“I’m shocked, SHOCKED, to find that there’s gambling going on here.”
“Round up the usual suspects.”
“I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems
of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
You will have your own favorite quotes from Casablanca; but most folks “of a certain age,” have some recognition of lines and scenes. It’s part of our cultural heritage, even if we weren’t born then (1942).
The same cannot be said of those born in the last thirty years.
It’s not just the techno-differences between generations, it’s broader cultural change, like the difference in popular music (pre- and post- Elvis/Beatles), sex, reading habits, work style (silk ties every day for “white collar” workers), and so many other things.
As one who didn’t have kids to keep me (relatively) current with popular culture, it’s a particular effort to comprehend and communicate. I do my best to connect with my students, but I know that (even professorial demeanor aside) I’m struggling to avoid being dismissed as so much “dad culture.” I have no hope of “hip-hop,” I struggle with social media (even FB), and don’t even get me started on “tats.”
Ah well, “We’ll always have Paris.”
When I first started teaching, I tried to tell a Marx joke (Groucho, not Karl); but the blank looks made clear that neither was comprehensible to my millennial students. (I do wonder which one will be more remembered in 200 years!). Now, I stick with much more topical puns (but that assumes that they’re on top of current affairs). It’s a tough gig.
I feel sad, both about apparent decreasing relevance, but also because I enjoy (revel in) the cultural milieu in which I grew up. This all challenges my sense of “timeless” cultural values and what makes for a “classic.” Maybe it really is all ephemeral. After all, I wouldn’t have been caught dead paying attention to vaudeville in the 1970s; however much my grandparents thought it was the “cat’s pajamas.” I’m willing to acknowledge that my affinity for “disco” for a few years might not make that genre into a “classic,” but I will insist on the enduring brilliance of the original SNL cast/characters/skits.
One of the benefits of teaching history is that the entire enterprise is founded on the relevance of the past, no matter how distant. How is Putin like Kaiser Wilhelm II? Does the decline of Europe in the 20C offer any useful insights into America in the 21C? Students who walk into a history class know that they’re going to have to think in these kind of terms and a fair number accept this premise; which makes for a better class, allows me some leeway to draw the connections and, as E.H. Carr said, put the past “in conversation with the present.”
So, at least I have a chance at pulling out some old chestnuts. Mostly this takes the form of quotes from significant or preceptive figures from the past: Churchill, Napoleon, Jefferson, Gandhi, Voltaire, and Marx (both Groucho and Karl). Contextualizing these thinkers (essential in any serious historical discussion) ensures that I don’t get lost in nostalgia and idolizing. It also gives students a clue that just as the past must be taken on its own terms; so, too, must the present: their present. There are (significant) limits to connecting the past with the present. And we can’t pretend that our work/ideas/sensibilities are timeless; merely do the best we can in the circumstances as we understand them.
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in the world, she walks into mine.”
Casablanca reminds us that contingency is ubiquitous. It is essential to parsing history. It is also useful to remember in the course of teaching. Each class is different, the presence of one student changes the spin of the class and requires a different approach to the material we’re working with. Just as Rick’s world turned upside down when Ilsa walked into the bar, so do I get to remember that all my lovely lesson plans can quickly go by the boards. As I learned when I did corporate strategy, “the only thing we know about a plan is that the reality will be different.” It was true for Madison at Philadelphia in 1787 and for the Germans trying to knock out the French in 1914 and for my conception of how to talk about how Communism collapsed in the 1980s as part of my course on “Europe in the 20th Century.” Being aware of this precariousness tells us a lot about how to draw “meaning” from history. It also keeps teaching fun; because even the seventh time I give the lecture, it comes out different and I have to pay attention.
I guess I could teach a whole history course based on Casablanca: war, nationalism, race relations, colonialism, corruption, idealism, historiography, love. Could I figure out how to make all of it “relevant”? How to get the students to connect to it and draw skills and insights that they could use in the rest of their (likely) less exotic lives? It might be fun (even if I could never get it past the Curriculum Committee).