Textbooks Give Way to Media As World Events Outpace History

POLITICAL science professor Richard Farkas is using a textbook titled "Contemporary Soviet Politics" in one of his courses at Chicago's DePaul University this fall. "But it's not contemporary at all," he says of the text."It has a 1990 publication date, but that means that it was wrapped and put to bed in '89. It's completely out of phase at the moment," Professor Farkas says. Textbooks are of little use to teachers and college professors trying to keep up with the rapid pace of change taking place around the world. The Soviet coup attempt, which occurred just weeks before most classes started, shook up lesson plans and altered course catalogs. "Things are happening so fast it's like sitting in a motion picture," Farkas says. Since it takes several years to produce new texts, educators are relying on newspapers, magazines, television, and other sources to help their students understand dramatic global events such as the Persian Gulf war, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the conflict in Yugoslavia. "It puts more responsibility on the students to follow what's going on in the news," says Charles Ziegler, who teaches political science at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. If they simply read the textbook, which is now hopelessly outdated, students end up confused, he says. "I emphasize that they should approach what's in the book as historical background." Students in elementary and secondary schools need even more help in understanding current events. Many teachers have turned to magazines and other materials written specifically for young people. During the Persian Gulf war last year, Scholastic Inc., a New York publisher of classroom magazines, increased its circulation by 15 percent. "When you're writing to a young audience you have to supply a lot of background and a lot of context and do a lot of explaining that the adult media often doesn't do," says Lee Kravitz, an editorial director at Scholastic. Mr. Kravitz recently returned from the Soviet Union, where he talked to young people about the changes taking place in their country and in their lives; he's reporting back to American students through Scholastic's three social-studies magazines. "The best way to show our readers the world is through the eyes of their peers who live in other parts of the world," Kravitz says. Some school districts are using educational television programming to get up-to-the-minute assistance with lessons. The Fairfax County, Va., public school system offers the 15-minute cable program CNN Newsroom to all 23 of its high schools. It's another tool for teachers to use as they see fit, says Glenn Kessler, director of the district's communications department. Some teachers are putting together their own makeshift materials. "As I read articles in magazines and newspapers, I'm tearing out pages that I can use in class, clipping them together, and creating a folder," says Rick Weis, chairman of the social studies department at Withrow High School in Cincinnati. Educators are finding that flexibility is essential when teaching about a world in fast forward. For his comparative politics course at the University of Louisville, Professor Ziegler reversed the order of the class syllabus at the last minute. The changing situation in the Soviet Union was dominating the news when classes began. "I wanted to take advantage of the increased student interest," he says. Although some educators view the constant changes caused by current events as a problem, Farkas finds that the situation "enlivens" his classes. "It makes my job more interesting, more exciting, and less routine," he says. "And the students are more tuned in. There's no challenge about making this relevant; they see it shaping their lives." But, even at the college level, some students don't have the background to fully appreciate the historic impact of the changes taking place around the world, educators say. "They're not coming with an awareness, for example, of where the [Soviet] system used to be," Farkas says. "So I've had to spend a couple of weeks talking about the classical system so we can use that as a launching platform for understanding why there's so much hullabaloo about what's happening now." Part of the problem is that world history is getting neglected in some high schools, according to a 1989-90 study by the National Center for History in the Schools. Although three-fourths of US high schools offer world history courses, only 66 percent require the class for graduation. Among junior high and middle schools surveyed, 40 percent do not teach world history at all. At the same time, some teachers are finding themselves at a loss when it comes to explaining the fast-changing world political situation. "As a teacher you feel that you should have a certain expertise," Mr. Weis says. "Occasionally you have to tell a student, 'Well, I don't know the answer to that question.' But when it comes to events in the Soviet Union, more often than not you find yourself not quite sure exactly what's going on." About the best teachers can do, Weis says, is to tell the students to "stay tuned," along with the rest of us.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.