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Using Diplomacy to Bring Your Classroom to Life

Editor's Note: It could be argued that no one relies on the skills of global competence more than diplomats. The history of their work can deeply engage students and bring global competence to life in a unique way, says Maureen McNicholl, Program Director of Education Outreach, Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.

By guest blogger Maureen McNicholl

Diplomacy is the art of conducting international relations, forming alliances, and exercising tact and skill in dealing with people of varied backgrounds to advance a nation's interests and security. The success of U.S. foreign policy, peace, and security depends largely on the skill and experience of diplomats, and the same is true for countries around the world. Diplomatic oral histories are ideally suited to the global studies or world history classroom.

Using Oral History as a Primary Source

Primary sources are the raw materials of history. They differ from secondary sources created by researchers and writers lacking firsthand experience. Examining primary sources fosters your students' historical empathy and helps them consider the complexity of the past. Students analyze primary sources and employ critical thinking and analysis when considering individual bias and perspective. They help students develop their global competence by considering multiple perspectives and comparing competing narratives. Primary sources help answer the essential questions of how historians learn about the past and how the past informs our understanding of the present.

Simply put, oral histories make your classroom content come alive and makes history memorable for your students. Primary source oral histories provide a social and cultural context that enriches your curriculum in a way that textbooks never will. Even historical records and documents often lack the everyday experiences of people, how they felt about a particular topic, why they made certain decisions, and how historical events impacted their personal lives. These frontline diplomats explain both what they thought at the time and what they now understand in the light of further experience and reflection. Oral histories enable students to see how they can be agents of change by learning about the impact U.S. diplomats made in unique circumstances.

Why study the work of diplomats in your classroom?

First, diplomats (known in the U.S. as Foreign Service officers) are front-seat witnesses to many world history events, serving our nation 24/7 around the globe in often dangerous or unhealthy situations, or working with highly complex societies where knowledge of the local language and culture is essential for success. The work of our diplomats is largely unsung, often occurring behind closed doors or in far-flung locations inaccessible to the general public. Reading their oral histories is a way to illuminate the world of American diplomacy. It engages students in history through storytelling.

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Foreign Service officers work on a broad range of important issues that relate directly to curricula, such as environmental issues, climate change, counterterrorism, women's rights, conflict resolution, human trafficking, and the need to preserve cultural and intellectual property. Diplomats promote business to create new and better paying jobs, and they help foreign countries protect basic human rights like freedom of speech, religion, and fair judicial systems.

Foreign Service officers are often the first on the scene during natural disasters around the world, and save people who get lost or sick or who have been victims of crimes. To do their jobs well, diplomats become experts in the languages, politics, economics, history, culture, and traditions of the country to which they are assigned. Diplomats work with a fascinating range of people, from artists and musicians, to journalists and scientists. They conduct high-level discussions with foreign leaders, analyze political and economic developments, write speeches for their ambassadors, and connect with foreign citizens through social media. Above all, they are masters at communicating across cultures.

Resources for Oral Histories from Diplomats

One great resource for educators looking to share oral histories with their students is the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST). ADST's collection of primary source oral histories exceeds 2,000 interviews and podcasts, gathered over the last three decades from diplomats who have represented the United States since World War II. They provide a context for many locations and the events that shaped today's world from the point of view of those who often worked quietly, behind the scenes, to help develop U.S. security and prosperity.

Included in these oral histories are two series that focus on specific aspects of diplomatic history: Moments in Diplomatic History and Fascinating Figures. Moments in Diplomatic History highlights events such as the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the Iran Hostage Crisis, and Mexican Immigration Talks. Fascinating Figures focus on individuals who have influenced diplomatic history, including Betty Allan, a female code-breaker during World War II; and "the Velvet Hammer," Secretary of State James Baker III. A third series, Country Readers, contains the experiences of many diplomats and provides an overview of U.S. relations with individual countries.

In sum, primary source diplomatic oral histories provide your students with a rare, front-seat glimpse into our nation's role in many of the most significant international events over the last seven decades. These unique stories help students understand individual and institutional agency in response to historical conditions. Finally, using oral histories provides opportunities for your students to analyze the authenticity and credibility of sources and develop perspectives of time and place, all part of developing skills in global competence.

Connect with ADST and the Center for Global Education on Twitter. 

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