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History Helps Students Understand the Present, but not When History's Cut From The School Curriculum | The Nation

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History Helps Students Understand the Present, but not When History's Cut From The School Curriculum

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About the Author

Demetrius Shahmehri
Demetrius Shahmehri is a senior at Northampton High School in Massachusetts and enjoys studying history, Latin, and...

In 1848 the Italian states were in turmoil as liberal revolutionaries tried to secure a united Italy. When these efforts failed, Camillo Cavour, the prime minister of Sardinia-Piedmont, embraced a "politics of realism," or Realpolitik, and became the unlikely champion of Italian nationalism. Instead of practicing politics based on ideology, Cavour was pragmatic. He was willing to lay aside principle in order to achieve political goals.

I first heard this story in my Advanced Placement Modern European History class almost two years ago. In the wake of a heated Democratic presidential primary, I was learning about Cavour's 1853 attempt to further Italian interests by allying with Great Britain and France in the Crimean War. Cavour made a secret agreement with Napoleon III that France would go to war with Austria should Austria invade Piedmont. Cavour then shrewdly staged a military maneuver near the Austrian border, provoking an attack and drawing France into the conflict. Other Italian states joined the war on the side of Piedmont—-Piedmont then annexed these states at the war's end. Inspired by the promise of unification, the famous Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi led a thousand volunteers to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and forced their annexation. Through the calculating political maneuvers of Cavour and the charismatic leadership of Garibaldi, the Italian state was created.

I became politically aware during the intense nationalism and extreme political partisanship of the post-9/11 era. To me, the story of Italy's unification seems more relevant than ever. It shows how powerful the idea of nationalism is, offers examples of leaders who manipulate events to gain support  and, most importantly, demonstrates how it often takes a variety of approaches to achieve something truly grand. A single Cavour or a lone Garibaldi could have made strides towards unification, but it took both men and both forms of political action to bring Italy together.

AP Euro was one of the most challenging and exciting classes I have ever taken. Unfortunately, this class was one of several canceled at my high school last year because of budget cuts.

The town of Northampton, Massachusetts, like towns all over the United States, had its budget slashed. A tax override offered some relief, but sacrifices had to be made, including a brief teacher furlough and staff cuts. For students, this meant having fewer classes to choose from. As in many schools, art and music classes were the first to go. Chamber music, music theory and ceramics were all removed from the curriculum. I'm an avid classical musician, but I understood the rationale behind these cuts. Art and music classes enrich the school's culture and the lives of the students who take them. But when funds aren't available, these classes are the obvious victims.

Cutting classes like AP Euro undermines more than just the study of history. When I took the class in my sophomore year, our teacher often reminded us that it was a college-level class, and looking back, I think of it as the first class that required me to examine the world in a mature, academic way. Learning about the Realpolitik of leaders like Cavour and Bismarck made me think about how politicians use rhetoric and action for political ends  and, more importantly, about the power of reasoned, rational thinking in decision-making. As a musician, the class helped me understand how the history of Europe affected the music of Europe. It introduced me to the works of thinkers like Kant and Locke, kindling an interest in philosophy that I still pursue.

Students at Northampton High School this year didn't have the opportunity I had just two years ago. Learning about history in a rigorous, analytical way enriches the mind and inspires ideas. History provides a context that is essential to understanding the world, politically and culturally. When students don't learn about history, it cripples their ability to understand the nuances of modern politics. When history gets cut, schools are failing in their mission to produce educated citizens.

Fortunately, my school got a grant this year that enabled it to revive a few advanced-placement programs in the upcoming school year, among them AP Euro. After next year, the future of the class is unclear. Taking this class has greatly enriched my life, and I hope it becomes a permanent fixture in the school's curriculum. The benefit to me has been clear. As I try find meaning in stories in the news, I can't help but find analogies in history. When I think about nationalism, I think beyond the idea of the stars and stripes and consider the ways it can be both great and horrifying. Congress certainly has its share of Cavours, and even a couple of Garibaldis. While I may be swayed by their rhetoric, I'm learning how to listen for their meaning.

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