Editor’s Note: Professor Myrna Santiago talks about her undergraduate history seminar on the cocaine-fueled drug war, the detailed syllabus of which appeared yesterday.
Three objectives drove the development of a course on the drug trade in Latin America. The first was to revise a course on U.S.-Latin American relations that was on the books and I had never taught. I wanted to change the class from a standard diplomatic history to something broader. Saint Mary’s College has only 2500 undergraduates and all Latin American history courses are upper division without pre-requisites, so I design courses that will intrigue students not otherwise interested in either history or Latin America. Given that the “war on drugs” takes so much air time, I figured a class that looked at U.S.-Latin American relations through the lens of the drug trade would catch students’ attention and still cover the traditional topics covered in such a class. This resulted in 25 student class that was heavily discussion based, with mini-lectures as necessary.
The second objective was, frankly, to learn about the topic myself. News coverage by its nature tends toward snapshots of whatever happens on a given day. There is no room for context or analysis, much less for history, in the daily media, so I was quite frustrated by what I did not know and sought to educate myself. And, as all teachers know, there is no better crash course on a topic than having to teach it!
The third objective was to speak to students’ experience. There is no young person in the United States today who does not have some personal experience with drugs. Illegal substances are tightly woven into the fabric of American society today, so no one escapes their influence or impact. Yet, what we know about illegal drugs generally comes from fiction. For young people, in particular, the source is the movies. The number of films about drugs or with drugs in them grows every year. Focused on telling a good story, however, the context in most films is limited to the immediate environment surrounding the main characters. The center of the genre is the individual; the story is personal. There are assumptions about history and socio-economic and political structures but they are left unexamined.
Thus, the course set out to investigate as many aspects of the drug trade as possible in historical context.