caramida: (teacher)
So says, [ profile] casnow. Still, this is pretty drafty.

Why do I want to teach social studies? Really, it's about connections. Everything is connected with everything else. When someone asks me why I want to teach history, the first thing I want to do is tell them a story. For example, last Saturday, 26 September was Stanislav Petrov Day.

Many people forget that some of the coldest days of the Cold War weren't all that long ago. Late September of 1983 was fifteen weeks after the opening of WarGames, a movie about the threat of thermonuclear war that seems quaint now, but was terrifying at the time. It was also less than 60 days before we were all scared out of our wits by The Day After. In Hollywood, they were also making Red Dawn just then, a film about high schoolers fighting to defend their town from a Russian/Cuban invasion. Just six months before, Ronald Reagan described the Soviet Union as an Evil Empire. Even the sitcom Silver Spoons was airing episodes about Yuri Andropov and thermonuclear war. Fear was in the air, and a 12-year-old [ profile] caramida was combing his local public library for nuclear yield estimates, fallout maps and lists of likely target sites.

Just three weeks after the Soviets shot down a South Korean 747 with hundreds of US Citizens aboard, while the US and the USSR were still mortal enemies, deep in a Soviet Air Defense bunker, Stanislav Petrov saved the world.

Lieutenant Colonel Petrov was assigned to monitor Soviet missile detection satellites that watched the US for signs of the expected preemptive nuclear attack. You see, each side knew that the other side was prepared to launch, because the only hope of winning a nuclear war was by destroying the enemy before he could launch any missiles and also destroy you.

On 26 September, Colonel Petrov took a double-shift because a colleague was out sick that night. Around midnight, the monitors went red, alarms started blaring, and the satellite early warning network indicated that the United States had launched five missiles toward the Soviet Union. This was not a drill. Just then, the right thing to do from the perspective of a loyal and doctrinaire Soviet officer would be to press the metaphorical Big Red Button, which would launch the Soviet response to a US nuclear attack, sending thousands of Soviet ICBMs over the North Pole, thus bringing about The End of the World as We Knew It. What Colonel Petrov did instead, was stop a moment and think about the situation. Here's where I'd like to claim that Colonel Petrov's training as an historian gave him the critical thinking skills he needed to avert nuclear holocaust. Alas, Stanislav Petrov was trained as a scientist. His scientific training, and a dose of common sense led him to question: if the imperialistic and warmongering United States were going to launch a Nuclear First Strike, why would they do it with only five missiles? He did not order a retaliatory attack. He waited to see if the attack warning was somehow an error, risking a crushing loss if Soviet command and control were destroyed by the oncoming missiles before a response could be mounted.

And he was vindicated. The satellite warning system proved to be in error, offering what could have been civilization's most costly false alarm. Stanislav Petrov's cool head, and clear thinking may have saved humanity. Was he rewarded for doing so? Did the Soviet Union give him medals and promote him? No. Soviet officials, embarrassed by the error and upset with Petrov for not following protocol, forced Petrov into retirement and swore everyone involved to secrecy. The secret tale of Petrov's deeds only came to light after the fall of the USSR, when another former Soviet officer wrote a book about life in the Soviet Missile Defense Force.

Stories like the tale of Colonel Petrov need to be told. These stories not only show how one person can make a difference, can change the world for the better, but they also show how each of us is fundamentally affected by others in the world, even if we don't know how. The important thing here is not the date or the event outside of the information necessary to place it in context. What is important is the story and what it can tell us about ourselves. I want to tell some of these stories.

I want to teach history because an understanding of history brings me to a greater understanding of everything else. It's not only through examination of dates and events, but an understanding of cause and effect that we come to appreciate the connections that lie between us as individuals, and as groups—and between the past and the present. It is the stories that we tell that show us our common human heritage.

I want students to understand that what unites us is much greater than what sets us apart from one another. I want students to have an understanding of their shared past, so that they can use these stories, alongside their science education, and the skills they learned elsewhere, to be willful actors as they grow to be adults and citizens. Our stories make us who we are. As a society and as individuals, the tales we tell, the stories with which we identify, give us the context and the tools to find our own way in the world. Critical thinking, context, a sense of justice: all taught through stories. This is why I teach histories.
Mood:: 'satisfied' satisfied
location: home


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