The AHA Guide to
Teaching and Learning with New Media
Calculus textbooks contain problems of varying difficulty. Students can work on relatively simple ones first and then tackle the more challenging. This is not true in history, and especially not true of survey courses, which deal almost exclusively in very complex events and developments. Every attempt on our part to simplify the past distorts it. Students cannot “explain” the Enlightenment. And we do them no favors by pretending that they can. What they can do is explore some dimensions of it. Exploring leaves them with more questions than answers along with an appreciation for just how partial their grasp of it actually is. This is a healthy outcome. How can we reach it? My approach in my survey of “Modern Europe and the U.S. I” is in the section of detailed examples.
Very likely the first thing you will notice is how long it is. As noted above, students need help in reading documents, listening to music, and looking at paintings. They need structure, particularly when we are seeking to encourage flexibility. If, that is, we want students to appreciate the various kinds of sources historians use and, as a consequence, ask them to plunge into challenging and diverse materials, we have to provide a scaffolding for them. Structure makes flexibility feasible.
The “Age of Reason” segment begins with a question: How did the thinker become a hero? We look at several portraits and identify common elements such as the visionary gaze. Students especially like to play with the portrait of Lavoisier. The discovery that in eighteenth-century France it was the men who were vain about their legs delights them. So too the discovery that people then associated beauty with age. I provide a simple initial answer to the question of the philosopher as hero: Newton. Students then read and comment on an essay on Newton by Voltaire. They also read an excerpt from Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography about his own foray into philosophy. Then they compare Voltaire’s ideas about natural religion with Mandeville’s sardonic views on the same subject. Mandeville is usually a minor figure in survey courses, if he is mentioned at all. But his scandalous argument that selfish conduct leads to the common good lies at the core of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. And Smith’s working out of economic equivalents of the laws of motion, in which self-interest plays the role gravity does in Newtonian mechanics, nicely demonstrates Newton’s pervasive and lasting influence. Then, to make matters even more complex, we take a look at the First Great Awakening in the American colonies with Benjamin Franklin as one of our guides. Can introductory level students actually make some sort of sense out of all this? Yes, they can make some sense of it. Below is Melissa’s take.
I have bolded the two statements we used in class. The first is a flawed reading of Mandeville’s essay on the origins of morals. Mandeville was much more of a cynic than Melissa allows. He argued that it was “lawgivers and other wise men that have laboured for the establishment of society” who divided society into these two groups, not because the division accurately reflected reality but because it would “induce several, especially the fiercest, most resolute, and best among them, to endure a thousand inconveniences and undergo as many hardships, that they may have the pleasure of counting themselves men of the second class, and consequently appropriating to themselves all the excellences they have heard of it.” That a first- or second-year student, even a very strong one, did not grasp the full force of Mandeville’s argument is unsurprising. But what is interesting is how she moves on to Smith and succinctly states several of his major ideas. And she ends with a challenging assertion of her own. Students, I explained to Melissa before class, are not going to understand everything they read the first time they encounter it. Would it be OK if we started class with her misunderstanding of Mandeville? We would then go on to all the things she did so beautifully. But I wanted to start with how Mandeville explained the fact of virtue and ask students to compare his argument to Machiavelli’s distinction between the reality and the mere appearance of virtue. By this point in the semester, I had built up a sufficient measure of trust with students for her to agree.
What is worth emphasizing is that Melissa wrote this before class.
Central to the historian’s enterprise is getting sources to shed light upon each other. Helping students to do this is complicated by several factors. One is their intellectual development. Many have yet to appreciate ambiguities as inevitable accompaniments to human life. Most lack a nuanced sense of irony. One semester is not long enough for some to grow into mature thinkers. All we can do is push. Another obstacle is that students have learned to cope by putting texts and other materials into airtight containers. They have learned to pigeonhole. And it has worked for them. It is a way to play safe in courses in which the student does not expect to excel but does wish to get a decent grade. Treating each item that comes along in isolation keeps them from making big mistakes. It is a formula for getting a B-. As with all practices that succeed, it is very difficult to stop.
I try by emphasizing the notion that we are engaged in a conversation about the meaning of the past and that historical figures themselves are parties to this conversation. The assignment on World War I in my “Modern Europe and U.S. II” illustrates what this means.
One voice students encounter is Rupert Brooke’s. They read his “The Soldier,” and I read “Peace” to them in class:
Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!
Oh! we, who have known shame,
we have found release there,
Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death
I remind them that Brooke wrote in the earliest days of the war. Wilfred Owen, whose “Dulce et Decorum Est” they also read, wrote in its last days. Owen could only have smiled sadly at the line, “To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,” as a description of going to war. We then talk about Brooke’s disdain for prewar life. Students are shocked when confronted with the line about “all the little emptiness of love!” We discuss the notion of war as purification, as bringing out the noblest in human nature. Then we read Winston Churchill’s obituary of Brooke. Next come other voices. One is Owen, who very likely read the obituary, and another is Sigmund Freud, whose Civilization and its Discontents offers a very different explanation of war’s appeal. Students have a choice. They can write about how Owen or Freud would react to the obituary. Or they can use an online exhibition of war paintings to illustrate Owen’s poem.
Men are not gentle, friendly creatures wishing for love, who simply defend themselves if they are attacked, but that a powerful measure of desire for aggression has to be reckoned as part of their instinctual endowment. The result is that their neighbour is to them not only a possible helper or sexual object, but also a temptation to them to gratify their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without recompense, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus; who has the courage to dispute it in the face of all the evidence in his own life and in history? This aggressive cruelty usually lies in wait for some provocation, or else it steps into the service of some other purpose, the aim of which might as well have been achieved by milder measures. In circumstances that favour it, when those forces in the mind which ordinarily inhibit it cease to operate, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals men as savage beasts to whom the thought of sparing their own kind is alien. Anyone who calls to mind the atrocities of the early migrations, of the invasion by the Huns or by the so-called Mongols under Jenghiz Khan and Tamurlane, of the sack of Jerusalem by the pious Crusaders, even indeed the horrors of the last world-war, will have to bow his head humbly before the truth of this view of man.
Dix had painted the date prominently into his portrait, 1914. This was when Rupert Brooke was beginning his War Sonnets. We talked about the dissonance between the way the two young men thought about going to war. We went back to a line in the Churchill obituary: “he advanced towards the brink in perfect serenity, with absolute conviction of the rightness of his country's cause and a heart devoid of hate for fellow-men.” We could never use the Dix portrait to illustrate that statement. We then turned back to the last stanza of Owen’s poem about a gas attack and the horrible death of a fellow soldier.
Had Brooke been “ardent for some desperate glory”? Was Churchill one of those who told “with such high zest” the “old Lie”? I had earlier translated the Latin and identified the quotation as from Horace. Owen used the Latin because he wanted to stress it was an old lie, a student pointed out. And its use identified his intended audience, the graduates of England’s “public schools,” all of whom had studied Horace and who became the officer class and Britain’s civil servants and policy makers, I contributed.
This discussion happened because one student was “haunted” by the Dix portrait. It made Freud’s discussion of human aggression come alive for her. As she read Freud, she said, she kept seeing the picture. In this class our semester-long use of the conversation metaphor finally clicked for several students. Owen really was talking to Brooke and to Brooke’s many readers, and to Churchill, and even to Horace. Freud’s theory of an aggression instinct was, they could grasp, a reply to those who glorified the sacrifices of war. And their ability to connect Otto Dix’s art with Freud’s psychological theory was their contribution to the conversation.
Last Updated: August 1, 2007 2:27 PM