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Using the Past to Shape the Future

Posted by Katherine Joyce
28 May 2013 - 1:34pm
History is about the future. We study to past the learn about our present and how we can achieve the future we want, both as individuals and as a community. 
We live in an unjust society. There is no true equality of opportunity. Equity measures are often seen as frills. But it does not have to be that way. Many people are working incredibly hard to bring change and to create a more equitable society.
History teachers have the power to aid those working for social justice. By incorporating the history of as many groups as possible into their lessons, teachers can create a past within the nation, province, or community for all of their students, not just those who can fit themselves into a hegemonic history. 
Having a known history gives a group power. Students want to know about their past. As students learn how groups that they and their peers are a part of participated in the community’s past, they can better understand that everyone and every group plays a valuable role in society.  It also allows students to gain an understanding of why equity measures are necessary in order to create real equality of opportunity. 
Learning about the history of social justice movements can also inspire students to take action, to be the change they want to see. Knowing about past successes and failures of those working to create a more just society can help students decide how they want to help shape the future.
However, teachers have to do more than just include this content in their lessons; they also have to help their students understand the importance of learning this content. Susan Graseck, director of the Choices for the 21st Century Program at Brown University, argues that “If we want our students to embrace the future that we are, in fact, constructing together, we must help them understand that we do not study history because it’s good for us, we study it because it is also about our future. They will only understand this if they can see the continuum from past to future and view the content we teach within the context of that continuum” (Susan Graseck, “Explore the Past to Understand the Present and Shape the Future,” Social Education  72(7): 371).
The history classroom is a an important forum for discussing and shaping the future we and our students want.
How do you engage with social justice issues and address the future in your history lessons?