Teaching Innovations

Teaching History the Old-Fashioned Way—Through Biography

Ken Wolf, May 1994

It is not uncommon for teachers of history to argue that our courses for first-year college students can be made appealing only if we talk about people. History is people, after all, and even great social, economic, intellectual, and political forces take shape in our minds and in our historical records through the actions of people. An abstract census report or a jargon-ridden memorandum is compiled by and for the use of individuals, and such records primarily have value when put to use by people making (what often amount to) very personal decisions.

The difficulties of creating people-oriented courses are increased by the nature of our textbooks, especially in Western and world civilizations courses, and by our understandable professional reluctance to transform those courses into parades of "great men and women" whose lives are detached from the context in which they lived and made decisions.

Our texts, even the better second-generation ones now available for world history courses, tend to bury individuals in social and political narratives or in a network of events and dates that students are asked to organize and memorize. Brief biographies of important figures, such as Muhammed or Napoleon, usually are presented, and there is often interesting "boxed" material about colorful individuals. Students tend to skip the latter unless specifically warned not to, but we need to see beyond the Muhammeds and Napoleons in order to appreciate what was involved in individual decision making in the past.

Ten years ago, after Murray State University introduced a required world civilizations course for first-year students, a number of us in the history department began to explore ways to enliven and humanize the course. At that time, our textbook was L.S. Stavrianos's The World to (and Since) 1500; we later changed to William McNeill's History of the Human Community. Both texts emphasized broad themes at the expense of individuals. Since our course is interdisciplinary and interdepartmental, taught by political scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists, as well as by historians, we used these texts because we wanted to introduce students to some of the insights of the social sciences by paying particular attention to environmental forces, political structures and traditions, and social and economic developments in the human story.

To keep individuals from getting lost in a panorama of social forces, however, I wrote a series of short, comparative biographical essays to use in teaching the course. Each essay compared two individuals and focused on a development or problem which their lives illustrated. Approximately four thousand words in length, the essays addressed such issues as the interactive role of law and society (Hammurabi and Moses), the way religion and ethics shape "nonreligious" values of civilizations (Zoroaster and Buddha), the obstacles faced by female leaders in a patriarchal society (Empress Irene of Byzantium and Empress Wu Zhao of China), and the impact of social structure in encouraging or retarding a spirit of exploration (Prince Henry of Portugal and Zheng He of China). In recent years the collection has expanded to include personalities and issues treated in the second half of a world civilizations course, such as Toussaint L'Ouverture and Tecumseh (resisting Western power); Bismarck and Ito Hirobumi of Japan (constitution making by conservative aristocrats); Eva Per¢n and Golda Meir (informal and formal uses of political power); and Edward Teller and Andrei Sakharov (the role of the scientist in politics).

In putting together this comparative hall of fame, I used the following criteria to make the essays useful to faculty and appealing to students. First, the people chosen had to be interesting and compelling, either intrinsically or in comparison with a contemporary. Second, the subjects of the essays had to be important to an understanding of past ideas and sociopolitical forces (i.e., they should have had an impact on history either by reflecting the values of their society [Prince Henry] or by seeking to change those values [Diogenes]). Finally, the individuals had to deal with issues important to educated people today.

It is not necessary to use essays that explicitly compare two individuals in order to benefit from teaching with biographies. Using explicit comparisons does, however, make it easier to discuss issues. I found direct comparisons particularly helpful because they allowed me to link issues and individuals more forcefully. Alternatively, students can be asked to read short biographies that are not comparative. History Today is an excellent source for essays on major figures in world history, as is American Heritage for United States history. The new five-volume Leaders of the World, produced by Yorkin Publications, contains ten- to fifteen-page biographical sketches. This same publisher is now preparing a projected twenty-volume series of biographical sketches of women in world history, and Carlson Publishing, in Brooklyn, New York, has recently published, in two volumes, Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, edited by Darlene Clark Hine. Even standard encyclopedia articles can be useful.

The important thing is that the biographical treatments be short enough so students can read several during the course, yet also interpretive enough so they go beyond colorful facts to pay attention to broader issues raised by the life of the individual. In any case, the teacher should supply discussion questions for students before they begin reading. These questions should help students identify the thesis of the essay and prompt them to some broader comparative thinking. For example, when students read an essay comparing Gandhi and Ho Chi Minh, I ask them to consider the following questions: "When a people wish foreign rulers to leave their country, which works best—a violent or a nonviolent approach?" "Would Gandhi's techniques have worked elsewhere?" Or, before reading an essay comparing Prince Henry of Portugal and Zheng He of China, I ask students to note how the social and political structures and values of a society affected the way people viewed economic and political expansion and contact with other cultures.

My colleagues and I had a number of pedagogical goals in mind when we started to use these biographical essays. Our first was to make the classes more exciting and (dare I use the term) "relevant." We were aware that, despite (or because of) the broad interdisciplinary themes we had to address in a required, introductory social science course, we had to help students see how real people dealt with real problems. Only in this way could we make figures from the past three-dimensional and humanize the course by allowing students to see historical actors in context. The problems that many of these individuals faced continue to exist, albeit in different forms, today.

Another goal was to capture students' attention with the subject matter so we could lead them, deftly but gently, to the beginnings of historical analysis and a sense of historicity. How did figures understand themselves? What did Prince Henry, for example, think he was doing? How about Genghis Khan, or the "weird" ascetic Mahavira? Another part of the analysis was more explicitly historiographical. How were these people judged by others—at the time or later—and why? Female figures are often excoriated by male historians (e.g., Edward Gibbon wrote that the Empress Irene's ambition was so great it "stifled every sentiment of humanity and nature"), while some male figures, such as the Roman Emperor Constantine or M.K. Gandhi, may receive too much credit for bringing about change. Most biographical essays contain the inevitable bias of the writer. Since students are quick to decide that they like or don't like a particular historical figure, their judgments can be used to spark a discussion of bias in researching and writing about the past.

A final goal was to challenge students to develop or refine some of the higher-level learning skills of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation described in B.S. Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (1956), and to demonstrate some beginning mastery of these in the one short (3–5 pages) essay we require students to write each semester in our world civilizations course.

The first two goals can be pursued in class discussion, either in the large-class question-and-answer format or by dividing students into small groups and asking them to address a question or questions posed by the life of particular leaders. What does Hammurabi's Code tell us about the effectiveness of laws in encouraging or deterring certain behaviors? This can lead to a lively discussion of capital punishment and the modern prison system. How does the career of someone like Diogenes illustrate the value of misfits in our society? What does it tell us about the role of intellectuals, then and now? How did the backgrounds of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta color their reports of the people they met in their travels? What does this say about how we should approach documentary evidence in history? A comparison of the work of Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus can raise the question of whether it is better to work for change from within an institution or from without—a question that usually interests both secondary school and university students. A look at the careers of Louis XIV and Edmund Burke can raise questions about the appropriate role and power of governments, and can lead to a discussion of popular sovereignty. How powerful should the state become? How much power should "the people" have—and in what areas?

One of my colleagues enjoyed discussing the comparative essay I wrote on Toussaint and Tecumseh because it allowed him to discuss the role of heroes today: Do we need them, who are they, and how are they created? This same teacher used a short account of the career of William Randolph Hearst to challenge students, during the 1980s, to ask themselves about the limitations of wealth and to reflect on the question of what was the best sort of power to have: physical, social, political, financial, or even sexual. It made for some exciting classes. Finally, the work of Edward Teller and Andrei Sakharov quite naturally raises the question of the social responsibility of scientists, something most undergraduate science majors rarely think about.

Just as exciting as the class discussion that biographies can create is the way short biographical readings can be used to challenge students to write more analytical and evaluative essay exams and class papers. Starting with the basic question of what makes a person important or influential in history, questions for take-home examination or written assignments can encourage students to establish criteria for their choice, present a clear thesis, and marshal evidence to support their arguments. If, over the course of the term, students have read biographies of eight to ten personalities, they can also be asked to prepare a paper in which they justify their choice of one or two as the "greatest" (or "most influential," "most admirable," or the like).

To do this effectively, they must create credible criteria by which to evaluate the cast of characters. What those criteria might be are discussed in class and individually with many students, at their request. The assignment has been challenging and rewarding, for most of my first-year students had never in their academic lives been asked to do such a thing. It took some of them a while to overcome their biases (e.g., since Constantine helped Christianity and Moses is in the Bible they must be the greatest) and realize that I really did want them to create their own standards for judgment, and that I would grade them on the credibility of their criteria, the quality of their evidence, and the clarity of their prose—and not on some "secret, single unambiguous correct answer" that I was hiding from them. It was delightful for me, and for some of my colleagues who assigned similar papers, to see students struggling to think for themselves about such weighty historical issues.

Other forms of evaluative writing assignments which some of us used called for students to look at some of the personalities in my collection and ask which ones were the "most interesting" (a deliberately vague phrase that compels students to establish their own definition) or which "had the greatest impact—in their day and in the long run—and why?" Each of these requires clear criteria; the latter also encourages students to think historically. Yet another assignment asked students to compare the personality essays they had read with the relevant textbook pages and then decide "to what extent the major changes in civilization to 1500 were caused by the action of great individuals and to what extent such changes occurred as the result of impersonal forces?"

Though I myself have not tried it systematically, I have seen several colleagues at the secondary-school level use such evaluative questions as the basis for excellent in-class debates and role-playing exercises. (There is no reason these activities would not work in most introductory college history courses as well.) What is needed are a few books students can consult for further information, one or two "hams" who can be counted on to "get into" their roles, and a classroom atmosphere that encourages students to take some personal risks. Why not have Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill debate the relative merits of equality and liberty, after the class has read short biographies of each and excerpts from the Communist Manifesto and On Liberty?

If learning basic research skills in the library is part of one's educational agenda, teachers can ask students early in the term to compile an annotated bibliography on a historical figure of their choice. I introduced this exercise in one course by having a reference librarian visit the class to explain the basic reference works useful for such an assignment; I expect it is typical for first-year students to be unfamiliar with much beyond The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. I told students to begin their bibliography with the title and hypothesis of a paper they would like to write using the sources they uncovered. I also told them I would grade their bibliography on how precisely the annotations related each entry to the topic they had chosen. One of the values of using a biographical approach for such an assignment is that it is simply easier for a beginning student to look up biographical references; if nothing else, the key words in CD-ROM Infotrac and similar computerized systems are less complicated. Of course, where the library is adequate, teachers can then ask students to actually write a biographical essay or one comparing two individuals. I would be reluctant to assign a comparative essay in an introductory course because the conceptual and organizational skills involved are likely to be lacking.

Finally, teaching survey courses through biography does have at least two limitations. The first is the bias many of us have in favor of lecturing in order to "cover the material" and the role biographies play in the approach. To have lively class discussions about the role of individuals, something has to be sacrificed. Most of us assigned a brief biographical essay every week or two, in addition to normal textbook reading. Then we used all or a portion of class every week or two for discussion of the biographical reading. Generally I have found that students recall at least as much from a well-organized discussion prompted by open-ended, provocative questions as from a passively absorbed lecture.

Students seem to recall even more if one can use formal case studies to excite student interest. I have written two five- to seven-page case studies designed for first-year students. One looks at the options available to Louis XIV on the eve of the Dutch War in 1671. The other describes Hitler's rise to power in Germany from 1930 to 1933 and asks students to evaluate who or what was responsible for this. Students report that these cases have helped them develop a sense of historical-mindedness. It takes time to focus so intensively on one person or event, but what is lost in coverage of material is compensated for by better retention of facts as well as by greater student appreciation of the role of interpretation in history.

The second limitation of teaching through biography is potentially more serious. It is often difficult to find short biographical essays which focus on issues as much as on personality. That is one reason I decided to write my own. It may take some effort to find just the right "set" for a particular course, one which reflects a teacher's particular interests. Yet, it is not impossible, and it should be worth the effort in increased student interest in and understanding of historical personalities and the problems they faced—as well as in student appreciation of judgments historians have made of the great and not-so-great, and in students' willingness and ability to make their own reasoned judgments about the past. This last is, I think, particularly important. Haven't most of us had the experience of students responding to a test question which asks for a judgment by raising their hands and saying: "Do you just want my opinion?" After going through the process of judging historical greatness by establishing criteria and arguing their case (i.e., of forming opinions based on intellectual substance, not on feelings), either in class discussion or on paper, students may be less likely to ask that question again.

History is certainly not only "the story of great men," as Carlyle once wrote, but it is still true that many of us who find history worthwhile do so because we are intrigued by the human story, by the great successes and equally great failures of humans caught in webs not always of their own making. Any chance students may have of learning from the past probably depends in large part on their willingness to allow themselves to be fascinated by history's people. That is why, in the final analysis, history and biography cannot and should not ever be separated for very long.

Ken Wolf is professor of history, coordinator of the required first-year world civilizations course at Murray State University, and a 1993–94 Pew Faculty Fellow in International Affairs. He is author of the two-volume Personalities and Problems: Interpretive Essays in World Civilizations, recently published by McGraw-Hill. He wishes to thank Terry W. Strieter and Robert Blackey for specific suggestions which aided substantially in the preparation of this article. Wolf, whose e-mail address is a23211f@msumusic.bitnet, welcomes comments on this article.