QOTW - Students & the GAPE

Chelsea Gibson's picture

Welcome to H-SHGAPE's Question of the Week! Every other Wednesday, the list editors will ask a question about the Gilded Age and Progressive Era that we hope will provoke lively discussion. We encourage you to share your thoughts by typing in the "Post a Reply" box below the original post, or, if you're getting this by email, by clicking on the "Read More or Reply" link.


As finals season is upon us -- what is the most important thing you try to teach your students about the importance of the GAPE? Has anything surprised you about students' responses to the period in the last few years as newspapers regularly tell us we're in a new Gilded Age?


If you'd like to submit a question to be asked in a future week, please contact the H-SHGAPE Editor-In-Chief, Chelsea Gibson, at cgibson2@binghamton.edu. This week's question:



I have noticed that students seem to be much more sympathetic to the plight of workers and immigrants who lived during the GAPE than they are towards the problems facing workers and immigrants today. Even conservative/libertarian students tend to agree that working and living conditions were unacceptable during the GAPE. I am not certain why this is the case, but I suspect that this is partially due to the fact that material living conditions for workers and immigrants are generally better today than they were during the GAPE. Have other instructors encountered these types of student responses?

I've noticed that too. It's the same with "well unions were a good idea back in the day but they're not needed today." I think it's only marginally related to what actual working & living conditions are today; I think it's mostly that the kids have learned in their history classes that things were bad in the past (because that allows us to tell a story about how things get better and better) and those have come with some concrete examples, whereas they haven't heard that much about what things actually are like today. It reminds me of that video with the graphs about what people think the wealth / income distribution is like, what they think it should be like, and what it actually is like. The average prediction of what it is like is totally off base.

I have actually found that students are much more likely to be critical of our current financial and political system than they were three or four years ago. Some of this, I think, is because Bernie Sanders raised the profile of socialism, and also because his campaign targeted so many issues that reformers tackled during the GAPE. I recently, for instance, had a student who was a member of a lifeguard's labor union and the whole class was fascinated by his experience and connected it to our discussions of the WTUL, etc.