Enhancing Students’ Understanding of Bi-Polarity in the History Classroom , pp. 3 of 13

Situating the concept of bi-polarity within the syllabus

Fundamentally, it is pertinent to recognize that the first-order concept of bi-polarity is one which binds the entire Unit 3, and a large part of Unit 4, together. The concept of bi-polarity manifests itself in different ways. Students first understand the Cold War as a competition of opposing ideologies, that the capitalist democracy of the United States was pitted against the command economy of the Communist USSR. This is the most vital point of initial contact students have with the concept of bi-polarity, which allows them to form a basic overarching understanding of the Cold War as the contestation of two political ideologies at opposite ends of the political spectrum. This concept of bi-polarity is then widened when students subsequently examine the political and socio-economic competition for spheres of influence both within and outside of Europe, especially since the Korean War and Cuban Missile Crisis may be regarded as clear instances of the USA and the USSR using proxies to curtail and curb each other’s influence globally. The ideological, political and socio-economic competition between the USA and the USSR would eventually lose its raison d’etre; with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the concept of bi-polarity ceased to exist within contemporary discourse.

The concept of bi-polarity is also an important concept which helps to unify other content concepts that explained the reasons for the outbreak of the Cold War in Europe (as outlined in the Upper Secondary History Teaching and Learning Guide.[i] )The ideological dichotomy between democracy and communism was an ideological manifestation of the bi-polarity dominating the post-war order. It was within this context that policies such as containment helped to cement the superpower rivalry which had shaped the post-1945 narrative. Subsequently, the concept of proxy wars which was highlighted in the unit on the Korean War and Cuban Missile Crisis could be seen as the extension of the concept of bi-polarity beyond Europe, where the superpowers heavily influenced the nature of the localized conflicts. The very fact that the Cold War played an important role in influencing the timing and nature of decolonization in individual Southeast Asian states meant that a consideration of the concept of bi-polarity is essential in helping students establish the contextual circumstances in which the superpower rivalry featured in these local narratives, and their interactions with local dynamics.

A further consideration of the concept’s significance in Unit 4, however, further complicates and problematizes students’ understanding of it. In Unit 4, students are invited to analyze the impact of the Cold War rivalry on the decolonization process of Southeast Asian states, thus situating the contextual development of the bi-polar Cold War within the framework of local politics. An understanding of the internal-external dynamics between the Cold War and the local struggle for independence, however, is not monolithic in nature as the Cold War rivalry took on different meanings for various countries at different times. For example, the bi-polarity of the Cold War, and the heightened fears of the Communist threat, did speed up decolonization in some instances like Malaya and Indonesia, but it also hindered Vietnam’s route to independence.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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