Why were the 1960s such a turbulent and divisive decade in American History? The answer lies in the 1950s, a conventional and conservative period of cultural conformity into which the reactionary seeds of a new countercultural movement were sown. Ninth graders in History Department Chair John Beloff’s Topics in Modern America (TMA) elective wrapped up their study of the 1950s this month with a capstone project that required students to create a visual explanation of the four main forces of fear, conformity, rebellion, and challenge at work in American culture during the 1950s. “We have been talking a lot about the power of images,” says John, “and I wanted to see if they could create an image that would explain ‘50s culture and that would also impact the person looking at the poster and get them to consider some of the bigger thematic questions of the decade.”
Each student created a poster with four quadrants representing one of the four cultural forces at work. For example, images of conformity might have included a picture of the perfect Donna Reed-style wife or the consumerism ushered in by a television in every living room. Fear, on the other hand, might be illustrated by images of the “red scare” of communism or nuclear disaster. In the center of each poster, students included a small paragraph that explains the competing cultural forces at work during this unique decade and how they resulted in a transformative upheaval. The process of choosing photos and reflecting on their meaning helped students develop a deeper understanding of the prevailing and sometimes conflicting cultural movements. “This project really let us adopt a direct way to observe the 1950's culture,” says ninth grader Wendy Sun. “The images showed not only the significant events but also the daily life. So, we understood how one facet of the culture resulted in the creation of another facet. Putting them all together, we got to see the 1950's American mind pulled by "fear" "conformity" "challenge" and "rebellion" towards four different directions, struggling in the center. It was only one decade, but the U.S. society was transformed.”
John was impressed by his students’ ability to capture and convey the essential conflicts through imagery. “The students’ attention to detail and their ability to see the bigger picture was really impressive,” says John. “As we move into the 1960s, they will understand that this explosion of challenge, rebellion, angst, anger, the civil rights movement, and Vietnam all tie back to the 1950s.” Many of the ninth grade students in TMA are also in Chris Kimball’s Advanced Studio Art class. Chris will be building off the students’ study of 1950s imagery as they explore propaganda art in his class and students will be using one or two of their images from their poster to create their own individual piece of art.
The “Images of 1950s America” project provides a different vehicle for students that might struggle on a chapter test or a written paper to demonstrate their understanding. “Often the students that don’t like taking a test just pour themselves into this kind of project,” says John. “It’s important to me that every kid has an opportunity to shine during each term and can point to something that they felt was their big success.”