A Veteran Teacher’s Lessons: Reading and Writing about Historical Parallels

By David Forrest posted 05-15-2020 12:17:13 PM


It has been jarring to see current images of US farmers dumping milk, destroying crops and animals, while long lines of hungry Americans wait at food banks. For those of us who teach US History, it is sadly reminiscent of the Great Depression when farmers poured out milk and plowed under pigs, while famished Americans stood in breadlines and soup kitchens. “History never repeats itself but it often rhymes,” seems tragically true today.  To give context to what students are seeing in the news today, have students explore these historical parallels with a variety of written and online resources.

Farmers Dumping Milk During the Great Depression
 Farmers Dumping Milk Today

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, with the shuttering of parts of our economy the demand for some farm commodities has plummeted. For example, closed restaurants and schools are no longer purchasing milk, forcing several dairies to destroy their cows’ daily production.

Similarly, in the 1930’s during the Great Depression farm prices collapsed. Some desperate farmers dumped milk, destroyed crops, and plowed under pigs. John Steinbeck, in Chapter 25 of Grapes of Wrath, wrote poignantly about the destruction of crops in a time of hunger, “The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price, and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all. Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground.”  Additionally,  The Digital History Project, created by University of Houston history professors, contains excellent information about the reasons that Depression Era farmers dumped products while many in the nation went hungry. 

Students can compare eras by reading current online articles to learn about similarities and differences between milk dumping then and now. For example, have students read the recent USA Today article, “Fact Check: Farmers are dumping milk because of changes in demand, bottling limitations.” 

For students who need help comparing and contrasting these two examples, provide them with an organizer, either a Venn Diagram or a Top Hat Organizer. This allows students to pull details from both the historical and current events, detailing the ways in which they were different and similar, before they begin writing on the topic.

 Finding Photos – Past and Present

Finding photos online is a second way for students to explore events, past and present. For example, The National Archives and the Library of Congress provide a large archive of historical photos, including pictures of breadlines and soup kitchens from the 1930’s. Among the most famous is Dorothea Lange’s photo, The White Angel Breadline, found in the National Archives.

      Breadline - 1930's

Food Bank Car Line - 2020 

In the current economic crisis brought on by the pandemic, the food banks have been overwhelmed with thousands of Americans, needing basic sustenance. Reuters News Service recently posted online photos of these desperate Americans, whether in long lines of cars or cueing to receive boxes and bags from local food pantries.

Ask your sheltered-in-place students to find their own photos from the wealth of online resources. Their assignment is to illustrate current challenges, like those faced in the past. Decide on how you’d like your students to share what they’ve learned, perhaps in a virtual classroom meeting or by posting them and writing about their images for other classmates.

 Searching for Solutions: Then and Now

Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal sought to mobilize the federal government to help Americans struggling during the Great Depression. On the Digital History’s online textbook chapter on the 1930’s, students can read about the First Hundred Days, including the various programs designed to aid workers, farmers, businesses, and banks. In addition, the website has useful teacher lesson plans, downloadable in pdf format. For example,  the Chapter 8 Lesson on the New Deal asks students to advise President Roosevelt on various fiscal and monetary policies, including several Alphabet Soup programs endorsed by the Roosevelt administration. 

These online resources provide plenty of opportunities for students to evaluate the New Deal, to enter the debate of the time – whether the increasing role of government in American life was necessary and successful in fighting the Depression. The Digital Library resources include voices of New Deal supporters, but critics from both the right and the left, as well. 

The appraisal of the New Deal provides a springboard for students to evaluate current governmental efforts in combating the coronavirus and the ensuing economic fallout. Teachers might ask their students to find two online articles, one which highlights a positive governmental response to the current crisis and a second which focuses on a failure. These can be online news reports on federal, state, or local governments.

For example, students may want to find articles evaluating the effectiveness of the Trump Administration’s response to the virus or the efficacy of the relief packages passed by Congress and signed by the President. Or perhaps have your students contrast Republican and Democratic Party viewpoints over additional relief funding for state and local governments and argue their own position. Your class might look at various efforts in their states, such as Gavin Newsom’s efforts to have struggling local restaurants provide meals for seniors in need or Andrew Cuomo’s attempts to get excess milk  from New York farmers to food banks.  

FDR’s New Deal made long lasting changes in the relationship between government and its citizens with programs such as Social Security. Teachers may want to ask their students to speculate about broad societal changes that might result when the current pandemic has passed. Or perhaps pose the question to your class: what changes to the US do you hope for in our post pandemic world? 

Whether we use traditional textbooks or online resources, this is an opportunity for students to grapple with the “rhymes” of history, comparing then and now. Whether we are in our classrooms or using Zoom from home, it is a chance to have young people ponder the lessons of the Great Depression, for as George Santayana wrote 1905, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”