Visit me at (Click here for link) I have "moved" some older posts to this site.

How to Cover 30 Years of History in 30 Minutes (or less)

Rarely do songs go as well with a blog post as this one does:

I am teaching a class this semester that covers all of United States History, from Columbus to Obama, in nine weeks (six hours per week). This is an unusual format for me. At the three other schools where I teach, the classes either cover Early American History (before 1877) or Modern American History (post-1877). Plus, classes usually last for sixteen weeks and meet for three hours per week. So students in this “unusual” format are expected to absorb 500 years of History in half of the normal time.

By cutting out some material and moving faster than I normally do, I have been able to get through all of this information when I have taught with this format in the past. I am always worried, however, that if I don’t pace myself properly, I could end up being forced to cover the last thirty years of American History in about a half an hour. So should that ever occur, here is how I might go about covering the years from 1980-2010 during those last precious minutes of class time:

“So in 1980, things were not looking too good for our country. Inflation was out of control, Americans were starting to buy lots of things from other countries (especially Japan), and things like the Iranian hostage crisis made us look weaker around the world. So many Americans turned to a conservative ex-actor named Ronald Reagan to be our savior. He had the right plan for the right time: to get government out of our lives – cut taxes, roll back regulations, cut expensive social programs - and to build up the military so that we could once again take on communists and other evildoers. After a couple of bad years, the economy started to turn around, and inflation was brought under control. As the economy grew, many Americans went back to our good old-fashioned heritage of materialism and individualism. Even some TV preachers used channels on a phenomenon called cable television to tell people that God would make his devoted followers rich. After all, what did years of that hippy, anti-materialist, liberal, secular, “peace and love” crap get us? We rediscovered what Americans always knew: that money makes you happy. There were some problems, however, that would come back to haunt us. The federal government was running big budget deficits, wealth was more concentrated toward the top, and the push toward deregulation may have eventually gone too far.

Then George W. Bush’s dad became president, and an amazing thing happened. The Soviet Union, and their puppet governments in Eastern Europe, collapsed. To the shock of almost everyone, the Cold War was over. This was fantastic, but there was one big problem: what would guide our foreign policy now? For forty-five years, U.S. actions were consistently guided by a desire to defeat communism. Without the big bad buy, what would be the plan? At first, Saddam Hussein stepped into the role of bad guy when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Here was a chance to use that big military that Reagan built up in the 1980’s, and in a matter of days, the Iraqi army was annihilated. Suddenly, Americans were waving flags again and celebrating a military victory. For many, this was a sign that the embarrassment of Vietnam was being put behind us. “Bush the first” seemed like a lock to win re-election.

But when the economy went bad for a while in the early 1990’s, and a quirky businessman named Ross Perot decided to run for president, the door was open for an unknown governor named Bill Clinton to become our next president. And conveniently for him, the economy took off on the longest ride of sustained economic growth in American history. Much of this was due to the increasing integration of the global economy, the growing sophistication of personal computers, and the expanding use of something called the internet (which Clinton’s Vice President had apparently “invented”). And as many Americans gorged themselves on all of this wealth and invested into new high-tech products and industries, politics was of limited interest. O.J., Monica, and Y2K kept us distracted, and it wasn’t like politicians were getting much done anyway. We had a Democratic President and a Republican Congress, and as the two parties became increasingly hostile, they seemed to spend more time talking about Clinton’s sex life than proposing effective policies. Things seemed to be going remarkably well anyway – the federal government actually ran a surplus for a while - so the lack of political achievements did not seem like a big problem. Also, our newfound status as the world’s only remaining superpower created a sense of safety from foreign threats.

But due to Clinton’s “sexual issues,” Al Gore’s lack of political charisma, a spoiler named Ralph Nader, our ridiculous system for choosing Presidents, and the beginnings of a mild recession triggered somewhat by the “dotcom bubble”, “Bush II” became president in one of the stranger elections in history. George W. Bush immediately began to push the Reagan agenda. Then, within a matter of months, the growing terrorist threat that most Americans had spent years ignoring and neglecting hit our country on 9/11. Suddenly, we had a big, scary enemy again, and as you are well aware, the “War on Terror” has been proceeding ever since. Most Americans were terrified and ready to “kick ass” for a while, but it did not take long for many people to become distracted once again by good old-fashioned materialism and the wonders of modern technology: cell phones, high speed internet, social networking, reality TV, “Tivo”, etc. They were also distracted by a new bubble in real estate that began to form after the previous internet bubble had burst. Housing prices rose rapidly, fueled largely by insane loans packaged together into strange, unregulated financial instruments that few understood. Then, toward the end of the Bush presidency, the financial system crashed and burned, and government came running to the rescue.

This collapse laid the groundwork for an amazing event: the election of the first non-white man to the presidency. Unfortunately for President Obama, he came into office at a time of several crises: conflict dragging on in Iraq and Afghanistan, economic recession, the rising cost of health care, and an intensifying level of partisan bitterness that can be traced back to the Clinton years. To a large degree, our nation is beginning to pay the price for past foolishness. Unsustainable spending on Medicare, Social Security, and Defense has caused ballooning budget deficits now that the economy has slowed down. Reckless borrowing and spending over the course of many years brought us to the brink of disaster, although the government, at a very high cost, has apparently managed to ward off a huge crisis. Has the time come where we have to face reality? Have we started to realize that our political and economic systems as they currently stand are unsustainable? Or will self-centered special interest groups and continued partisan bickering continue to hold back meaningful reform?

Every generation must ask itself how the people of the future will judge them. I have a feeling that the last 30 years will be remembered for a couple of things. First, it will be remembered as the beginning of a technological revolution comparable to the invention of agriculture or to the industrial revolution of the early nineteenth century. It is still too early to tell where this change will ultimately lead us. Second, it will be remembered as a period of reckless borrowing and spending – in both the private and public sectors - fueled by the belief that happiness comes from accumulating the stuff that every American has a God-given right to have. And as Americans were distracted by their desire for things, tough decisions have been put off by politicians (of both parties) who are afraid of telling American voters the truth: taxes must inevitably be raised, significant spending cuts on big budget programs must be made, the health care system must become more financially efficient, and we must begin the initially painful process of moving toward an economy that is not based on fossil fuels. In short, Americans must make sacrifices. These tough decisions have been put off for too long, and my grandkids might look at me someday and ask me what the hell we were thinking.”


  1. Impressive job. Compressing all that information is no small task!

    When I taught Social Studies in fifth-grade, I had to cover from the Bering Land Bridge until (drumroll please) westward expansion. Or at least Lewis & Clark. Did I mention the students had a standardized test that year? And if their fourth-grade teacher didn't cover Canada and Mexico adequately in fourth-grade, those questions fell by the wayside. And I had to hope there wouldn't be an essay question on something not covered.

    When I left fifth-grade, wouldn't you know it, they got rid of the test. Now I think of all the fun I could've had with them not teaching to the test.

  2. It's tricky. There is so much stuff that you could possibly cover that it's hard to figure out a logical curriculum. At some point, however, so much material is packed into a class that it is hard to cover anything at all.

  3. Throughly enjoyed your perspective over that last 30 years... Very informative!!!!!


Comment (Anonymously if you wish)