Sunday, February 7, 2010

Teaching Revolutions

Uprising, injustice, massacre, anarchy…freedom, hope, revelation, unity…each of these themes, and many more, characterize the study of revolution. Since November, I have been teaching my students about revolution but have failed to discover the key to how the essence of this concept might be transferred. How to convey the hope and despair, the agony and elation, that comes with political revolution? How to convey the shifting in consciousness and lifestyle that comes with economic and scientific revolutions?
I have yet to encounter a comprehensive program that specifically addresses the proper pedagogy. Obviously we ought apply the standard, proven methods to this topic as any other, and we should find success. But isn’t there something special about revolutions?
I would posit that the following aspects of teaching revolution has particular importance if students will apprehend the true, complex and controversial essence of revolution:
1.    Details matter: In teaching global history, by nature a survey course, there is a tendency to gloss over the details in favor of trends. By revolution, in particular, warrants a deeper treatment of individual cases. Why? Because there are no trends! Every revolution is, in reality, so different from the next—from the likelihood that the ousted leaders will return to power, to the depth and breadth of reform—that students will fail to see the importance of a single event (a foreign intervention, a religious belief) on the outcome. Since every revolution has a different context, and since revolution is so transformative, it needs a unique way of approach. Perhaps it should its own course.
2.    Cause and effect relationships matter: As with the details, students need to approach every aspect of revolution with the critical lens of cause-effect. Since the essence of revolution is change, new tools should be developed to map change, and to test whether competing hypotheses for the revolution’s causes and effects are accurate. Revolution offers a rare opportunity for high school students to actually practice history (ie research and analysis), not just regurgitate it.
3.    The enduring understandings matter: Even if you teach with detail and strategies to distill cause and effect, what enduring understandings will the students walk away with? This goal is particularly crucial, as revolution is rife with misunderstanding, which leads to poor application to today’s world. Particularly for this reason, when choosing which trends, outcomes and relationships get emphasis, comparison to the issues of today should guide such a deliberation.
4.    Choice matters: Depending on the course, it matters which revolutions get taught (I’d make the same argument from a systematic point of view: Depending on the grade, school, nation…) What difference does it make if you study the French Revolution but not the Haitian Revolution? The American Revolution but not the Glorious Revolution? Just as significant, which narratives are chosen to teach these revolutions? I think most educators see the messiness of revolution and try to clean it up… “Here’s a document about a peasant, here’s a document about a lord… they hated each other, and BOOM!” It didn’t happen like that. Every revolution had so many factions, alliances, competing interests, and diverse and fluid outcomes, that in reality, students should walk away from studying revolution with many more questions than answers.
Recommended reading: Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.

No comments:

Post a Comment