The unit is one that I have been looking forward to teaching for years – but the time and the students had to be right. This semester, they are.
The subject is 1968, dubbed by former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw as “The Year that Changed Everything.”
The students are sophomores, mostly 15 years old, in an honors communication skills class.
And the time? Well, the time is the 40th anniversary of one of the most momentous years in American history.
So far, we have just skimmed the surface. Digging deeper will be their task, as they pick out people and events and issues to research, to explore, and to write and speak about.
Still, what a surface 1968 provides to skim.
I tell them that I was only 12 years old for most of that year, turning 13 on a hot night in August in the midst of the Democratic National Convention. I was just a boy then but old enough to remember an awful lot.
I realize that 1968 is as far removed from their time as Prohibition, Al Smith, and the “House that Ruth Built” are from my own, and yet key names, ideas, and places excite their sensibilities and make them want to know more.
Names like the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Joe Namath, Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Ideas like the sexual revolution, women's liberation, black power, the drug culture and non-violent resistance.
Places like Saigon, Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, Czechoslovakia, and even the surface of the moon.
I can see the interest on their faces and in their eyes, but most of all I can hear it in their questions.
Hard questions to answer
Some of those are easy to answer.
What was Richard Nixon doing during the years between his loss to John Kennedy in 1960 and his election to the presidency in 1968?
How did NASA choose the men who became part of the astronaut program?
How was an independent presidential candidate like George Wallace able to get on the election ballot in all 50 states?
Were there really water fountains and public toilets that were labeled “Whites Only”?
But the harder questions, the better questions – the questions that stir thought, discussion and debate – are those for which there are no easy answers, and perhaps no answers at all.
If the United States had poured more men, more firepower, more money, and more resources into Vietnam, was it possible a military victory could have been won there?
Or was the effort doomed from the very beginning?
Did King have a foreshadowing of his own death when he spoke of having been to the mountaintop and seen the Promised Land? Or was he simply speaking in the rich, prophetic imagery he so often employed?
If marijuana, LSD, and a variety of other drugs were illegal, with harsher penalties for their possession and use than those in place today, how did the drug culture gain root and flourish?
What did it mean, really mean, to be a hippie?
Making us think
Was our nation wrong to spend so much money on the effort to reach the moon when so many problems were crying out for attention on Earth, or did the space program provide uncountable benefits in science, in research, and in national pride?
If Robert Kennedy had turned left instead of right as he left the podium at the Ambassador Hotel, would he have lived to become president and to chart a history very different from that of the last four decades?
Is America a better nation, a more tolerant nation, a more peaceful and united nation today than it was 40 years ago?
And the final question, the most important question, and the one that should be asked not only by my students but by all Americans in this pivotal year:
What lessons learned from 1968 can be and should be applied to our lives in 2008? Odds are we won't find all the answers in our classroom at Draughn High School. And odds are even better that we won't agree on all the answers we do find.
But the search is what teaching, and learning, are all about.