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Makeover Column II: Engaging Students to Think Deeply about Political Choices

James A. Diskant, Ph.D.


In my first column, Engaging Students to Think Locally and Globally
    (July 2006), I argued that the creation of community needs to be at the center of any history class. If we assist students to understand different communities, students can begin to understand how their personal views of community coalesce with others or, if they disagree with one another, that the conflicts that emerged are based on divergent values. They can also understand how peoples' desire to work and live together or their inability to do so affects almost all historical events. Then students can move to the next step of community life to make and understand political choices. 1
    Politics—which is clearly an important aspect of almost any institution—are often badly understood. On the one hand, many textbook authors give lip service to the notion of civic education and describe political developments as things that students need to "know." At the same time, however, they treat politics as though they are only acted out by leaders—whoever they are— rather than by most ordinary people. As "political history" is too often presented, political actors are amorphous or out of touch with most peoples' lives. This also means that many of the labels that adults take for granted—including democracy, authoritarianism, and the like—make less sense to teenagers. Consider the following definition:

n 1: social relations involving authority or power [syn: political relation] 2: the study of government of states and other political units [syn: political science, government] 3: the profession devoted to governing and to political affairs 4: the opinion you hold with respect to political questions [syn: political sympathies

WordNet 2.0, 2003 Princeton University

    What are high school students to make of this? Some—particularly those who are naturally curious—will learn the material and ask countless questions. Others will learn it to get good grades. But most students, in my experience, fade out and wonder either quietly or aloud: "So, what?" "Who cares?" "They are all corrupt" or other simplified observations about the irrelevance of this aspect of their history education. I remember in graduate school being thrilled to study "people" and swore that when I taught history I would never expect my students to memorize names and dates of alleged important political leaders. Of course that vow became impossible once I began to teach. Rather, I realized that I needed to teach this subject differently.
    As adults—whatever our political beliefs are—we know that political decisions do matter. We know the potential, as well as the dangers, of political leadership. We know from both history and current events the importance of understanding and making political choices that enhance or limit human behavior. While it is debatable whether teachers should share their political opinions with their students, few would disagree that teachers need to assist students to hold and defend the opinions that they have. 4
    Hence, the topic of this column is about making politics engaging in the classroom. First, political history needs to be personalized. Second, it needs to be made relevant to teenagers. Third, it needs to be made historically realistic by highlighting real discussions and debate that are connected to peoples' visions of community, and by using primary sources. Finally, and most importantly, it needs to be taught in a manner that focuses on decision making so that students can work on the important skills of making choices. In order to make this teaching engaging, interactive methods of instruction, including role playing and other decision-making approaches, are essential. 5
    In order to accomplish each of these four goals, the creation of a community of learners is crucial, as well as using a case study approach which highlights the ways people shape political developments at the local level where communities originate, at the national level where people come together to meet their needs in more complicated ways, and at the international level where leaders work come together across borders. This column will focus on 4 cases—all of which allow students to grapple with these issues in interactive and engaging ways:

1.) Kongolese leaders' decisions around contact with the Portuguese in the 16th century,

2.) Chinese leaders' decisions around continuing or discontinuing exploration in the 16th century,

3.) French workers and peasants' decisions to support or oppose Robespierre, the radical French leader in the 18th century, and

4.) Christian Germans' decisions to support or oppose the German government's laws that limited the participation of Jewish Germans in clubs and other institutions.

    The National Center for History in the Schools has some of the most superb curriculum units available online ( ). The one on the evolution of the slave trade in the Kongo and the degeneration of Kongolese politics during the 15th and 16th centuries: Kongo: A Kingdom Divided allows students to understand what happens in a tragic situation by role playing both real and fictional characters while also wrestling with the difficulties of political decision making. The culminating activity focuses on the ramifications for politics in the Kongo as a result of the corruption that the Portuguese helped to create. In a fascinating role play, students act out the corrupt situation and what this meant for local decision making. Whenever I do this unit with students, I get the sense that the ugliness of political choices becomes clear. It then opens up a discussion on what could have happened and why it didn't happen, as well as why the situation has become so awful for all involved. 7
    Another opportunity to work on these issues comes from the unit developed by Jean Johnson: Trade in the Indian Ocean: Should China End Zheng He's Treasure Voyages? ( in which students role play advisors to the Ming Court of the 15th century to determine whether overseas exploration should continue. Through role play and a close reading of the documents, students are able to develop alternative possibilities of political life in China. It works well in a debate format where some students can present different points of view and others vote on their merits. 8
    A third case are the events of the French Revolution. There are numerous document collections available (I use excerpts from: The French Revolution, pp. 1-35, John L. Heineman, ed., Readings in European History: A Collection of Primary Sources, Dubuque: Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1994). Too often the radical leader Maximilien Robespierre is portrayed at a "tyrant" who was responsible for the "terror" and yet he was the only major 18th century leader to meet radical needs: free the slaves in the French colonies, allow peasants to keep "their" land without compensating landlords for it, and set up social welfare programs in French cities. By focusing on these issues from slaves, peasants, and workers' perspectives, students can decide for themselves which perspective makes more sense. 9
    The final case looks at developments in Nazi Germany from a local perspective. The two documents that I use can be found in Heineman's collection: "Resolution of German Swimming Association, 28 April 1933" (p. 346) in which the Association's leaders decide to limit the participation of swimmers to "Aryans" and "A Parent writes to State Education Ministry of Hamburg, July 1935" (p. 347) in which a confused mother (a Nazi supporter) requested that a German girl with a Jewish father be penalized for allegedly "taking" more milk and for having a leading role in the class. While both are short documents (the first is a paragraph in length and the second 3 paragraphs), they both allow for fascinating discussions for a confluence of local and national, lobbying and coercion, in a way that students can easily find understandable. They both undermine the notion that state politics is out of reach of people and that leaders are the only political actors. 10
    In each of these four cases—the Kongo in the 16th century, China in the 16th century, France in the 18th century, and Germany in the 20th century—politics does not just meet the definition presented above, but comes alive. In this way the truly interesting part of politics—decision making—becomes clearer to students. It is essential that students be able to see that process is also important and that not all outcomes are predetermined. Students care about the outcomes, as they identify with some of the players involved, and care to make political decisions that will affect them. Then "real" civic education can happen and students can learn from one another. 11


Biographical Note: James A. Diskant, Ph.D., teaches at the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Roxbury (Boston), Massachusetts, and was a Program Associate at the former World History Center at Northeastern University in Boston, from 1999 until it closed in 2003. He continues to keep the Center's ideas alive through teaching, facilitating workshops, and participating in a Book Group, and hopes that the Center will find a new home in the Greater Boston area in the near future. He can be reached at


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