Point of View
by CWIHP Project Associate Nancy Meyers
History is not just something that took place in the past; history happens in the present. It is the process of finding and interpreting new evidence—a continuing process in the field of Cold War history as so much new evidence comes to light.
Unfortunately, many students regard history as a tedious subject with lots of dates, places, and names to memorize—a perception that prompted the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) to develop a
teaching tool to help make history come alive.
In developing CWIHP's Cold War Files-Understanding History Through Documents website, I have several goals in mind: to allow students to view history as a process; to give enough context so that students can learn to use primary source materials; to provide students with critical thinking skills that they can use in all areas of study, and to help them understand how the Cold War years shaped present problems and conflicts, thereby deepening their understanding of the world today.
I hope students will become passionate about history and not regard it as something that lies stone-cold dead in their textbooks. Of course, students must have a firm grasp of the "basics," but learning how to interpret documents and trying to do it themselves helps them to become creative, critical thinkers.
Cold War history frequently is taught from a purely "American" perspective, in which often only the Americans are portrayed as proactive. But the "other side" consisted of live decision-makers too who did not stand by passively but tried to analyze situations, discuss options, and take action. Using primary source documents from the "other side" will allow students to virtually sit right in at the 1989 Malta Summit between Bush and Gorbachev and " hear" both sides, or be present as Khrushchev and East German leader Ulbricht argue about constructing the Berlin Wall—showing students that the "bloc" was not monolithic, that leaders of the "satellite" countries would jostle with the Soviets to try to achieve their goals.
Students can carry into their everyday lives the skills they develop while learning how to use primary source documents, such as deciding whether to "trust" the evidence, how important it is in relation to other bits of evidence, and where it fits into the whole picture. In the end, I hope the new website will provide teachers and students with useful information, skills, and new ways to think about history.