A goodly swath of my students had not remembered hearing the term “Iron Curtain” before this year. I’d guess that just under half of them thought it was a form of physical barrier, a naval blockade, the term for Soviet security (hiding what was going on in the USSR and Eastern Europe), or a synonym for the Berlin Wall. At first I couldn’t understand why they didn’t know and understand the phrase. After all everyone had grown up hearing it! Except . . .
They hadn’t. Only I had.
I didn’t see the water I was swimming in. They were on the shore, looking at the water. Intellectually, I know they were born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but that’s different from really knowing what that means in terms of lived history. Desert Storm? Ancient. WWII? Legend. Civil War? Might as well be the wars of Athens and Sparta, although I do have a few with parents from abroad for whom the Iranian Revolution of 1979 is painfully vivid because of family stories, or a few other tribal encounters are equally close. I remember the Iranian Revolution, albeit in bits and pieces, and as mental pictures of trees with sun and rain faded yellow ribbons on them. And the friend of a distant relative who for a long time kept his mouth shut about that, because he’d been working for EDS. EDS got its people out. He wouldn’t say how.
But I grew up inside the Cold War, watching Flying command Post aircraft from SAC headquarters lumbering overhead. B-52s were common, Russia jokes were all over the place, and everyone got them.
Q: What’s black and white and red all over?
Or the joke about the human rights violations clocks. (Andropov [then Chernenko, then Gorbachev]: “Where’s the Soviet clock?” St. Peter: “it ticks so fast Hell uses it as a kitchen fan.”) The US and Britain were the good guys, the “Rooskies” or Soviets were the bad guys and there were two Germanies. There had always been two Germanies and there would always be two. The Soviets encouraged bad people to do nasty things, and the US didn’t. That’s what I recall growing up, although by the time of Iran-Contra, I had a slightly more realistic view of things. We didn’t have duck-and-cover drills at school. But I recall the talk about nuclear winter, and reading dystopian YA sci-fi like Z is for Zachariah and something about a girl and wolves moving south during a nuclear winter.
So I know what the Iron Curtain is, I know why Reagan called the USSR the evil empire and meant it. My students . . . don’t. I can’t take it for granted. In fact, they know more about Asian history (because of interest in samurai and ninjas thanks to anime) and medieval Europe than they do the Cold War.
That was a bit of a shock to my system.