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Can "Reacting to the Past" Help Students Learn About the Israel/Palestine Conflict?

The beginning of a new decade always seems to be a time of anniversaries.  Reacting to the Past, the interactive teaching program developed at Barnard College by American historian Mark C. Carnes, is hosting its Tenth Annual Summer Institute at Barnard from June 10-13, 2010.  The meeting provides opportunity for teachers at the forty colleges and universities where Reacting courses are taught to come together to develop new curriculum and for schools interested in implementing Reacting to learn more about the program (and even play a few Reacting games).

Reacting to the Past (RTTP) consists of elaborate games set during critical historical events, some ancient, such as Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 B.C., Confucianism and the Succession Crisis of Wanli Emperor; and some modern, like Defining a Nation: India on the Eve of Independence 1945, and a yet-to-be-published simulation of the Peel Commission in Mandate Palestine in 1937 entitled The Struggle for Palestine.  This game, written by Natasha Gill in consultation with a number of Israeli and Palestinian academics, is still in development, but it has been tested by students at Barnard College, in a class led by Ms. Gill herself, and at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa.

Each RTTP game is guided by a rule book consisting of rules and background information, although it is up to the students to research the issues that underpin the game and the biographical details of their “roles.”  The roles assigned vary from important historical figures like David Ben-Gurion in The Struggle for Palestine game to the anonymous historical everyman, such as a long-forgotten farmer serving in the Athenian assembly.  

As designed by Mr. Carnes, “Reacting” is intended to teach students the role of historical contingency.  To quote the “Reacting” website:

Often missing from scholarly studies is the importance of individual actions and decisions….[B]roader economic and social forces place constraints on what individuals may do, but [these] forces do not determine human events.  People do.

Of course, not every historian agrees with that statement, but one need not necessarily accept that assertion as true in order to make use of Reacting.  One of the curriculum’s strengths is that it can be adapted to suit the pedagogical and historiographical needs of an individual instructor.  “It’s amazing how flexible [Reacting] is,” said John Eby, professor of history at Loras College and a seasoned Reacting veteran who used The Struggle for Palestine in his January seminar on the Israel/Palestine conflict.  Whereas Ms. Gill stresses historical constraints when teaching Reacting courses—“My primary goal is for students to understand the constrictions that the real players faced”—Mr. Eby emphasizes the role of historical contingency when teaching his students.  For example, a particularly strong student in his class played “the most moderate role in the game,” that of George Antonious, and was therefore able to significantly influence the course of the game.  Mr. Eby used this anomaly to illustrate in the post-game discussion the importance of seemingly random factors (in this case personality) that dramatically affect the course of history.

Mark Carnes notes, “Reacting is a power motivational tool, but every instructor uses it in a different way.  The best Reacting instructors challenge, inspire, goad, criticize, and do all of the things that constitute the art of teaching—an art that each of us practices differently.”

By almost all accounts, the program has been remarkably popular with both students and faculty.  Ruthie Fierberg, a recent graduate of Barnard and a student in the Struggle for Palestine class (she played Musa Alami), said, “I came to Barnard knowing that I wanted to take the class [Reacting to the Past].  It had a reputation for being a valuable way learning.”  Brennan Tesdahl, a sophomore at Loras and a biochemistry major, also praised the program:  “I think that Reacting…provides a good foundation in the areas of public speaking, creative problem solving…as well as the interpretation and use of documents that would not necessarily used in every class.”

In order to be successful, however, Reacting requires active student participation.  Indeed, sometimes students can become too involved in the game, regardless of whether or not the topic is controversial. Mr. Tesdahl noted, “The stressful situations and tensions between students [during the game] created grudges that still existed after the [end of the class].” Still, Mr. Eby said that Reacting is “very good at drawing out the quiet students, better than anything I’ve ever seen.”

At the Struggle for Palestine course at Barnard College, there was little need to draw out quiet students (see here for video excerpts from the class).  Almost all of the students in the class were either Jewish or Muslim, and formed their opinions about the conflict from a very early age.  “I was a little nervous [about this game],” said Ms. Gill.  “I took the pedagogical equivalent of the Hippocratic oath to cause no more conflict while teaching about the conflict…I wanted to wean students away from their talking points and give them some real material upon which to reflect.”  This did not mean that the class shied away from controversial issues—far from it.  In order to fulfill her goal of getting students’ “hands dirty,” Gill assigned the Jewish roles to her Muslim students and vice versa.

The students learned that there was (and is) no easy solution to the conflict.  “I think my one preconception of the game,” said Ruthie Fierberg, “was that…we were going to unlock some secret solution, as we had in other games.  But Israel/Palestine was different…we didn’t find the answer.”  This was entirely deliberate.  Said Ms. Gill, “I didn’t create The Struggle for Palestine so that they could make a better partition commission and we’d all be happy with it.  My primary goal is to understand why this conflict hasn’t been solved.”  

At the very least, though, her students—indeed, all Reacting students—have a better understanding of the multiple points of view of any historical conflict.  With Reacting, Ms. Gill, said, “you don’t have to [merely] hear the other, you have to BE the other.”