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Using Pop Culture to Teach History

By default, pedagogy dictates that teachers employ almost exclusively "higher" or more "literary" sources in the classroom. Textbooks and works of art that aged well enough to be considered classics have come to constitute a canon of knowledge, separating appropriate information sources from the inappropriate.

Though this grouping system emerged for a good reason—teachers are perpetually stuck with limited time and seemingly limitless sources of information—it has often led to the underuse of sources that could otherwise help students relate, engage, and learn. Maybe the biggest of these untapped resources is the vast depository of social atmosphere and attitude that is pop culture.

Use the People as a Source

More authoritative and credentialed sources should always be the norm in classrooms, as they are one of a teacher's best weapons against misinformation and revisionism. However, they often stand to benefit from supplementation with other, lighter sources such as modern, mass-consumed culture.

As its name suggests, popular culture is in many respects the "voice of the people" and provides a cultural counterpart to the traditional focus on leaders and figureheads. No history is complete without including its common people.

Supplementing academic sources with more casual sources can provide a broader context of understanding for your students. This is especially true for younger students (Gen Z, for instance) who are more likely to identify with bloggers, singers, and gamers than they are with politicians and sociologists.

The combination of these sources has a similar effect to the modern use in many history classes of Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" alongside more traditionally top-down views of U.S. history. By combining bottom-up and top-down views, a single nation's history is presented in an exponentially broader context than either source would impart alone, and students get to learn from more diverse voices.

Teach Groups Through Their Art

Much of popular culture is art, and art acts as a window into a period's prevailing attitudes and struggles. It reflects both the culture of its age and any countercultures that may have arisen in opposition. To help students understand modern American history, show them hip-hop as it evolved to reflect political upheavals and economic struggles. As it is said, art reflects life.

So, too, does life reflect art. In addition to popular culture reflecting world/cultural view, it also plays a major role in guiding it. Music, poetry, and cinema have long been used as vehicles for protest and revolution, as well as state-controlled propaganda. When teaching such potentially uncomfortable subjects, playing topical songs or showing thematic movies can help students experience historical ideologies and conflicts in the more comfortable setting of fiction or semi-fiction. This is a particularly helpful method for upper-middle school and high school students.

Popular culture has not only been a major part of how we express history, but it has also been a major part of history itself. Human history chronicles peoples' deeds, and thus their most-consumed works are necessarily an important part of their histories. 

To teach the artistic and scientific advancements of the European Renaissance, for example, show students Renaissance art. Have older works they can compare it to. Make the suddenness of the revolution striking by contrast. For thousands of years, great events have stirred humans to create art and then stirred in kind by great art to cause great events; any comprehensive and accurate history requires both. Fun, engaging histories require both, too.

Show History in the Present

Pop culture has also become a revealing window into the ever-increasing trend of syncretism, or cultural mingling. As populations intermix, their cultures intermix also. Technology has made interaction between formerly isolated groups a commonplace and even mundane occurrence in the modern age. This is especially true for the youngest generations, many children who have had access to internet messaging and social media their entire lives.

This has led to genre-blending popular culture and globally-influenced art being the norm for many students. Be aware that it could be harder for modern, internet-enabled students to understand concepts like isolationism and how the New World and Old World could evolve so independently for so long.

A current and impactful example is the so-called "Korean Wave," an increase in South Korean culture's global popularity and influence over the last three decades. "K Dramas," themselves influences by the telenovela format originating in Latin America, now greatly impact the formula and content of American soap operas. Were you to teach about the modern history of South Korea without mentioning its cultural influence, students would be blind to half the picture. In broader terms, conveying the history of a nation through its hard power and not its soft power only creates a skewed and incomplete narrative.

You may even want to dive into the world of reggaeton for a fun geography lesson. Many popular artists in the US today are of Latinx and Hispanic descent and have brought reggaeton music to the forefront of pop music. Talk about the origins of the music (Puerto Rico) and how it spread to different countries (Colombia, Panama, etc.). 

Use Culture to Make History Pop

Despite the many important historical and social roles that popular culture has played throughout history, its single most important use in teaching is likely its simplistic, engaging appeal. As more and more educators find themselves working against changing attention spans, the liveliness and levity that popular culture brings to teaching sessions are becoming critical.

Put plainly, many children are simply more likely to enjoy information presented by music or cinema than they are by textbooks.

This makes pop culture a bridge to understanding, a way to prime students for denser material and help commit information to memory. After all, earworms last longer than speeches, even with the same number of words.

Final Words

If you're a teacher with a module or lesson plan that feels stagnant, outdated, or otherwise ineffective, consider revitalizing it with related music, cinema, or prose. If done artfully, both you and your students stand to gain a great deal more from your shared time and leave students with a better impression of history, to boot.

Written by Christopher Condry

Education World Contributor

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