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World History Makeover: Engaging Students to Think Seriously about Values

James A. Diskant, Ph.D.

     In my first two columns, Engaging Students to Think Locally and Globally, (July 2006), and Engaging Students to Think Deeply about Political Choices, (November 2006), I argued that not only should the creation of community be at the center of any history class, but also that its central focus helps students understand political choices that people make to meet their community-based needs. At a deeper level, students need to consider what criteria affect these choices, namely the values that people hold which both helps students to understand themselves and others better. 1
    Undoubtedly values influence everything we do. Whether we act consistently or inconsistently with our stated values affects our behavior in multifaceted ways. We may say one thing and do another; we may wish that we had acted in one way and yet act in another; but throughout these actions we are affected by our belief systems, parental influences, and what we have come to believe is the correct way to act. Students frequently take such influences for granted or fail to understand how they affect who we are and our behaviors in our communities, in politics, or whatever we do. Three dictionary definitions are useful places to start a historical definition: "the ideals, customs, institutions, etc. of a society toward which the people of a group have an affective regard" (; "The importance or worth of something to someone"; (, and "something as a principle or quality intrinsically desirable: ( Collectively values help define who we are and what we want; and while they can be defined for us, it is our self-definition that matters.
    How do we, as teachers of history, make this subject interesting in a way that resonates with students who may either take "their" values for granted or they become confused with the nuances of what they perceive to be complicated values in the past or in other places that are different from their own? If we connect values to community and political choices of real people, like or unlike ourselves, students can come to grasp the inherent quality of values as on-going parts of ourselves. As I have argued in my previous columns, we need to make concepts come alive for our students in personalized, relevant, and appealing ways or the teenagers whom we teach will gain little understanding of what they need to understand about the world in the past and its effect on today's world. In so doing we can teach in a way that acknowledges the reality that some peoples' values for reasons that may have nothing to do with the values themselves dominate others and may it then harder for some ­ perhaps even majorities of the population ­ to express themselves freely.
    Finally, we need to connect both personal and historical views so that our students can, as is frequently said, "put themselves in someone's else's shoes". First, we need to involve students ­ though journal writing, role playing, and other student-centered activities ­with analyzing their values and those of their classmates. Second, using student-centered teaching methods, we need to bring these discussions back to the history we are studying so that students can understand the excitement or frustrations that real people had in achieving or failing to achieve their goals. 4
    This column will focus on 4 cases – all of which allow students to engage with issues about peoples' values in interactive and open-ended ways:

1.) the use of a close reading of primary sources in analyzing the evolution of a set of new values associated with the European Renaissance among the European middle classes in the 15th and 16th centuries,

2.) the use of impromptu skits in understanding the continuation and reaffirmation of Chinese and Japanese bureaucrats and nobility to maintain a set of values in the face of change in the 17th century,

3.) the use of a read aloud in investigating the clash of popular and government values in the European and American witch craze of the 17th century, and

4.) the use of a simulation of a conference in understanding the evolution of divergent values during worldwide industrialization of the 19th century.
   First, the use of the primary sources in looking at Renaissance Italy (see Addendum #1) allows students to see how powerful people articulated the new values that became popular among the popolo, the emerging middle class in Italian city-states. Once students understand these values and the ambiguity associated with them both in public and private spaces, the conflicts that emerged both at home in Florence and in other Italian city-states between the supporters and opponents of the new values become clearer. Then the focus shifts towards the effect that that people with these values had as they traveled and encountered people with different values in parts of Africa, the Americas, and Asia. Through the discussions of conflicting values, it become clear that decisions are being made for reasons associated with what people believed. 6
    Second, the skits about Confucianism (see Addendum #2) show the reaction to the to these new individualistic European, or Italian, values in 2 Asian countries, as government leaders developed ways to protect themselves from the introduction of those Renaissance values that upset the status quo in China and Japan. Student skits make the resourcefulness of Chinese and Japanese leaders come alive, and students are able to grasp the development of a new set of problems and a different way of solving them that focuses on how people think and not an arbitrary concept. 7
    Third, the witch trials in Europe (see Addendum #3), as well as those in Salem, Massachusetts Bay Colony, illustrate the tensions when dominant values clash with popular ones and when dominant values overcome popular views with brutality. At first students are limited by their assumptions that "these women are witches" and when we read a trial aloud, as we do with Suzanne Gaudry's trial, they begin to understand what she was actually accused of doing and why women like Gaudry were blamed for doing thing that they could not have done. It is a way to understand how difficult it is for those who are considered to be "different" from those in power to maintain their values in the face of changes out of their control. 8
     Fourth, a simulation (see Addenda #4 & 5) allows students to compare and contrast peoples' values from as many as nine different places including Brazil, China, Egypt, Germany, Great Britain, India, Japan, Russia, and South Africa whether they are rulers, merchants, religious figures, intellectuals, workers, or peasants. It is superb activity that takes about two weeks during which students learn about similarities and difficulties of peoples' values cross culturally from places that were influenced by conquered or conquering people. I have tended to focus on five or six of these places which has been a more manageable way to have students investigate solutions to common problems that people faced in a "Peoples' Conference" in 1913 if they had been able to vote on the issues being faced due to the changes created through industrialization. 9
    In each of these four cases – Europe in the 15th century, Asia in the 17th century, North Atlantic in the 17th century, and different locales in the 19th century – peoples' values do not just meet any of the dictionary definitions presented above; they come alive. In this way the truly interesting consequence of understanding peoples' values – the choices, compromises, and conflicts – become clearer to students. After all in each of these cases, people cared deeply about their values, as they created them, protected them, or even died for them. It is essential that students be able to see that process is also important and that not all outcomes are predetermined. Students can also come to care about the outcomes, as they identify with some of the players involved, and they can make informed decisions about issues that are of importance to them. Then “real” value-based- education can happen as students learn from the past and from one another. 10
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

Addendum #1

World and U.S. History I Classwork on New Values A Renaissance?

As we read the excerpts from 14th century Italian merchants aloud, answer the following questions:

1.) What are the key elements of this new attitude towards business affairs?

2.) In what ways is this attitude different from that which previously existed in Europe among traders and different from that which continues to exist in Africa and Asia?

3.) What was the relationship of this new attitude to the Black Death?

4.) What effect do you predict that this attitude will have on business in Italy and elsewhere?

5.) Why did this attitude also lead to a so-called "rebirth" or "Renaissance" in thought in other areas?
We will continue to explore the values of the new Renaissance middle class, the popolo, by looking at a number of primary sources. In each case, we will want to summarize key aspects of it, as well as to explain what it tells about the values of the popolo, others in Italian society, and the effect these values may have on others beyond Italy.

1.) Excerpt from Pico della Mirandella, Oration on the Dignity of Man, 1480's from Brian Tierney and Joan Scott, eds., Western Societies: A Documentary History, Volume I (NY: Alfred Knopf, 1984), p. 352.

2.) Excerpts from Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, 1513, in Tierney & Scott, pp. 374-376.

3.) Excerpt from Baldassare Castiglione's The Courtier, 1518, in Tierney & Scott, pp. 357-360.

4.) Excerpts from marriage negotiations: The Marriages of Gregorio Dati; Two Marriages in the Valori Family, 1452 & 1476; & Marriage Negotiations: the Del Bene, 1381, in Gene Brucker, Society of Renaissance Florence (NY: Harper, 1971), pp. 28-35.

5.) Sumptuary Legislation: the Fiscal Rationale, 1373; the Social Rationale, 1433; & Prosections, and Penalties, 1378-97, in Brucker, pp. 180-183.

6.) The Story of the Servant Girl Nencia, 1475, in Brucker, pp. 218-221.

7.) Excerpt from Christine de Pizan, The Treasure of the City of Ladies, 1405 (reprinted in many different document collections).  

Addendum #2

World and U.S. History I
Chinese Merchants and Japanese Samurai:
Confucian Skits

In order to make the dilemmas for Chinese merchants and Japanese samurai (that is nobility), who were Confucian, come alive; today we will do some role playing so that we can answer the following question:

"How would Chinese merchants and Japanese samurai in the 16th and 17th centuries behave both to make money and to meet their Confucian values?"

There are 5 readings:

1.) Wang Daokun, "The Biography of Zhu Jiefu," 1580's, from The Human Record: Sources of Global History, edited by Alfred Andrea & James Overfield, Volume II, Second Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), pp. 123-125.

2.) Wang Daokun, "The Biography of Gentleman Wang," 1580's, pp. 125-126.

3.) Matteo Ricci, excerpts from his Journals, 1590's.

4.) Tokugawa Hidetada, "Laws Governing Military Households," 1615, pp. 122-125.

5.) Tokugawa Iemitsu, "Closed Country Edicts," 1635 & 1639, pp. 131-133.

Step 1: Reading and Thinking

Spend 10 minutes reading quietly the document that you are assigned and figuring out what the merchants' or samurais' role is the case of your reading:

Table I:
Reading #1: Chinese merchants
Table II: Reading #2: Chinese merchants
Table III: Reading #3: Chinese merchants
Table IV: Reading #4: Japanese samurai
Table V: Reading #5: Japanese samurai

Step 2: Discussing and Planning

Spend 10 minutes working with others at your table to design and act out a 3-5 minute skit to share with the class that answers the above question, either about Chinese merchants or Japanese samurai

Step 3: Acting, Watching, and Assessing

Act out, watch, and assess the skits

Addendum #3

World and U.S. History I
Dr. Diskant
The Attack on European "Witches"

Key questions to answer: "Why were poor women singled out as "witches" in 17th century European towns? What do these attacks tell us about political and social change there?"

I. Initial Impressions
1.) Based on the case against Gaudry, what appears to be the purpose of these trials?

2.) In what ways do they appear to be connected to the religious conflicts of the era?
II. Concluding Observations

1.) Are these phrases: "insider versus outsider" and "fear of the devil" only part of the past? Why or why not?

2.) What do these trials show about European society and politics of the 16th and 17th centuries?

3.) How could they have been stopped?

4.) Why did these trials not occur in parts of Africa or Asia?

      (excerpt can be found in Alan C. Kors & Edward .Peters, Witchcraft in Europe, 1100-1700 (Phila: University of Pa., 1972), pp 266-275; additional materials on Salem trials can be found in "Women: Witchcraft in Salem Village" in Primary Sources in U.S. History: Colonization, 1521-1763 ed. By Jeanne M. Kish (Center for Learning, 2001), pp. 77ff.

Addendum #4

World History II
Dr. Diskant
Weekly Assignments #13

     Starting Wednesday, December 7th, we will be working on an individual and collective project about the global impact of industrialization, entitled the "Global Conference of Social Classes" in Daniel Berman & Robert Rittner, The Industrial Revolution: A Global Event: A Simulation (NCHA, 1998) See Student Manual for description of work, both class work and homework:

Due dates of culminating activities:
  • Conference dates: Thursday, December 15 & Friday, December 16.
  • Draft of Project: for peer review: Monday, December 19 (counts for Term 2).
  • Final draft of Project: Friday, January 6, 2006 (counts for Term 3)

  • For Wednesday, December 7:

    Read over Student Manual to be ready to begin project in class.
    For Thursday, December 8:
    Assignment #2 on p. 2.
    For Friday, December 9:
    Finish Assignment #4 on p. 4.
    For Monday, December 12:
    1.) Explain in a few detailed paragraphs the reasons why your character supports a particular National Delegation Resolution.

    2.) Write up a preliminary plan for your Mastery Project (see pp. 11-13 of the Student Manual) as to whether you plan to do Option #1, #2, or #3.

    Addendum #5

    World History II
    Dr. Diskant
    Global Conference on the Social Classes:
    Quiz on the Results of the Delegates' Votes: (20 points)

    Using the results from the delegates' votes from your class (see reverse side), answer the following questions in complete sentences:

    1.) Which social groups from which delegations won? Explain your answer. (6 points)

    2.) Are the winners consistent with your expectations? Why or why not? (2 points)

    3.) Which social groups from which delegations lost? Explain your answer. (6 points)

    4.) Are the losers consistent with your expectations? Why or why not? (2 points)

    5.) What do the results show about what most people in the world wanted in 1913? (4 points)



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