by Alan Zhu
This story starts with a graph. My co-teacher and I are doing research for our inconveniently named class, “Did We Start the Fire? History from 1949-1989 as Told by Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire.'” There’s a very useful website called Genius which has, through the power of crowdsourcing, compiled the references made by Joel in each of the 100+ lyrics.
One of the earlier lyrics in the song is “television”, which refers to the rising trend in television ownership in the United States, one of the cultural touchstones of the 1950s. This is all well and good, but under this lyric, some contributor has added this graph:
The reason such a graph would be created is unclear, but without context it seems to imply that television ownership in the United States is a key contributor to increasing per capita homicide statistics (with the caveat, of course, that correlation does not imply causation). This is too humorous not to include in our slides, and so we put it in as a sort of “relatable meme” for our students in our first lecture.
The first lecture is going along quite well, and we get to this slide. It gets the amusement we expect it to bring—’lol’s in the chat, students laughing on camera. People discuss possible motivations for such a claim—maybe people use TV’s to commit homicide, since they’re “heavy and pointy”? We’re moving on to the next section of the class, and someone in chat mentions that a “very big spoon” is, in fact, also heavy and pointy.
And the chat explodes. Throughout the rest of the class, whether we are discussing the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (“England’s got a new queen”) or the angsty narration of Holden Caulfield (“Catcher in the Rye”), someone is making a connection between the lyric, spoons, and their capacity for use as a murder weapon. The meme continues on throughout the rest of the lectures, albeit at a lower rate; someone uses the spoon emoji as a nickname for the Kahoots we run at the beginning of each class, another person describes Sputnik as “Spoontnik”, etc.
Now, to zoom out a little bit. If I were to describe the history of our “We Didn’t Start the Fire” history class (yes, we’re getting meta), this would be known as a key event. In more traditional history pedagogy—or, at least, as it has been conventionally described by students who generally, as a result, did not enjoy history classes—you would memorize this date and event, along with some general details about the event. The important and interesting part of history, however, is not the event. It is the question of “how did we get here?”
On one level, we got here because my coteacher and I found a ridiculous graphic and found it impossible to omit from our slides.
On another level, we got here because I texted my coteacher on May 15, 2020 asking if he wanted “to teach a class about all of the references from ‘we didn’t start the fire’ for one hour a week on Saturdays [from July 11 to August 15],” and he agreed.
If we keep going down the stack, it is because in my sophomore year of high school, my coteacher and I took it upon ourselves to memorize this song, which meant that almost four years later I could have the idea to teach a class with him about the history of all the lyrics in it.
This is the interesting part about history. It is the way that events in the past and the general trends of a time contexualize events at any given time. Coincidentally, I had a history teacher during my sophomore year of high school whose one big shtick was that “history is a mural.” Events are not dates and details—they are motivated by a multitude of complex events in the past and they occur in the context of many other events of the same time.
One of the interesting aspects of the class, then, is that although it seems like Joel’s lyrics would be conducive an event-by-event focus in teaching history (and one could argue, of course, that Billy Joel’s hit song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is not a designed to be a particularly good history teaching tool), it also allowed us to emphasize how trends and different events characterized the times. Over the course of the six weeks, we got to move from “Sputnik” to “Space Monkey” to “John Glenn” to “Moonshot” to “Sally Ride”, while also talking about the backdrop of the Cold War. We saw the ongoing fight for integration in schools in both “Little Rock” and “Ole Miss”—knowing, of course, that events like these continue to resonate to present day, meaning that we could extend this sort of reasoning and connect it to events which are happening now.
Obviously, it was impossible to dig in-depth on each and every one of the lyrics. (And besides, what more would we say about the Disney miniseries Davy Crockett or the polymer Dacron?) However, being able to talk about lyrics in the context of previous ones, from two or three lectures ago, felt like it made the experience worthwhile, because that was the interesting part. There were threads that we were able to follow throughout the classes that allowed us to characterize the era—and this was especially important given that, in many cases, recent history is not as commonly taught in schools, even though it is perhaps most relevant to the situation of the present.
Spoon homicide was, on the whole, not a critical event in our class. It did, however, help establish the tone of the rest of the class. (There were very serious slides as well, I promise.) Events help give context to and motivate other events in history. By teaching this class with an absurdly long name, we learned a lot about how to teach these relationships and explain both the details and the contexts. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that my 10th grade history teacher was right, but history is a mural—one full of both serious events, and plenty of fun detours.