U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Exciting New Pedagogy Based in the History of Ideas

A decade ago, several professors at Barnard College created a pedagogy based in the History of Ideas called “Reacting to the Past.” I attended a session at the AHA discussing this pedagogy (the History News Network discusses the session here).

Their website explains:

Reacting to the Past” (RTTP) consists of elaborate games, set in the past, in which students are assigned roles informed by classic texts in the history of ideas. Class sessions are run entirely by students; instructors advise and guide students and grade their oral and written work. It seeks to draw students into the past, promote engagement with big ideas, and improve intellectual and academic skills. Pioneered by Barnard College in 1996, the project is supported by a consortium of colleges and universities.

Some of the games I heard discussed were based on Plato’s Republic, Confucius’s Proverbs, the division of India, Anne Hutchinson, and King Henry VIII. The games immerse the students in the ideas expressed. Students are divided into different factions and given certain goals they are trying to achieve. Some students are indeterminants that need to be persuaded to join one or another faction and often have the swing vote in classes. The games take up different amounts of time.

All the professors at the AHA session familiar with this pedagogy said that it transformed students. They arrived early and stayed late for class. The factions would chase down indeterminants in the hallways and unions trying to persuade them. Shy students felt nervous at first, but blossomed by the end. Freshman made lasting friendships.

The series started out as something more for a Freshman Year Experience course or a general education course, but historians are starting to adopt them. We have to be willing to give up a lot of content coverage in a lecture class, or they can be used in a seminar type class. There are several games already published, and more being worked on at the moment.

I was especially excited because I had plans for constructing something very much like this around the 1964 Democratic Convention. Delegates at that convention split into many different factions that expressed competing opinions among blacks and whites, northerners and southerners, politicians and activists. An EMU history prof at the AHA session, Mark Higbee, said he’s developing a game for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. One black student told him that she had never understood the Civil Rights Movement until she had to take on the role of a white segregationist and argue for further discrimination and segregation. She then realized what Civil Rights Activists had been challenging.

The pedagogy has been used at small liberal arts colleges and major research one institutions. Barnard College holds a training session every summer and there are other regional conferences around the country.

What do you think? Do you have any controversies or texts in American Intellectual History that you think would work for this?

13 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Last academic year, I went to a discussion at Columbia between Mark Carnes (who heads Reacting to the Past at Barnard) and Columbia prof. Mark Lilla. Carnes said that his impetus for creating RttP was that his students in seminar were unresponsive and bored; he thought they would be more engaged by historical role-playing. Lilla runs a conventional-type seminar, in which he leads discussion but students do most of the talking. Carnes encourages a historical reading of texts, whereas Lilla believes they should be read in terms of their timeless, abstract philosophical ideas: justice, happiness, truth, etc.

    At the risk of sounding crude, Carnes got his ass handed to him, and I believe he deserved to.

    Carnes was wrong in thinking that seminars no longer engage students in an intense and deep way—that they don’t raise issues that keep us awake at night. That simply isn’t true. I truly don’t mean to attack Carnes personally, but if his students are not engaged, that is his fault as a teacher. I participated in many lively seminars during college (I graduated last year), in which the professors had students personally and intellectually invested in the subject matter. Students can tell when their professor is excited about the course material, and that makes them excited. That’s all it really takes to have a great seminar.

    Lilla’s classes are famously difficult, and famously pleasurable (at Columbia). That isn’t a coincidence. If you set high standards of thinking and writing for students, they will rise to them. People love Lilla’s classes because they see that Lilla thinks and cares deeply about the issues at hand, and expects them to think and care deeply as well. Reacting to the Past—all educational games at the college level, really—is pandering. These games don’t challenge students so much as try to “trick them” into learning, and students see right through the charade.

    At the discussion, Lilla made the excellent point that the primary purpose of a liberal education should be to encourage students to think deeply about important subjects: that the meat of a college education takes place when the student sits alone in a room, contemplating. The purpose of a liberal education is not to teach history. If you agree (and I do), then Lilla’s method is clearly superior.

    On an anecdotal note: Almost all the students I know find historical role-playing endlessly annoying.

  2. I’m going to split the difference with Jennifer Bernstein. Like her, and Lilla, I agree that timeless, abstract great ideas (to borrow Hutchins’s and Adler’s terminology) can be presented in an exciting way even through dialogue. If the professor is truly interested, the passion will show and radiate. Sure, some students won’t be affected. But those are the same students who will scoff at RTTP.

    That said, I can see the usefulness of role playing. It speaks to multiple intelligences theory. It also forces people out of their boxes. Making students uncomfortable occasionally breaks them out of patterns. And role playing, if done with enthusiasm and gusto (or coached to be done that way), will indeed foster in-your-shoes empathy. But the teacher has to be a good coach—she/he can’t rely on her/his natural enthusiasm for the subject.

    Finally, as to the specific usefulness for teaching the history of ideas, well, it depends on what is being acted out. If the classic text is a greek drama or Homer or Shakespeare, if the proper play is selected with dialogue touching on larger ideas, sure, RTTP will work. A specific historical event, such as the classic Lincoln/Douglas debate, will work also. Other presidential debates might work. Or the Scopes Trial.

    – TL

  3. I’m quite happy to hear from a student who has participated in role playing games. I hope others will comment as well.

    I think it is odd that Bernstein would say that the point of a liberal education is not to teach history. It would seem to me that one of the very foundations of a liberal education is to expose students to the wide array of ideas and events that have proceeded them in the world. Irrespective of the need for such knowledge, students who become cultural leaders need to at least understand the common dialogue which trades heavily in language weighted with historical precedent. One cannot understand the New Yorker, for instance, without a broad-based knowledge of common American assumptions and events.

    I think we can discuss ideas embedded in their historical context and discuss them abstractly. I also think the role playing games have the danger of taking ideas out of their context as students use their own assumptions to reinact the past.

  4. I appreciate this post, and welcome the pointed debate. No pedagogical method should be exempt from critical evaluation. However, I find it doubtful that Mark Carnes claimed at any debate that traditional “seminars no longer engage students in an intense and deep way.” Nothing about his thinking is so simple-minded as that claim by J. Bernstein. Reacting is a different type of teaching, and it demonstrably produces high levels of student engagement and skill development. Some may prefer other forms of instruction – lecture or “traditional seminars” – and they each have great value. But the vast literature of scholarly studies of how college students learn belie the notion, suggested by Bernstein, that these traditional methods are easily used to motivate engaged learning by all types of students.
    -Mark Higbee, Eastern Michigan University

  5. Thank you all for the thoughtful responses.

    Mark: Doubt you may, but Carnes publicly declared the death of the Socratic method. In fact, he also said that he found himself bored in his own classes. Not exactly a shock that his students are bored, too. I didn’t say that traditional methods work with *all* students, or that they’re “easily used.” I do think they’re the right way to go, though. I’d love to read some research that proves the efficacy of Reacting-type classes, if you could direct me (though of course that depends on one’s definition of efficacy).

    Lauren: In my experience, students don’t learn much hard history in college unless they major in history. Which is fine. Students who become cultural leaders probably should and do have education other than undergraduate, whether institutional or self-taught. I shudder to think that understanding the New Yorker might be the supreme goal of liberal education.

    Tim: Hasn’t multiple intelligences theory basically been debunked? In either case, I find it extremely hard to believe that historical role-playing teaches empathy. In any case, that’s not the purpose of college classes.

    Again, it’s only anecdotal, but I’ve yet to meet a student that didn’t find role-playing an exercise in pain and suffering.

  6. Jennifer,

    1) To add to Lauren’s point, you’re not going to make many friends around here by declaring that “the purpose of a liberal education is not to teach history.” For one, this is the wrong crowd to preach that message. Secondly, you’re flat out wrong. Indeed, you even cite the wrong person, Mark Lilla, to prove your point. Aside from being a Professor of the Humanities at Columbia, Lilla is an intellectual historian and/or historian of ideas. His genius is apparently getting people like yourself to love learning through history without emphasizing that it’s history that’s enabling your enthusiasm for the liberal arts. Even if you wanted to somehow exclude the academic discipline of history from the humanities—most humanities orgs do not—you can’t escape the historical development of ideas and topics. And sometimes learning through the history of ideas enables cultural literarcy—knowledge of historical facts and references used in American/World/European discourse.

    2) Of course there are critics of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory. I’m not sure that it’s been disproved as much as it’s not talked about much anymore. But there’s no denying that different people have different intellectual strengths. As such, there’s no harm in trying to play to the widest number of strengths possible in teaching history of any subdiscipline, whether you call it multiple intelligences or ability or g factor.

    – TL

  7. Just a quick follow-up:

    I don’t want to suggest that understanding the New Yorker is somehow the be-all and end-all of a liberal education. However, I do think that there is a common conversation that occurs among many liberal arts graduates in this country. For some it is through the NY Times, others through the Wall Street Journal. Blogs are, obviously, becoming an increasing presence in that conversation. My own observation is that that conversation is steeped in historically-rich dialgoue that is perhaps sensed, but not understood unless you have an understanding of history.

    My specialty is race, so I am especially sensitive to this. Think, for instance, about so many of the conversations around race and Barack Obama. Why are Harry Reid’s statements problematic? Or that other senator who called Obama “articulate?” We cannot understand those “controversies” unless we understand the history of racial dialogue in this country.

    I think this kind of historical games have the potential to help students think through historical dialogue and events more carefully because they have to explain them to other students and persuade other students to think in their way, not just listen to me explain it.

  8. I understood “the purpose of a liberal education is not to teach history,” coming on the heels of the ‘alone in the room’ comment, to mean that the point of a liberal education is to convince the student that they want very much to know about history, and to give them the tools to learn it themselves. that is, to be intellectually curious and capable. maybe that’s a generous reading.

    in any case, different students are just that, different; some will be helped ‘out of their box’ by the framework of the game, and some will be insulted by the suggestion that so much artifice is required to present historical material to them. it’s for each teacher to judge. students will, as lauren points out, understand the material better if they’ve got to explain it to another person. of course they will. the question is, under what conditions is a game a better way of doing that than a written assignment?

  9. Brandon–
    Your reading of the comment makes more sense and I hope that is the way it was meant. I’ve started to see my role as a teacher more to spark a lifelong interest in history rather than an attempt to cram basic facts into students in the few hours I get them.

    Did you see the Chronicle article disputing the multiple intelligences theory that came out sometime within the last month? I found the intro:

    December 15, 2009
    Matching Teaching Style to Learning Style May Not Help Students

    Our brains may not be wired to learn best in a particular style, as many educators now believe, a new paper argues.

    By David Glenn

    If you’ve ever sat through a teaching seminar, you’ve probably heard a lecture about “learning styles.” Perhaps you were told that some students are visual learners, some are auditory learners, and others are kinesthetic learners. Or maybe you were given one of the dozens of other learning-style taxonomies that scholars and consultants have developed.

    Almost certainly, you were told that your instruction should match your students’ styles. For example, kinesthetic learners—students who learn best through hands-on activities—are said to do better in classes that feature plenty of experiments, while verbal learners are said to do worse.

    Now four psychologists argue that you were told wrong. There is no strong scientific evidence to support the “matching” idea, they contend in a paper published this week in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. And there is absolutely no reason for professors to adopt it in the classroom….


  10. Eric & Lauren: Rereading Jennifer Bernstein’s comment, it could most certainly be taken in more than one way. For instance, if she meant that not everyone is destined become a history teacher, well, I agree with her 100 percent. – TL

  11. RTTP seems to me to be a useful advance on the old PBS Steve Allen show “Meeting of Minds.” Check Youtube for examples from the 70’s. Most (all?) of the comments here refer to actual historical people and contexts – but the RTTP technique works nicely for fiction too, or a mixture of fiction and history. Eg. a discussion of social conditions between Jeremy Bentham, J.S. Mill and David Copperfield. Or a discussion of slavery involving Federick Douglas and Huck Finn. Students can “get into the minds” of fictional characters as much as actual historical people.

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