Mark Carnes: Making History Come Alive

Mark Carnes, in the Chronicle of Higher Ed (subscribers only) (Oct. 8, 2004):

Teachers often forget successful classes but find their failures indelibly imprinted in their minds. I clearly recall one first-year seminar from nine years ago, on masterpieces of the human imagination.

"What," I asked,"are we to make of Plato's attempts to define justice?" A chill descended. Noses burrowed into The Republic. One student hesitantly volunteered a comment; another offered a passing observation. Something resembling a discussion followed, but most of the remarks betrayed the superficiality of the students' engagement.

They were eager to discuss their favorite movies and books, censorship, or the problem of date rape, but they shrank from theseeming irrelevance of Plato to their lives. Often the brightest students were the most subdued. Their occasional remarks showed intelligence and sophistication, yet every gesture and tone of voice conveyed boredom.

The more I thought about that failed seminar, the more I realized that it had not been very different from other discussions of classic texts that I had led at Barnard and Columbia. I could recall particular sessions when a student's insight blazed into real illumination and rekindled my own enthusiasm; in the better classes a steady, intelligent patter made the time pass quickly. But those were exceptions. And when I confessed my sense of failure to colleagues, most recounted similar frustrations.

What was wrong?

Early the following semester I met individually with students from that seminar. They were initially surprised by my sense of its inadequacy, but as we talked they opened up. They explained that what I had taken to be sullenness on their part was actually a manifestation of deep anxiety. They knew that my knowledge of the texts exceeded their own; they chafed at being obliged to reveal the insufficiency of their understanding.

Another revelation followed. If students were uncomfortable with me, they were even more worried about their peers' reactions. Their sophisticated disinterest masked a fear of saying something foolish, inappropriate, or -- even worse -- revealing about their fragile sense of self. The more I pushed them to the brink of otherness -- other ideas, cultures, and societies -- the more they clung to familiarity or simply clammed up.

Students were also put off by the purely cerebral character of the undertaking. They regarded classic texts as abstract mental games: intellectual hurdles to be cleared, rather like math or language requirements, before they could dash off to the courses whose relevance to their lives was obvious. They had little sense that the ideas behind the texts had been forged in the heat of human passions. They knew that Socrates had been put to death for his views, but that appalling fact merely proved how distant his world was from their own.

I concluded that if my role as mentor impeded my students' engagement with the texts, it should be minimized. If students' insecurity hampered their ability to engage fully with otherness, they should assume an alternative identity. If students regarded important texts as vague and abstract, they should examine the texts within the context of the impassioned debates and dramas from which they had emerged.

Instead of teacher-generated discussions, I decided that the class would play games, each set in an intellectually charged moment in history. Because I didn't want students to behave like callow novices, inferior to a grand inquisitor, I would have them assume the roles of powerful adults: mighty emperors, influential scholars, religious zealots. I would become mere tutor or scribe....

Click here to see a Mark Carnes class in action.

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