Can the study of history help students to cope meaningfully with the impact of current world events?

History is unfolding all around us. Between the pandemic, the impacts of climate change and extreme weather, events in US and UK politics, the war in Ukraine and even the death of Britain’s longest-serving monarch – there is no doubt we are living in interesting times, to put it mildly!

Of course, interesting rarely equates to prosperous and peaceful – as noted by Frederic Coudert in his famous opening remarks at the Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science in 1939:

Some years ago, in 1936, I had to write to a very dear and honoured friend of mine, who has since died, Sir Austen Chamberlain, brother of the present Prime Minister, and I concluded my letter with a rather banal remark, “that we were living in an interesting age.”

Evidently he read the whole letter, because by return mail he wrote to me and concluded as follows: “Many years ago, I learned from one of our diplomats in China that one of the principal Chinese curses heaped upon an enemy is, ‘May you live in an interesting age.’

For today’s young people, watching history unfold around us is a double-edged sword. It’s undeniably a bit thrilling to see first-hand the events that we know will shape our world for years, decades and even centuries to come. On the other hand, the constant and steady influx of information on social media – particularly when the news is far from happy – can leave all of us feeling apprehensive, overwhelmed, confused – and even frightened.

We already know that young people are particularly susceptible to ‘eco-anxiety’ – that is, fear about the climate crisis and the impact it is having on mental health. The World Economic Forum suggests a three-pronged approach to managing eco-anxiety in young people:

  • Problem-focused coping: making active strides to address climate change.
  • Emotion-focused coping: managing negative emotions related to climate change.
  • Meaning-focused coping: managing negative emotions related to climate change, while simultaneously promoting positive emotions like hope by combating climate change.

These three strategies can also be applied to help students with negative emotions related to current events more broadly. We believe it is the third strategy – meaning-focused coping – where the study of history, amongst other disciplines taught in our secondary schools, becomes so important.

How can history help students with meaning-focused coping?

For those who do not study history, it may sound counter-intuitive that the study of the past is integral to understanding and navigating current events. This could not be further from the truth.

As historian Peter Stearns noted in his ground-breaking 1998 essay for the American Historical Society (Why Study History?):

“… history offers a storehouse of information about how people and societies behave… Major aspects of a society’s operation, like mass elections, missionary activities, or military alliances, cannot be set up as precise experiments. Consequently, history must serve, however imperfectly, as our laboratory, and data from the past must serve as our most vital evidence in the unavoidable quest to figure out why our complex species behaves as it does in societal settings.”

In other words, can the study of specific historical events with links to the present help students find meaning amongst the chaos?

Dr Deb Hull, Executive Officer of the History Teachers’ Association of Victoria, thinks it can.

“A lot of things that are happening in the world can seem inexplicable, and it can feel like there is nothing young people can do to effect change,” she says. “Studying history always shows us that there were forces, events and individuals that led us to this point. It wasn’t random.”

The study of history can also provide a sense of perspective, and a better understanding of how events are likely (or unlikely) to unfold, says Dr Hull.

“If you are unaware of history, it can seem as though the trajectory of events you are living through is linear. It can seem like ‘the world’ is getting more tolerant or united about x, and more divided and angry about y,” says Dr Hull.

“People who study history see that progress and conflict are not always linear, and they are usually localised – rights that are won can be taken away again if they are not defended, hostilities that appear inevitable can be averted, devastated landscapes can be regenerated, one nation can make historic leaps forward while another lurches into misery.

“What we witness during our lifespan is part of a much longer and wider story, and history gives us a better perspective on that.”

The last (very challenging) three years of the pandemic are a great illustrator of this. While it is a unique event in our lifetimes – it is not unique in recent history.

Indeed, epidemiologists have made considerable progress in predicting the course of the pandemic and the impact on our society by studying data from the last similar global event, one hundred years ago. We know from these comparisons there is a likely pathway forwards, and even the approximate timing of that pathway. This data helps to provide the hope that is an integral component of meaning-focused coping.

Bringing the past to life for secondary students

We believe one of the critical ways to link secondary students with important events of the past is to immerse them in it – through experiential learning activities that bring history to life, and help to demonstrate that many current events, however overwhelming, have their roots in the past and have been overcome by those who came before us.

For example, it can be an incredibly intense, confronting and emotional experience for a student of history to visit a Nazi concentration camp, or stand before the Menin Gate in Ypres and listen to the Last Post being played – as it has every night since the end of World War I. While both locations have witnessed such intense human suffering, many visitors find the simple act of immersing themselves in the location creates a wonderful sense of continuity with the past.

It can also serve as a reminder of the resilience of our species, and the fact that we ultimately have agency over many things, according to Dr Hull.

“All the good and all the bad, humans have either chosen it or chosen their response to it,” says Dr Hull. “There is real hope in that because it means there will be forces, events and individuals that will shape the future too, and every young person will play a part in that.”

How can we help?

Latitude Group Travel is Australia’s leading provider of custom-designed, curriculum-linked school trips and educational tours for late primary and secondary school students. We’re committed to helping teachers and their students bring their classroom learnings to life by creating memorable and unique experiences which are packed with experiential learning opportunities.

Our History tours – whether focused on revolutions, Ancient History, Modern History, Australian History or anything in-between – are designed to not only help students understand the past, but also contextualise current events. All our itineraries allow your group to take in iconic sights combined with as many classes, workshops, themed guided tours, or subject related activities as you wish.

Maybe a visit to the home of democracy in the ancient world (Greece) can further understanding of what is unfolding in its modern homes of the U.S, the U.K. and here in Australia, providing inspiration and helping students to draw comparisons between the two eras. Meanwhile, the Agora of Athens can be life-changing for any student with an interest in civics – as can a tour of Washington, for those who are drawn to the modern era!

To find out more:

Tour Brochures – Request a copy of any of tour brochures by filling out the form – we’ll send it to you via email
Get in touch to find out how to claim the discount for your school.

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