over time.

“When you have more sides of the story, you can see how they connect now,” Gorin says. “Look at how Stalin’s desire to take over the Ukraine is a territorial dispute that still continues today. It connects to the United States and what we still think of Russia.”

Recognizing patterns of the past

Eckert and Payne have discussed offering the course again in the future, given the broad interest in trying to make sense of today’s events through the lens of history.

Kendall Chan, a first-year student who is undecided on her major, may be the best advertisement for continuing. Chan was interested in using the course to help her understand the context of the presidential election and other news.

She delved deeply into the history, arguing in her midterm that the postwar period in Europe was a chance for former colonial powers, weakened by war, to focus inward on their countries.

But when former colonial subjects turned up at their doorstep as part of postwar migration, those countries were forced to confront their racist and xenophobic responses, Chan wrote.

Whether that same provincialism could become common in the United States, she says, would depend on factors that battered Europe, like mass migration following war and struggles with national identity.

“I’m in the class because I wanted to understand the world around me, and in that regard, it has really paid off,” Chan says. “If you want to talk more fluently about current events, it helps to know what has really come out of the blue and what is another pattern we’ve seen before.”