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Tip of the Week: How We Got to Now

how we got to now cover

If you haven’t read any of Steven Johnson stuff, you are way behind the curve. He has some awesome insight – especially when he starts talking about the big pictures of history.

For the last 20 years or so, he has taken small events and connected them to larger themes. In The Ghost Map, Johnson connects a 19th century epidemic in London to 21st century urban design. In The Invention of Air, Johnson walks you through English coffeeshops to the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment.

His latest book, How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, he continues the practice of showing how seemingly minor items such as eyeglasses or clocks have had – and continue to have – massive impacts on how people live.

He reminds me of Mr. Tomayko. Tomayko was my high school history / government / econ teacher and he was awesome. Great conversations. Great connections between past and present. And great connections between small and big picture.

The book is very cool. It looks at six broad themes across world history by focusing on specific examples.

  • Glass
  • Cold
  • Sound
  • Clean
  • Time
  • Light

But even cooler? Johnson has

created a PBS special along with teacher resources that make the book – and it’s themes – more accessible to all of your kids. A New York Times review of the series provides a bit of insight:

The opening episode, for instance, is called “Clean,” and it sets the pattern for the five that follow. We tend not to acknowledge just how recent some of the trends and comforts of modern life are, including the luxury of not walking through horse manure and human waste on the way to the post office.

Similarly, “Time,” examines humanity’s relatively recent efforts to measure and standardize time, and then brings the subject into the cellphone age, noting how precise calibration of time is used in, for example, GPS technology.

And “Cold,” scheduled for Nov. 5, looks at how efforts to mitigate the heat — first by shipping ice south, then through artificial air-conditioning — influenced not only our diets (think of frozen foods) but also our settlement patterns and even our presidential elections (since air-conditioning changed the demographics of the American South and Southwest). Even Hollywood felt the effects: The ability to air-condition theaters in the 1920s brought in summer crowds and helped establish movies as a cultural anchor.

Other episodes take up Sound, Light and Glass. Through them all, Johnson highlights the contributions of people who acted on big ideas.

On the series website, you and students can access video clips, image galleries, and essays. You can also find a Classroom section with aligned standards, teaching tips, background, discussion questions, and guiding questions. Together, the book, series, and website all work to provide you handy resources for hooking kids into the past.

And connecting it to the present. The Clean episode seems like a perfect lead in / connection to the current Ebola crisis and Time leads right in to conversations about cell phones, GPS, and different attitudes about the concept of When.

Have fun!


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