Missing my students during a teachable moment

The big news this week is the Brexit — Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.

I wish they hadn’t voted to leave, but if they were going to do it, I wish it would have happened while school was in session. This is an incredible teachable moment.

In almost any class — but particularly in a government or English class — you could talk with students about the post-vote Google searches in England, like “what is the EU?” and “what happens if we leave the EU?”

Should citizens be informed before they vote? What happens if they are not? And how were people persuaded to vote either way without even knowing what they were voting on?

In econ class, of course, we’d talk about the falling value of the British pound, as well as the ongoing debates about free trade v. protectionism and the impact of immigration. What does it mean for the British people if their currency loses value, and what will it mean for us?

Will the British miners and steelworkers, who have seen their wages fall in the global economy, actually benefit from exiting the European Union?

But a history class would benefit the most from a moment like this. One of the reasons students dislike history and find it boring is that they don’t see history as a series of decisions with potential outcomes — they see it only as the past, fixed in stone.

American history students, encouraged by textbooks that focus on “American exceptionalism,” are also likely to see history as a series of events in which the U.S. vanquishes enemies and rises to the top — without much sense that it could all change, that other outcomes are possible, or even that American “progress” has had negative consequences for many.

That approach might instill patriotism, but it doesn’t make history interesting or engaging. What’s interesting is realizing that every historical event was caused by people — by flawed, biased, imperfect people like us — and that people’s actions have unintended consequences.

From a 16-year-old’s perspective, of course the Civil War ended slavery. Of course the U.S. and its allies won World War II. Of course the wall came down, and the Soviet Union broke up. It’s not until you live through a few of these events and see the messy and complicated way they happen, that they start to become fascinating. The question we should be asking our history students isn’t “what happened?” but “what would you do?”

The British will leave the E.U. Scotland might leave the U.K. Catalonia might leave Spain. Russia might move further into Ukraine, and China might swallow up Taiwan.

The nations that are hostile to us today — like North Korea, Iran and Venezuela — might be the places your child goes to study abroad some day. The world isn’t the steady, stable place many students think it is — for better and for worse.

I have no idea what to expect from the Brexit. I fear that it will have negative repercussions, especially on global economic stability, but I also know that the “leave” voters have felt real pain in the last few decades, and maybe this vote will trigger positive changes for workers.

What I do know is that if we were in school, we’d be talking about it. And I miss that.