Teaching Innovations

Teaching the European Enlightenment with a Student Salon

Charles Hart, May 1989

Advanced Placement (AP) European history teachers, like their counterparts at the college level who teach the introductory survey course, often have a problem maintaining students' attention in the week or so before winter vacation. The season could be ignored, and the students' noses collectively forced to the grindstone studying for a week-ending test, or the teacher could give up completely and spend the time decorating the room for the holidays. While most AP teachers may opt for the former, in our hearts many of us would like to find something a little less pressure-filled but still educationally productive. What follows is one idea that may help fulfill that need.

If you are like this European history teacher, by the time the yule season has rolled around you have arrived at the "French Revolution" in your syllabus. What better way to bring that revolution and the watershed period that preceded it to dramatic closure than with a student simulation of a gathering of many of the major characters who appeared in Europe from the Enlightenment through the Congress of Vienna? With Madame de Stael's salon as the setting, students select, research, and act out the personalities and thoughts of the characters of the period. Thus, during our salon, Catherine the Great finally meets Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson discusses his ideas with Frederick the Great, Napoleon sips "champagne" with Alexander I, and all of them react to the strange ideas of a mysterious visitor. Combine the festive atmosphere that is already present at this time of year with the research undertaken by individual students and the dialogue conducted by the class and you have created a role-playing situation that becomes a significant and lasting memory of a very important period of history.

The procedure is relatively simple and takes about a week. The day before the class goes to the library to begin the research, the students select the historic figures they will be portraying. Even before this day, I have already approached about six students, inviting them to take roles I believe to be particularly suited for them. Depending on the personalities in the class, two articulate and argumentative students may be asked to become Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, a student who can appear pompous may be invited to become Catherine the Great, a student especially concerned about women's rights may become Mary Wollstonecraft, and a student who fancies him- or herself the military tactician will be asked to become Napoleon. I may also select a student to become the mysterious stranger, a pivotal role whose identity is not revealed until the end of the simulation. Next, I read the list of remaining characters and seek student volunteers. Finally, any student who has not selected a character is assigned one. I tell the students to see me if they have any concerns about the assigned roles. If a student does not wish to participate in the simulation, an alternative assignment is either to become a silent observer at the salon and write a paper about what transpires or to write a biographical sketch about a character, including personality and philosophical profiles, as well as to relate the ideas of that personality to the other characters at the salon (e.g., how Frederick the Great and Marie Antoinette might enjoy each other's company).

The students are then given three class periods in the library to research their characters; this allows them the time to do a fairly thorough job. Beyond knowledge of the biography and personality of their characters, I also require students to be familiar with such typical Enlightenment issues as:

  1. the definition of justice
  2. the relationship of government to the individual, and vice versa
  3. the role of the ruler as servant of the people, and vice versa
  4. the rights possessed by the people
  5. whether government is a positive good, a necessary evil, or an abomination
  6. attitudes toward such specific topics as religion, social classes, education, the right to revolt, and religious wars

Beyond researching the character I also encourage students to get into the mood by developing their own unique costumes. While I make available Lucy Barton's Historic Costume for the Stage (Boston: Walter Baker & Co., 1963), students also seek the help of the school's theatre director. As the reader might well imagine, students can be creative in the development of their costumes. However, it should be made clear that while costuming is encouraged and information provided, the ideas and the personality of each character are most important.

The actual salon falls on the fifth day. We reserve the library for our exclusive use because of its space, lighting, and comfortable setting, but a stage with drawn curtains would also provide an acceptable backdrop. The students are "fieldtripped" out of classes before and after their European history class; that is, administratively, the salon becomes an in-school field trip. This allows three successive periods for an uninterrupted French salon. For my purposes, that time is divided in the following way:

  1. It takes about thirty minutes for the students to get ready and for me to give the final instruction. For the students it means getting their costumes on and for the teacher it means reminding the students of exactly what is expected from them and letting them know what the schedule is.
  2. The next thirty minutes is the "cocktail hour." Ostensibly, the great minds of Europe have gathered for an evening of informal and stimulating discussion, and this preliminary session is a prelude to the main event. My instructions to the students are to act in the way they believe these people would have acted at an eighteenth-century version of a Friday night party. With baroque music in the background, the characters interact by discussing issues important to them. (I have a rule that students are not allowed to sit during this part of the simulation, thereby facilitating greater movement to talk with other characters.) The teacher acts as the waiter, serving fruit and juice if the salon is in the morning and ginger ale and cheese if it is in the afternoon. However, while I am moving about, the students all know I am carefully listening and making mental notes of their dialogue.
  3. At the conclusion of the previous activity, a thirty-minute recess from role-playing occurs. Seated in a circle, the students proceed to introduce their character to the group. While it seems more logical to do this before the cocktail hour, I find the activity at this time livelier if it occurs after there has already been some informal interaction. This explanation of character also serves as an effective break in what has already occurred and what is about to occur. Students are encouraged to ask fellow students to defend a statement made earlier. As the teacher, I explore all students' knowledge of their characters by asking something about personality or asking them to relate their views to someone else in the group.
  4. In the final scene, it is imagined to be very late at night, the fireplace is crackling and the only guests remaining are those wishing to "wax philosophically" (which, of course, are all the students' characters.) As a surprise, Madame de Stael welcomes an unknown character to the salon with the explanation to the group that he is interested in gaining advice on a book about to be published. Could the group please help smooth the rough edges and polish the ideas? What follows is a thirty-to-forty minute critique where historical figures unknowingly proceed to pinpoint themselves on political and economic continuums. (I recall one occasion where the Great Elector got into a very heated discussion with the stranger on the role and attitude of government. Later it was realized that the differences were based on a near polarization of political philosophy.) While the stranger is alluding to his theories of economic determinism, the dialectic, and the inevitability of class struggle (but avoiding the catch phrases that would easily give away his identity), by questioning, agreeing, disagreeing, and challenging, the characters are revealing their own postures on the future issues of the nineteenth century. Although the true identity of the individual is not perceived to be important at the beginning, as his exceptional demands become more pronounced the group becomes increasingly curious. Only at the end is his name revealed Karl Marx! While I sometimes play this role, when particularly adept students accept the challenge, the result is appreciative applause from their peers.
  5. In the remaining thirty minutes, the teacher debriefs the class. Beyond the obvious questions of how many knew it was Marx and how do you compare the French salon to one of your own parties, more specific questions can be asked. How was your character beholden to the French Revolution for his or her place in history? How did you character affect the thinking of a later age? Based on what you know about the thinking of the Enlightenment and the demands of the French Revolution, what philosophy and demands would you expect to evolve during the nineteenth century? To the teacher, this is perhaps the most satisfying part of the simulation. As the students see an eighteenth-century thinker, they begin to realize that Marx was not the isolated thinker many thought him to have been. For example, the student who was Georg Hegal for a brief period found reflections of his ideas in this radical thinker of a generation later. In other words, students begin to see history as a flow of interconnecting ideas and events (one student began to refer to history as "a stream") and they seem so surprised about this revelation!

Grading does not have to a difficult task. The teacher can require complex biographies with deep personality probing and constant comparison to the age in which the figures lived. I did that the first year the salon was put together. However, in keeping with the idea of getting away from the "stuffiness" of the assignment at a time when most other classes are bringing units to a close via a major exam, I have decided to make this activity as pressure-free as possible. While students have to talk extensively about their characters, the only time written work is required is if they miss the salon. Therefore, I grade easily and make it equal in value to a test: the importance of the grade and the uniqueness of the activity compel them to get involved. During the debriefing, and in related discussions afterwards, I have found the Salon to be an effective method of demonstrating the importance of this era. Later, whether it is comparing this time frame with another more modern period of history, or whether it is a comment about the AP test on the day after it is administered, students frequently make reference to something they heard in the French Salon. (Said one student about the activity, "While the textbook talked about the people of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, I remember them much more vividly because I partied with them.") Let the other classes test or decorate; we can throw a party and bring the best of both worlds together!

—Charles Hart has been a high school teacher since 1968 and for the last five years he has taught AP European history at Carl Sandburg High School, Orland Park, Ill.