Tag Archives: Western Civilization

A festive lesson plan (via Mental Floss)

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9 Holiday Characters From Around the World – Mental Floss is a quick review of the various other Christmas characters in the western world.  I teach Western Civilization and am well aware of the connectedness of European and American culture.  Given that fact, the variety of the theme is remarkable.

Sadly, Mental Floss is not in the habit of citing their sources on these lists.  Still, universities in this country teach about these cultures in their foreign language departments and may well provide some additional information.  I think it is worth it–this is a nifty cultural lesson.  It relates back to an old theme shared by Sam Weinburg and this blog, among many others, about the challenges of grappling with the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Below, I describe a lesson plan emphasizing these things.  It is written for a classroom, but easily adapted into a homeschooling lesson plan.

Suggested lesson plan (outline):

Introduction:  Have each student describe their family’s Christmas traditions (note, these do not need to be religious traditions, obviously, if you feel more comfortable you can phrase it based on what students’ families do on their winter breaks)–do this by having each free write for five minutes or break the class into small groups and have each share with his or her group, then have someone from each group describe someone else’s family tradition. (It is worth keeping in mind that a student may not have a family tradition for the Christmas holidays because of religion, personal tragedy, or different cultural background.  This does not mean you shouldn’t do the exercise!  This is as important and valuable a learning experience as the others!!!  The greater diversity in your classroom the greater the opportunity students will have to learn from each other!  Also, remember that Santa Claus is almost entirely secular in the U.S.)

Activity 1:  Assign the reading from Mental Floss, provided in the link above.  Ask students to each read the whole article, or break it down so that each student reads one of the descriptions, or make small groups in which they each group reads three of the character descriptions.

Activity 2:  If you haven’t already, break the students into small groups.  These can be the same as the previous activity or entirely new groups.  Unless they all read the same thing, have each student describe what they read.  Then have each group answer these questions (adjust as needed for age or experience):

  1. Which continents do these traditions come from?
  2. What religions celebrate Christmas?
  3. Is there a connection between the answer of question 1 and the answer of question 2?
  4. What do these characters have in common (how they look, how they act, time of year in which they appear)?
  5. How are these characters different  (how they look, how they act, time of year in which they appear)?

Reflection:  For either a brief reflective essay or a brief reflective discussion ask students to answer the following: Why do you think we have so many different traditions for the same holiday?

Santa on the sleigh

From here a homework assignment could be made for further research into the different cultures and the character featured–and other cultural Christmas characters could be added, perhaps even as the result of the student discussion of Christmas (or winter break) traditions.  Ideally, this results in a feast with information about the cultures represented and their winter holiday traditions, such as games, music and songs, etc.  One might also just as easily make the next assignment about the class’s research of itself by having each student share more about their own family traditions and history.

American culture came out of European culture and for all of their similarities this reading helps illustrate the limits of the cultural similitude while nonetheless emphasizing the cohesion in comparison with the rest of the world.  This is an important point to learn from the exercise though it will probably resonate more with older students who have had more history exposure or to a particularly diverse class that is roundly international.  The follow-up exercise options described immediately above will be more appropriate depending on the class age and level of exposure, so adjust accordingly.

This lesson plan is designed to work on the following skills:

  • reading
  • writing
  • oral and aural communication: speaking and listening
  • historical thinking: making connections based on history knowledge
  • cognitive thinking: drawing conclusions based on provided information, cause and effect

If you try this or variant of it, or if you have your own already existent lesson plan, please, share your experiences, below.

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The telling works of Phillis Wheatley


Phillis Wheatley statue in the Old South Meeting House (Boston)

While in Boston earlier this August, I had occasion to pick up an Applewood Books publication of Phillis Wheatley’s poems, Poems of Phillis Wheatley, A native African and slave.  The significance of this particular publication over other collections of Wheatley’s poetry is that Applewood Books specializes in reprinting historical American works, so not only do I have the poems themselves, but also the editor’s note emphasizing that the poems are indeed the work of an African-born American slave–complete with the names of notable Bostonians who will vouch for her and the promise that a copy of their Attestation with their original signatures may be found by applying to “Archibald Bell, Bookseller, No. 8, Aldgate Street.”

I enjoy these features.  It gives context and color to the poems included in this collection.  Beyond this, I am impressed with the range of themes and intertextual allusions in the poetry itself.  It is clear, that while she was a slave, the relationship between slave and master is very different from the one we often hear or think about.  It is also clear that the same relationship and Wheatley’s success could be used to justify slavery as a liberation from savagery [in Africa].  Indeed, some of her own poetry might be used as ammunition for just that.

I want to set this particular aspect of the discussion aside, for now, as it is illuminated much better by the more capable hands of other scholars.  I want to look at her poetry from the long perspective of a Western Civilization professor.  In this long view slavery has played a consistent role, but there other features revealed in Wheatley’s poetry that speak to the strength of other long-enduring legacies, clearly prioritized in her education.

Phillis Wheatley

To Mæcenas

     MÆCENAS, you, beneath the myrtle shade,
Read o’er what poets sung, and shepherds play’d.
What felt those poets but you feel the same?
Does not your soul possess the sacred flame?
Their noble strains your equal genius shares
In softer language, and diviner airs.

     While Homer paints, lo! circumfused in air,
Celestial Gods in mortal forms appear;
Swift as they move hear each recess rebound,
Heaven quakes, earth trembles, and the shores resound.
Great Sire of verse, before my mortal eyes,
The lightnings blaze across the vaulted skies,
And, as the thunder shakes the heavenly plains,
A deep-felt horror thrills through all my veins.
When gentler strains demand thy graceful song,
The lengthening line moves languishing along.
When great Patroclus courts Achilles‘ aid,
The grateful tribute of my tears is paid;
Prone on the shore he feels the pangs of love,
And stern Pelides‘ tenderest passions move.

     Great Maro‘s strain in heavenly numbers flows,
The Nine inspire, and all the bosom glows.
O could I rival thine and Virgil‘s page,
Or claim the Muses with the Mantuan Sage;
Soon the same beauties should my mind adorn,
And the same ardors in my soul should burn:
Then should my song in bolder notes arise,
And all my numbers pleasingly surprise:
But here I sit, and mourn a groveling mind,
That fain would mount and ride upon the wind.

     Not you, my friend, these plaintive strains become,
Not you, whose bosom is the Muses’ home;
When they from tow’ring Helicon retire,
They fan in you the bright immortal fire;
But I less happy, cannot raise the song,
The fault’ring music dies upon my tongue.

     The happier Terence* all the choir inspired,
His soul replenish’d, and his bosom fired:
But say, ye Muses, why this partial grace,
To one alone of Afric’s sable race;
From age to age transmitting thus his name
With the finest glory in the rolls of fame?

*He was an African by birth.

     Thy virtues, great Maecenas! shall be sung
In praise of him, from whom those virtues sprung:
While blooming wreaths around thy temples spread,
I’ll snatch a laurel from thine honour’d head,
While you, indulgent, smile upon the deed.

     As long as Thames in streams majestic flows,
Or Naiads in the oozy beds repose
While Phœbus reigns above the starry train
While bright Aurora purples o’er the main,
So long, great Sir, the muse thy praise shall sing,
So long thy praise shal’ make Parnassus ring:
Then grant, Maecenas, thy paternal rays,
Hear me propitious, and defend my lays.

This is a complex poem.  Lacking a knowledge of classic literature, however, would make it far more complicated, still.  In the opening pages of the book, her slave master John Wheatley, acknowledges that he bought her when she was brought to America in 1761 at age 7 or 8.  In sixteen months time, she had a knowledge of English, “to such a degree as to read any, the most difficult parts of the Sacred Writings, to the great astonishment of all who heard her.”  (John Wheatley, a letter to the publisher included in the first publication of Wheatley’s poems, dated in Boston, Nov. 14, 1772)  He further acknowledged that she acquired no schooling outside what the family provided her, led by her own curiosity.

John Wheatley also explains that Phillis was interested and had an inclination for Latin.  In “To Mæcenas,” she shares a great knowledge of Greek and Roman classical literature.  These references are made in Wheatley’s own request to be so gifted a poet as those she mentions and to receive the patronage of Mæcenas.  There would be a great deal to unpack in this poem to do it justice, so it is perhaps unfair (or unwise) for me to reference it, but I do so for these reasons:

  1. It is loaded with references to the origins of our literary tradition in ancient Greece and Rome–a tradition she gained in the household of John Wheatley;
  2. Thus, it speaks to the continued reverence for such works evident in colonial Boston (and, therefore, also England), while also attesting to the continued influence of these ancient authors on these Early Modern students, readers, and authors;
  3. It reveals a complex request from Wheately for patronage–a term loaded with meanings–from Mæcenas to receive the Muses, but perhaps also to receive liberty.

To the University of Cambridge, in New England

     WHILE an intrinsic ardor prompts to write,
The muses promise to assist my pen;
‘T was not long since I left my native shore
The land of errors, and Egyptian gloom:
Father of mercy! ‘t was thy gracious hand
Brought me in safety from those dark abodes.

Students, to you ‘t is given to scan the heights
Above, to traverse the etherial space,
And mark the systems of revolving worlds.
Still more, ye sons of science, ye receive
The blissful news by messengers from heaven,
How Jesus’ blood for your redemption flows.
See him with hands outstretched upon the cross!
Immense compassion in his bosom glows;
He hears revilers, nor resents their scorn.
What matchless mercy in the Son of God!
He deign’d to die that they might rise again,
And share with him in the sublimest skies,
Life without death, and glory without end.

Improve your privileges while they stay,
Ye pupils; and each hour redeem, that bears
Or good or bad report of you to heaven.
Let sin, that baneful evil to the soul,
By you be shunned; nor once remit your guard:
Suppress the deadly serpent in its egg.
Ye blooming plants of human race divine,
An Ethiop tells you, ‘t is your greatest foe;
Its transient sweetness turns to endless pain,
And in immense perdition sinks the soul.

This is a challenging poem.  On the one hand, Wheatley appears to be castigating her homeland and the life she would have lived as an African among her people if  she had not been enslaved.  I think we must acknowledge that Wheatley was genuinely grateful for her education and her Christian faith, two things she would not have gained had she remained free in her African home.  The question must be asked, did she believe her knowledge justified her enslavement?

I am incapable of answering this question directly, but in my historical interest of the poem and its time, perhaps some indirect suggestions might be gleaned (and possibly dismissed, as I do not claim proficiency in the literary arts).

Wheatley’s poem to Harvard University, the University of Cambridge, New England (Massachusetts), makes reference to one of the intellectual pursuits of the time: astronomy.  That she chose this is assuredly not random, as “traver[sing] etherial space/And mark[ing] the systems of revolving worlds” is connected to the spiritual heavens, “And share with [Son of God] in the sublimest skies/ Life without death, and glory without end.”  That this poem reads in part like a sermon or a warning to the students that they cannot neglect to shun sin, “that baneful evil to the soul,” from an African–“the land of errors … those dark abodes”–is rather interesting.

Indeed, it is still more interesting that she links “the land of errors” specifically with “Egyptian gloom.”  The heavily Puritan population would no doubt be fully prepared to acknowledge that Egypt, known from the Old Testament, was a land of errors.  Would they have credited Wheatley for suggesting that its errors were those of slavery–namely enslaving God’s people, the Hebrews?  This would become powerful imagery and iconography among slaves in a later America, but is Wheatley calling attention to it, here?  Egypt, throughout most of the preceding centuries, is precisely referenced because of its direct association with the pride of Pharoah in refusing God in the signs of Moses when he demands in the name of God that the Hebrew slaves be freed.  The errors of Egypt are the sins of Pharoah.  The sins of Pharoah are the enslavement of the Hebrews and his pride in doing so despite God’s demands.

Why she includes this at all, and in her opening stanza no less, is certainly interesting since she intends to warn the students and scholars away from sin.  She admires the institutions of learning, she is grateful for what she has learned, and for Christian conversion, but does she imply that there is something more these learned scholars have yet to learn, specifically about her own social station in Boston?

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The Value of the Classics–What you read is important, too

Pile of books

                I grew up in Morgantown, WV, the daughter of professors (as it turns out, the little sister of a couple of more professors).  Many of the kids I went to school with were also the sons and daughters of professors.  One such friend, Kate, was transferred out of our Blue Award-winning school right before her senior year of high school, because her father had taken a new position with the University of Pittsburgh (incidentally, arch-rivals of WVU).  With so many options for school, she ended up in an aggressive college-prep program and private school.  She did not love it.  As AP Tests were approaching, her English teacher handed out a list of all the books students should have read if they had attended the institution for their entire high school careers, and of these Kate had only read those which the senior class had read that year.

“That’s what you get for going to a school in West Virginia!” snarked one girl, after Kate raised her hand to explain.

Then, the teacher handed out a list of the recommended book list for AP Literature exams.  He asked if anyone in the classroom had read any of these books.  Kate looked around as one or two students had read one or two of the books, before raising her hand.

“I’ve read every single one of these.  That’s what you get for going to a school in West Virginia.”

* * *


                I tell this story for several reasons:  1) out of sheer middle-class delight in Snarky getting deliciously one-upped by Kate, and, 2) what were they thinking in depriving high schoolers of the greatest works in the English language or Western Civilization?  Why force post-modern literature on adolescents?  Is that not the purpose of college or long, disillusioned hitch-hiking trips across the country?  There is plenty of time for the wacky, the strange, the experimental, the nouveau, the trippy… etc., but can we at least provide a foundation in the great works?

Ok, so what does this have to do with history?  Only everything.  The great works of our civilization (in the grand “Western” sense of the word) is the humanities’ corpus.  It begins with the Greeks, the Romans, the Medieval Europeans, the Early Modern Europeans and then extended to some of the colonial production in the Americas.  This body of work reveals the great ideas (good and evil, destructive and productive, etc.) that help to explain our culture and society today.  It is a collection that constantly references itself throughout different eras and epochs.  Once that basic, though expansive, foundation is established, it grows to include an exposure to the rest of the world’s great literature, and if one has taken the time to really understand one’s own developmental leaps, it will be possible to gain an understanding of other civilizations, as well.

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The great works of literature, philosophy and theology are inextricably linked with the history that produced each piece.  They should not be taught separately, really, but should be harmoniously and simultaneously engaged.  The entanglement of Livy’s history of Rome and Augustus’s Rome through which Livy lived is inseparable from the work he wrote.  The same can be said about Augustine and the City of God, about Beowulf, about Geoffrey Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales, about  John Locke and Two Treatises of Government, about Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice, about Charles Dickens and Oliver Twist, about Kurt Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse Five, etc., etc.

For an entertaining experience of this effect compare the Arthurian stories through history, beginning with the Arthurian-like leader, Ambrosius Aurelianus, from the 6th century author and monk, Gildas; next, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version, written in 1135 AD, in History of the Kings of Britain; then, Chrétien de Troyes and the Arthurian Romances, written in 1170-1185 (notice how French his name sounds?);  Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (notice how French this Englishman’s title sounds?); onto Lord Alfred Tennyson’s version, Idylls of the King; and, finally T.H. White’s Once and Future King.  If you compare these works and the history contemporary with the authors, you get the opportunity for some pretty fascinating expositions in both history and literature—incidentally teachers, this makes a truly awesome collaborative elective!  (Note that Gildas and Nennius—another Arthur story source ca. 9th century Wales—and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History is available online.  The rest are found in any decent book store.)


History and the Great Books of literature, philosophy, drama, theology and, well, history are gloriously and inextricably entwined with each other.  They enrich each other.  Students studying Greece should read Homer, Aeschylus, Plato, Herodotus and Demosthenes.  On the one hand, it is simply a sampling of the incredible number of varied sources we still have today that enrich our understanding of Greek culture; on the other hand, they have been continuously read since they were written and inform not only our own ideas of literature, drama, philosophy, history and politics, but have been embedded into our culture in ways we cannot possibly realize until we have been exposed to their elements or aphorisms or mechanisms.  One does not realize how ingrained Socratic dialogue is until one reads Plato’s dialogues.

American history should be accompanied with the literature, essays and philosophy that fueled it and responded to it.  It means reading Jonathan Edwards, Nathanial Hawthorne, Thomas Jefferson, Washington Irving, and so many more in concert with the study of historical events and movements.  What is the point of inflicting Walden Pond on anyone without the historical context that makes it seem glorious to Henry David Thoreau and his cadre?  History is the primary reason for reading Thoreau (I’m not saying that Civil Disobedience is limited to its period, here, for the record, but understanding what he was responding to is just as important as recognizing his influence on later figures).


I am advocating an in depth initiation into Western Civilization precisely to understand the roots and developments of the culture.  Once that is achieved to a substantial degree, I further advocate the expansion to the history and great works of the world over.  Once one has read the great literary, theological and philosophical works of the West, continue with Bhagavad Gita, Lao Tzu’s Ta Ching, the Mayan Popul Vuh, etc.  I am not so rigid that I demand one wait on all of these other works until one is well-versed in Western Civilization, particularly if a good opportunity for exploration arises—being such a slave to a construct is as deficient as no construct at all.  However, I do think curriculums should not be aimed at world history and world literature before Western Civilization for students who are being raised in the West.  This does not presuppose that everything “Great” was simultaneously flawless.  Part of studying Western Civilization is recognizing the faults, although we must always seek to respect that our point of view did not exist in the eras that we study, while acknowledging that past eras do not earn a complete pass on moral action.  Finally, just because I endorse reading theology and philosophy does not mean that everyone must be a faithful adherent of such Western thought—indeed, it would be impossible even if one sought to be given the numbers of wars we have fought in the West over precisely those ideas.  My call and encouragement for this program is made for the sake of cultural literacy.

For educators or for others in a position to influence youth in studies of the past, I encourage an approach that allows for the study of Great Books to enrich history.  This used to be the primary method of education for the great intellectual giants in our history.  Its fall from such primacy is a tragedy in Liberal Arts education, and to an extent a further dumbing down of education.  While many teachers, programs and Boards of Education seek to achieve some semblance of this education, others are either skeptical of it, afraid of it (for varying reasons), or incapable of it (again, for varying reasons).  I know that American literature and American history are often required in the same years in high school, but I also know that the links between the history classroom’s material are not always made with that of the English classroom unless a teacher guides the students to make them (with some exceptions, of course).  Meanwhile, Shakespeare is seldom studied with the English Reformation in mind until college courses.  If one has the power to influence a link between the great written works of our civilization with its history, jump on it!  Make it come alive in ways students could not have imagined possible!

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Cultural Illiteracy and the History Vacuum

I recently read a couple of articles that I thought were poignant and related.  (Special thanks, here, to Gleb_Tsipursky for bringing them to my attention via Twitter.)   The articles come from CNN’s “Subject Matters” column, by Sally Holland, and Insider Higher Ed’s guest editorial, “Sorry”, by Stephen Brockmann.

Read the articles by clicking on the links below:

Subject Matters: Why students fall behind on history,” Sally Holland, CNN.com

“Sorry,” Stephen Brockman, InsideHigherEd.com

These two articles are both talking about the struggle within our society to engage our young citizenry in history (and the humanities) and the vacuum of cultural illiteracy that has developed in recent years.  The two articles point to different causes, but they are addressing the same effect.

Cultural Iliteracy

Western Civilization has certain traditions and assumptions that inform our society; these influence our legal system, political system, moral and ethical codes and educational approaches.  It differs significantly from other traditions; it has flaws both historically and currently; it often neglects other societies and traditions or looks down upon them.  It is also the culture from which we emerged.  Learning about our civilization’s heritage is also a means for acknowledging its shortcomings and provides a stable platform from which to contrast alternate traditions.

Unfortunately, however, traditions that are not passed on from one generation to the next die. If an entire generation grows up largely unexposed to a particular tradition, then that tradition can in essence be said to be dead, because it is no longer capable of reproducing itself. It does not matter whether the tradition in question is imagined as the Western tradition, the Christian tradition, or the Marxist tradition (and of course both Christianity and Marxism are part of the Western tradition). Traditions are like languages: if they are not passed on, they die. Most traditions, of course, have good and bad elements in them (some might argue for Christianity, some for Marxism, relatively few for both), and what dies when a tradition dies is therefore often both good and bad, no matter what one’s perspective. But what also dies with a tradition is any possibility of self-critique from within the tradition (in the sense that Marxism, for instance, constituted a self-critique from within the Western tradition), since a tradition’s self-critique presupposes the existence of the tradition. Therefore the death of a tradition is not just the death of the oppression and tyranny that might be associated with the tradition, but also the death of progressive and liberating impulses within the tradition.

~ Stephen Brockmann

Teachers in high school and middle school notice the problems at a young age.  Students do not retain material, nor do they make necessary connections between time and space as they learn.  We have moved away from memorization drills, which seems to lead to a greater enjoyment, but, while it opens the door for greater opportunities in developing thought processes, there clearly are problems with retention and cognition.  On top of this, students seem to have a lower common-denominator of shared knowledge which requires more teaching than the curriculum may assume necessary.

At Caprock High School in Amarillo, Texas, teacher Jeff Frazer said he’s surprised by how many of his incoming students know that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 but don’t know that it was a list of grievances against Great Britain.

“I think they learn information by itself, in isolation,” Frazer said of his students. “But putting the big picture together is not happening.”

And during the comparative religions unit at Rutland Middle School in Rutland, Vermont, Ted Lindgren regularly asks students, “What is Easter about?”

He said they invariably bring up the Easter bunny but don’t know the significance of the holiday to Christianity. It shows a lack of cultural literacy, Lindgren said, that they have to compensate for during class.

~ Sally Holland

The field’s potential impact on how we think is itself born out of Western Civilization’s traditions.  This is relevant not only to cultural literacy but cultural fluency and is an important asset for one’s ability to participate in our cultural institutions–not least in our participatory-based political system.  As Brockmann says, we fail to adequately learn even its shortcomings or to understand precisely how this tradition and society contrasts with others.  Without the ability to learn about our own past and its own strangeness and differences we will fail trying to learn about other cultures and traditions.  This also leads to failure in progressive attempts to break from the supposed tyranny of Western Civilization and create a successful inclusive curriculum.  As Sam Wineburg has written in his explanations of historical thinking as a curriculum goal, lacking engagement with our own culture’s foreign attributes will necessarily stunt our ability to deal with the contemporary foreign cultures around us with which we are in ever-increasing contact.

What’s the cause of the current set of circumstances?

Holland’s article focuses on the perspective that is twofold: on the one hand, the amount of content is overwhelming for teachers and, aided by crummy textbooks, often reduced to trivia; on the other hand, history has been deemphasized in schools at an ever-younger level because it is not part of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) testing.  Even in cases where state-mandated tests exist, there is often a large gap between the testing and the period of learning.

World history teacher Troy Hammon of Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis, Indiana, said he is constantly weighing how much “trivia” he teaches, like names, dates and places, and when to try to help his students relive history.

For example, Hammon had his students take on the roles of individuals who may have taken part in the Crusades of the Middle Ages. The students then answered questions based on their knowledge of that time. Hammon believes this helps his students better understand the Middle Ages.

History grows every year, no matter what,” said Jennifer Kravitz, who teaches world history, civics and economics at Rutland High School in Vermont. “So with this ever-expanding content, teachers are trying to balance teaching history content with helping students learn the essential skills they are going to need.”

~ Sally Holland

The resources provided to teachers at the secondary level emphasize “facts” but not thinking.  (I actually open classes by telling my students that we will not be studying facts, but interpretations of sources–hopefully reliable sources.)  Even so, the challenge of retention and engagement remains.

Brockmann opens his discussion much earlier than NCLB with the cultural wars in the 1980s.  He argues that these were not only counter-productive to either group’s goals, they also gutted the humanities of its respectability and dignity in the minds of the general public.  It created the image of the liberal arts as a bastard child in the academic arena, subordinate to more vocational majors such as business, which is a completely topsy-turvy understanding of education and its roots in Western Civilization.

A quarter of a century later, with the humanities in crisis across the country and students and parents demanding ever more pragmatic, ever more job-oriented kinds of education, the curricular debates of the 1980s over courses about Western civilization and the canon seem as if they had happened on another planet, with completely different preconceptions and assumptions than the ones that prevail today. We now live in a radically different world, one in which most students are not forced to take courses like Western civilization or, most of the time, in foreign languages or cultures, or even the supposedly more progressive courses that were designed to replace them. And whereas as late as the 1980s English was the most popular major at many colleges and universities, by far the most popular undergraduate major in the country now is business.

The battle between self-identified conservatives and progressives in the 1980s seems increasingly like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. While humanists were busy arguing amongst themselves, American college students and their families were turning in ever-increasing numbers away from the humanities and toward seemingly more pragmatic, more vocational concerns.

~ Stephen Brockmann

What is lost?   Perhaps it is irrelevant to you that America’s children are limited in their thinking about Easter to a basket full of candy and gifts delivered by the Easter bunny, but it is a tragedy regardless of whether those children are raised as Christians.  This reflects an unfortunate reordering of our values and mores–and I am not insisting on a Christian society, here.  The questions are broader than religion or life viewed through a religion’s perspective.  How do business courses prepare students for the cultural interactions of the modern world?  How do they replace philosophy courses that ask us how to think about how best we should live?  By what means do they teach the next generation to communicate, argue and understand rhetoric?  In fact, business schools must add such tangential courses to their programs because they recognize that their students are not getting a well-rounded education beyond the major.

How is it solved?

Indeed, how?  It requires a re-commitment to our society’s roots, even if we dispute the value of it’s ideals and practices.  It is not necessary to glorify it, but it is necessary to learn it.  We cannot possibly expect students to understand the conflicts that exist today or the necessity for self-education and participation in the community and civics without some grounding in what got us here–and I understand this to extend beyond our Founding Fathers, just as they looked beyond their British heritage in the founding of a new American civilization.  The value of testing-based education has been questioned long before NCLB and the idea that a multiple choice test can adequately evaluate a student’s ability to think historically is, naturally, absurd.

Brockmann believes that we have truly lost something, which is why he entitles his op-ed, “Sorry”.  Holland’s teachers appear to have few answers as well, though their myopic  concern about NCLB and state testing requirements smells like a scapegoat.  Naturally, students‘ lives have changed from the 1980s–not just their habits and activities, but also the way their brains develop as a result.  Will instructors be able adapt as necessary within the systems that exist–those systems born out of Western Civilization?  Probably.  When and what will be lost (and need to be recovered by later generations)?  Good question.  Students of the breadth and depth of Western Civilization will recall that the Romans looked back to the Greeks.  In succession, the Carolingians, 12th Century scholars, Renaissance Europeans and Enlightened thinkers all looked back to the Greeks and Romans following a decline in such interest and remembrance.  Enlightened thinkers looked back to the Renaissance, as well.  So, perhaps we are due for another flourishing in the long history of ideas from our extensive heritage.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

Primary sources and getting some context

In its most basic sense, this is what history is: the stories we tell about our prior selves or that others tell about us.  In writing these stories, however, historians do not discover a past as much as they create it; they choose the events and people that they think constitute the past, and they decide what about them they need to know. . .

The above quote is excerpted from the book, From Reliable Sources, An introduction to historical methods, part of a slightly longer quote I use on the very first day of each class—right after a slide that eads: “What is history?”  Last night in my opening class of a once-a-week Thursday night-er (Western Civ. 101) I received a certain amount of concern and doubt from my students:

“Well, he seems to be saying— well, ‘the stories we tell about our prior selves or that others tell about us’— that is, I hope it means historical fact.”

“It’s kind of disturbing that they say ‘stories.'”

To their consternation, I wrote the following up on the board: PAST ≠ HISTORY!

The second slide they read was a little longer than the sentence below, but it ended with the following:

Seen from this point of view, the historian’s basic task is to choose reliable sources, to read them reliably, and to put them together in ways that provide reliable narratives about the past.

While interpretations of past events differ, the historian seeks to gain the most accurate account of the past that he/she can, I explained.  To do this the historian must seek reliable sources.  Borrowing from some of the back-to-school ideas posted at the end of this summer, I asked the students what they would choose to include if I asked them to tell me about their day.  At various points they would leave things out as irrelevant and this prioritization is something that historians do, too, when constructing their narratives of the past.  It is at this point that I introduce the concept of the historian functioning like a detective and a prosecutor in his/her research (detective investigation) and written argument (prosecutor’s court case) based on found evidence.  Roughly, the next thing I did with my students this semester was introduce documents that students had brought in and were, through scanning and magic marker application, rendered anonymous.  Having divided the class into small groups, each group got its own set of documents and was tasked with trying to establish 1) what they knew about the individual from the documents (and why?) and 2) what could they infer about the individual from the documents (and why?).  This week was the first time I had attempted this and below I want to share some of the results.

The assignment, given to my Monday/Wednesday/Friday class, required each student to bring in three documents due on the first Wednesday.  They understood that these would be read by their classmates and that they should not bring in anything inappropriate, i.e. anything referencing sexual behavior, illegal activity or other inappropriate behavior.  (The students were good about this, although, one student did bring in a summons to court for driving 80-something in a 50 mph zone and a ticket from the NJ turnpike authority for not having any money to pay the toll, both of which prompted the group to infer that the individual was male because, and I paraphrase: males are more frequently guilty of aggressive driving and not going through the proper planning to show up at a toll with the necessary funds!)  Because the  class brought them in on a Wednesday, I could select some for use in both my Thursday night class and my Tuesday/Thursday class.

On the xeroxed copies of the card, pictured above, the recipient’s name was blacked out.  With this card also came a 21st birthday card from “Grandmom” and a lifeguard training and first aid card from the American Red Cross, Central Maryland Chapter, completed May 23, 2008.    This individual’s documents were used in all three classes with some interesting results.  First of all, students were told that all the cards and non-electronic correspondence were received by the individuals—not written by them.  While I made this clear, students seemed to have a difficult time recalling that fact when they read the card shown here and seemed determined (all three groups!) to infer that he was female.  Part of this was also due to the birthday card from his grandmother which students decided looked like a card one would pick out for a girl, not a boy.

Aside from the gender confusion, however, there were some perceptive conclusions and inferences made.  For example, one group had a lifeguard in it and (correctly) assessed that he was probably also CPR-certified if he was still a lifeguard.  And, furthermore, he had probably earned it recently, because while the lifeguard certification was already two years old, it was good for three years, and a CPR certification is only good for one year.  As the date was in May, most groups reasoned it was probably for a summer job, in particular, though there were likely other opportunities for using it.  I pointed out that one person’s knowledge about lifeguarding provided more context which enabled the group to make inferences based on his familiarity and experiences leading them to reason more, even if they could not state more facts.  (I also pointed out that working together expanded their ability to evaluate the material.)  Finally, looking at the card shown above, the groups were able to correctly surmise that he was in his first semester at Mount St. Mary’s college when he received the card, based on the opening reference to “the Mount” leading into a description of freshman life in college.

Another student brought in a letter about his father’s death (for heavy reading), a tag from the hospital in conjunction with a birth (1987) and the shown postcard.  While the postcard is from Turkey, the stamp on the back was an Italian stamp, which led one student to infer that the sender was in the Navy (as it turns out the sender was the individual’s father and he was a merchant marine).  In another class we talked about this student’s choices in his documents that led the group to infer that his father’s absence was a defining aspect in his life.

One student brought in a picture, a Chanukah card from “Grandma & Poppop” and a Placement/Academic Planning form for our college.  From the card all groups (correctly) identified that the student was Jewish.  From the placement form they were confident that student was strong in English and that it was not his second language as the there was no ESOL placement requirements filled in.  (Although, the former point prompted some interesting conversations about whether test scores were evidence of a fact or an inference, most groups settling on fact in the end.)   Also, the groups inferred that the student was currently taking classes at the college as the form had been filled out the previous fall (2009).

One group, knowing that students 25+ years are not required to show previous college experience or SAT/ACT scores, inferred that the student must be twenty-five or older because these boxes were left blank, which, while not actually the case, was nonetheless well-reasoned.  In fact, I used that as an opportunity to demonstrate  how a perfectly well-reasoned inference can still be wrong.  This further showed students how a historian’s conclusions can be based on perfectly reasonable interpretations of available sources and still be off the mark.  Again: past ≠ history, or maybe: past ≈ history.

In general, I was really pleased with this activity.  Students were free to take risks in their attempts to interpret the information they had available without worrying about losing points for mistakes.  Also, even though I used the documents from one class with student-groups from all three classes, as students tapped into their own knowledge banks the enterprise facilitated students getting to know each other better in their small groups which are now set for the whole semester.

In the past, I have noticed students struggle to look at a document and find clues.  The hope in doing this activity with students’ documents was twofold:

In the first place, it allowed me to show how many more documents we have today even though the electronic medium may make it more difficult to access documents for future historians.

Secondly, and more importantly, it gave them practice looking for evidence in documents with known or more familiar contexts.

We concluded with a discussion about what Sam Wineburg has to say about engaging with the unfamiliar:

To realize history’s humanizing qualities fully, to draw on history’s ability to, in the words of Carl Degler, “expand our conception and understanding of what it means to be human,” we need to encounter the distant past—a past less distant from us in time than in its modes of thought and social organization.  It is this past, one that initially leaves us befuddled or, worse, just plain bored, that we need most if we are to achieve the understanding that each of us is more than the handful of labels ascribed to us at birth.  The sustained encounter with this less-familiar past teaches us the limitations of our brief sojourn on the planet and allows us to take membership in the entire human race.  Paradoxically, the relevance of the past may lie precisely in what strikes us as its initial irrelevance.

I expressed that this concept of humanizing us is an important goal for all of us this semester.

I would really appreciate comments and questions, so fire away!

Decorative relief from the Basilica of St. John, Ephesus, Turkey


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

A metaphor to explain what historians do

An Introduction for history classes

Each week when I teach Western Civilization 101 or 102, I pair a question with the material for that week’s unit.  This question is designed to introduce students to the field of history using that week’s content as a way to teach how historians do their thing, as a way to drive the methodology point home.  (I do this both to introduce students to historical method and to introduce students to the fallibility and controversy of the field–something lost in most history textbooks, museums and documentaries, but useful for citizens in the U.S. where there is an information overload.)  For example, in the week we study the Greeks, I ask, “What are a historian’s sources?”  Thus, I can introduce the literate society of the Greeks that recorded earlier oral tradition and really introduced history, drama, philosophy and political discourse to Western Civilization.  In so doing, it is also possible to introduce the methods historians apply to these different primary sources types.

I begin with this concept on day 1, where I introduce the course with the question, “What is history?”  The purpose being to introduce methodology to separate history from other studies of the past.  We read a brief excerpt from Sam Wineburg (Historical Thinking) about the importance of studying history, in an ever-shrinking world, where one is taught the skills to recognize that the context of a document may be foreign and require research and careful consideration ahead of assumptions.  (Note:  Whether Wineburg is read in class actually depends on the class format–it is hard to fit him into a 50 minute class!)  We also read a brief excerpt from Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier’s From Reliable Sources in which they explain that history is something people write about the past–it is constructed and requires reliable sources to be reliable, itself.  This is the point where I generally introduce a metaphor to help students understand what a historian does and what those sources are.

The Detective

Today, on TV you can watch fictional detectives at work every night: NCIS, CSI, Law & Order, Castle, Criminal Minds, Cold Case, Bones, etc.  The popularity of these shows has contributed to reality TV shows and regular shows dedicated to following actual criminal cases.  So, people, including our students, are acquainted with the methods (more or less) by which detectives collect evidence to build a case against criminals.  Using this fairly common “knowledge”, I set up some comparisons to explain how historians do their research, such as seeking clues from witnesses by reading primary sources.


  • Investigation
  • Crimes
  • Interview witnesses
  • Training and experiences
  • Evidence
    • Clues
    • Observation


  • Research
  • Questions
  • Read primary sources
  • Secondary sources
  • Evidence
    • Realia
    • Names, geography
    • Events

The Prosecutor

Just as detectives investigate in order to build a case for the prosecution (or Matlock!), so, too, do historians investigate in order to build a case for a paper or book.  So, where the historian’s research is to detective work, the historian’s written argument is to the prosecutor’s court case.  The publication, the written case, is the presentation of the evidence that has been gathered to convince a jury of one’s peers about what actually happened, and why one’s sources are most reliable and should be considered in a certain light.  It is remarkably similar to the process the prosecutor follows–even needing to consider other points of view and address critics, just as the prosecutor must do with the defendant’s case.


  • Opening statement
  • Interviewing witnesses on the stand
  • Presentation of physical evidence in exhibits
  • Closing statements
  • Oral arguments
  • Rebutting the defense’s case


  • Introduction
  • Citing primary sources in your text
  • Citing archaeological evidence
  • Conclusion
  • Written arguments
  • Taking into account critics and opposing view points

The Workshop

For each week we spend a class (or in accelerated courses and once-a-week courses, a portion of class) working specifically on the content that helps demonstrate the point that the question is teaching.  This typically means looking at specific primary or secondary sources.  For example, in Week 3 of Western Civilization 101, the question, “Is research the story of the victors/elite?” is asked.  This week’s content is Egypt and to a lesser extent the Hittites.  When considering this question, we look at the monumental evidence left behind by the Egyptians–covering a general history of the culture.  The homework includes reading excerpts from The Book of the Dead, so we discuss the Egyptian afterlife.  The PowerPoint ends with a look at the archaeology of the tombs and worker cities built around the tombs.  The rest of the week, the content continues to circle back to this question and demonstrates how the losers and lower strata of society can be found and accessed by historians (and archaeologists, too), while also showing that it takes a slightly different approach in order to get there.  This helps to provide some context for the students so they can try their hand at some of the detective work.

The Practicum

The practicum is either done on Wednesday, or in the middle of class (again, depending on format).  This portion of class is dedicated to working with sources to investigate a particular aspect of the culture.  It is a specific attempt to get students to try their hand at the detective work.  We will often draw up outlines, initially as a class and later in small groups, to begin practicing building and presenting a case.

The Discussion

The week ends with a discussion that, it is hoped, will help students retain and be more capable with the skills and content that historians use and learn.  It is the opportunity for students to practice being the prosecutor, often by presenting cases that were built in small groups during the practicum and other times discussing and debating controversies.

* * *

An additional wrinkle that I will be testing this semester is a homework assignment to bring in three documents.  The point is to try this detective work with a familiar context and to get to know each other a little better.  Examples of appropriate material includes a birthday card from a relative, a certificate of achievement, an e-mail or a to-do list.  (If you try this, be sure to also be very clear about what is not appropriate for the assignment.)  The metaphor, thus, introduces concepts of historical method in a recognizable way that is reinforced weekly.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning