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generations

For the generation of students I am now teaching, Radovan Karadzic might seem like ancient history. Only my older nontraditional students remember the Bosnian War. Those in their twenties and teens were either too young at the time to notice, or their parents spared them such grim images on the news. And soon I’ll have students who hadn’t been born yet.

So it is getting time to figure out how to include this material in an already full European history survey that barely does justice to the end of the Cold War. So far I’ve only managed a few words in the context of a thematic lecture on human rights. Sometimes it also comes up in a followup discussion to my lecture on war and society, because the reader I frequently use includes diary entries from Zlata Filipovic, a young girl caught in the war in Sarajevo. (Here’s a video interview with her on Charlie Rose.)

Radovan Karadizic’s recent arrest provides a fresh opportunity to reflect on that war, since he is now in the media spotlight. I just wish that the wheels of justice in the Hague spun a little faster, for people’s attention spans are short, and the media lets this kind of thing disappear quickly from its front pages.

Some recent news items:

Sorry that most everything is from the New York Times and none of the articles are European. If you know of an article offering good information on this war or interesting reactions to the arrest and the international tribunal, please share it in a comment.

When I went to the student coffee shop on Friday, the student at the cash register guessed my order before I could tell him what I wanted. I remarked that I had had similar experiences with regulars when I worked at a Dunkin’ Donuts over twenty years ago. His response: “They had Dunkin’ Donuts back then?”

For me there has always been a Dunkin’ Donuts. Indeed, according to Wikipedia and the corporate website of Dunkin’ Donuts, the first store opened in 1950, which is close enough to “always” for someone born in the early 1960s. So why did the student think Dunkin’ Donuts was new? His own answer was eminently practical: “I haven’t even been alive for twenty years.” Still, his underlying assumption that so much of the world around him was new took me aback.

Maybe I should not have been surprised by his presentism. After all, the current generation of students has grown up hearing that they live in a completely different world than the one into which I was born. They have heard from their parents and teachers about a bygone world in the midst of a Cold War without personal computing, the internet, cell phones, iPods, and global warming. And then there are the many students who have grown up in new subdivisions, schools and strip malls.

What do these thoughts have to do with me and Clio? One of my main goals in my undergraduate survey courses is to teach historical thinking, which in part entails helping students appreciate not only that the world has a past, but that the people in that past saw that world through different eyes. But it is not enough for me to ask them to see how the world looks when it is filtered through the experiences of earlier generations. In order to do my job, I find it helps if I meet them halfway and try to understand how the world looks when filtered through their experiences. Of course, I usually end up looking uncool in the process, but as the father of a teenager I am used to that.

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