- The Washington Times - Monday, November 9, 2009

Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, some political scholars and historians are facing the challenge of making that history relevant to today’s students — many of whom weren’t even alive in 1989.

“They know that they’re supposed to see it as important, but it doesn’t have the same visceral, experiential component,” said Georgetown University professor Jeffrey Anderson, who teaches in the university’s School of Foreign Service.

Mr. Anderson said his students have a better overall knowledge of the history of the Cold War than most of their U.S. peers, but still lack a complete contextual understanding.

“It comes close to being the first thing they remember seeing on TV,” Mr. Anderson said. “They may not have pieced it together at the time.”


Without that understanding, students are less likely to be influenced by the emotional context of the event and more likely to see the fall of the wall as a logical step in the collapse of communism, Mr. Anderson said.

Aviel Roshwald, who also teaches at Georgetown, said his students generally are limited in their understanding of the history surrounding the wall and have no emotional connection to it.

“If they don’t know anything else about the fall of communism, they know about the fall of the Berlin Wall,” said Mr. Roshwald, who has taught European diplomatic relations at Georgetown since 1991.

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Mr. Roshwald said that over the past 20 years, he has increasingly had to explain concepts such as “glasnost” and “perestroika” and the greater significance of the wall’s fall.

Glasnost means openness and refers to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s willingness to open up the communist government to greater transparency and accountability; perestroika means “restructuring” and refers to economic and political reforms Mr. Gorbachev introduced.

“In 1990, you didn’t have to explain why this was a big deal,” Mr. Roshwald said.

A small sample of local students would seem to confirm his assessment.

Several students started their answers with an explanation of East and West Berlin and a mention of communism when asked about the wall but didn’t know much else.

Howard University junior Shenise Miller, 20, said she remembered receiving a cursory lesson on the Berlin Wall as a high school student in Long Island, N.Y.

“We talked about it for two seconds in high school,” said Miss Miller, a political science major. “It was one page in my history book.”

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