Getting students understand the relevance of the past for the present

Although political history and all the more history of political ideas is a self-evident item on political science curriculum, students, rather prone to instant gratification and anchored in the 'now', often resent focusing on the past, in particular, when it seemingly has no connection to their present. It is therefore one of the pedagogic challenges to render that past, however temporally remote, more relevant to the present, and not a particularly difficult at that, as long as the teacher is willing to reach beyond the conventional conception of histor(iograph)y as a linear story with its own intrinsic interest, which often cannot be easily linked to the general information stream that students are otherwise daily exposed to. Beside lecturing on this topic to graduate students in Political Theory, I have planned my Modern Political History class for political science juniors as a series of lectures, dedicated to analysis of past events and processes, which primarily explain "how the world has become what it is". Instead of the conventional (and biased) selection of the most important historical milestones, combined into a logical, yet ex-temporal narrative, I have based my lectures on those events and processes the interpretation of which can be closely related to our current global political reality and which explain evolution of principal ideologies/processes of modernity: rationalism, colonialism, nationalism and its pre-WW2 extremes, militarism, imperialism, communism, capitalism and democracy. In the course of the seminar, students are asked to pick any international political event which attracted global media attention and took place only days prior to their presentation and thoroughly inform the class on historical contexts of that event. A discussion follows during which all students are invited to add whatever information they have come upon regarding the presented event, as well as their views on how this event must have come about based on its historical context. Depending on the content, many political theories and methods can be effortlessly applied along the line, such as path dependence theory (Pearson, 2000) or contextualised comparison, to give but one example of each. Last but not least, students are being constantly reminded of the issue of credibility of historical and information sources, which enhances their ability for critical thinking, while the seminar in general improves their group communication skills.