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By Becky Brown and Dr. Michele Clouse  (Ohio University)

A common struggle with teaching history – at any level – is helping students connect to people living hundreds or even thousands of years ago in vastly different cultures. While daily life in the 21st century is markedly different from many of the times and places studied in your typical high school World History course, today’s students can readily identify with the disruptive effects of disease and epidemics. 

The Department of History at Bowling Green State University recently explored the histories of disease, health, and medicine through a professional development workshop provided for Northwest Ohio Social Studies teachers. Through a series of speakers, discussion groups, and resource sessions, middle and high school teachers shared knowledge and teaching techniques to help one another grapple with teaching a challenging, but timely, topic in history.  

The workshop featured distinguished historian of medicine, Dr. Michele Clouse, Associate Professor of History at Ohio University. Dr. Clouse pointed out the ways that some of her college students related their experiences with the Covid-19 pandemic to her own research field of disease in Medieval Spain, despite the wide gap in time, distance, and culture:  

“Students learned about the plague pits and thought of the mass burnings of Covid victims in India. We also talked about the refrigerated trucks parked on streets…people in medieval Spain were washing their money in vinegar to disinfect it. Students totally understood that.” 

Clouse also discussed how to help students move beyond basic “fact-gathering” and into “doing history.” She suggested that students should view a historian’s work  

“like a pyramid. The basic facts are at the bottom – we know the Black Death happened and killed this many people. What does that mean, how was it understood, what lessons can we draw – those are interpretive tasks that move you higher up the pyramid – and that is doing history.”  

The history of disease and medicine is an ideal avenue for students to learn historical thinking and learn how to “move up the pyramid” to apply it to real-world situations. Yes, most World History students learn about the Black Death. But how did the disease affect levels of society – rich and poor, urban and rural – differently? What other diseases were common at the time? How did globalization in the Age of Exploration introduce diseases to populations unused to handling them? Asking these questions in historical case studies helps middle and high school students investigate the nuance of their own experiences more effectively.  

Pandemics aren’t the only topic in history with resonance to modern challenges. In another session, Dr. Scott Martin shared his research into patent medicines of the 19th century and how they dramatically altered cultural perceptions around acceptable drug use.  

During roundtable groups, teachers discussed how this information echos present-day challenges of teaching difficult topics. Social studies teachers face the challenge of tackling difficult subjects in history – like disease, death, or drugs – with young students. Teachers and speakers shared practical ideas for how to handle these topics both sensitively and honestly in the classroom. One workshop participant noted:  

“I enjoyed the practical element of applying what we learned to the classroom. More application-based portions of workshops are a great thing to continue doing to tie everything together and give teachers a direct way that they can use it in their day-to-day. 

The histories of disease, health, and medicine integrate several ways of investigating history that move students beyond basic memorization of dates, famous leaders, and wars. Studying the way disease affects society invites students into the field of social and cultural history, where the experiences of everyday people are valued. It also helps students think about the ways scientific knowledge is developed, interpreted, and explained. Today’s teachers are both equipping students with the tools to better analyze and understand their own experiences during a medically fraught time and helping them see the relevance that past struggles have to the modern world.