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Conflict and Identity: Using Contemporary Questions to Inspire the Study of the Past

Justin Reich

"People learn best when they ask an important question that they care about answering or adopt a goal that they want to reach."
What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain1
    When I began teaching World History, the curriculum I inherited lacked a central question or overarching goal. Instead of answering questions, we taught topics that had been deemed important. We taught the way the course had been taught, and we taught what our textbooks let us teach. We spent the first semester studying World Religions and the second studying Ancient Empires. In an effort to cover many different topics, we rushed through each unit, and our pieces did not fit into a larger whole. Our students came to class cheerfully, sat politely, and often left quickly. Even those who claimed to love history rarely considered World History to be their favorite class. Turnover amongst World History faculty had been high, and teachers in the department generally preferred to teach other subjects. Beginning in May of 2005, a team of four young teachers, including myself, decided to reinvent our course.2 We wanted our new curriculum to cover essential content in World History by asking students to research the deep historical foundations of contemporary problems. We created a course where students asked compelling questions about our world today, which required historical background from the past to answer.
    Over the summer we designed a course, named Conflict and Identity, based on three major units and a research project. Our strategy in these units was to ask essential questions about peoples engaged in recent or contemporary conflicts, questions that would force us to research the historical identities of these peoples and their roots in the Ancient and Pre-Modern worlds. First, we looked at Israel and Palestine, trying to answer the question "Why has this conflict proven so unsolvable?", by looking at the ancient beginnings of Judaism and Islam, the fall of the Ottoman empire and the events of the twentieth century that led to the current crisis. Next we looked at the Civil Rights Movement and the Indian Independence Movement with the question, "How did religious thinking shape the Civil Rights Movement?" We examined how ancient ideas from Christianity and Hinduism shaped the modern thinking of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and their allies and enemies. We then turned to the Bosnian War of the 1990s to answer the question "In this ‘Problem from Hell3 ,' do the Serbs, Croats and Muslims in Bosnia have a long history of ethnic hatred, or was their relatively peaceful co-existence torn apart by the nationalists of the 90s?" Research into the Byzantine and Holy Roman Empires, the Great Schism, and the Ottoman Empire helped us put into context the twentieth century history of Yugoslavia and Bosnia. Finally, students in teams researched the historical roots of four other recent conflicts- in Northern Ireland, Kashmir, Tibet and Darfur- and, in an effort to come full circle, they created unit plans and readers for teaching eight week units on those conflicts, modeled after our first three units of study. The course was rigorous, engaging, and exhilarating to teach because it forced students to wrestle with questions of power, conflict, culture and identity that genuinely mattered to them, and it gave them the tools and content to begin to answer those questions.
    There are, of course, as many sources of compelling questions as there are history teachers, so why use recent events? The historical profession has deep concerns about even modest explanations; why dare to tackle such contemporary issues while attempting to explore so much history? As Edward Gray wrote, with tongue-in-cheek, in his recent article, "The Little Picture, Or Who is Afraid of the Big Question?," "If the past is an infinitely complex web of conflicting causes and effects, why bother with the pretense that we can actually explain something?"4 4
    The first reason to tackle questions found in contemporary problems is that students are fascinated by the world around them, and that fascination should be exploited. When we start our unit on Bosnia, we show students a film where two women in a village outside of Sarajevo who share a forty year friendship stop speaking to each other, and ultimately one fails to warn the other of an impending massacre.5 Our students spent weeks trying to master the complicated events of the 80s and 90s and the roots of Bosnian diversity in the Byzantine, Holy Roman and Ottoman Empires—difficult, potentially dry history—because they wanted to know how a forty year friendship could be destroyed. Students are willing to delve into the microhistories of the Filioque Clause and the millet system when they know that these events helped shape Bosnia and thus this tragic friendship.
    The second reason to apply the study of the past to recent events is that this is exactly what the public expects history classes to help students do. Ask a parent about why their child should study the past and he or she will say some variation on "to avoid mistakes of the past," "to better understand our world," "to help students be better citizens." In the debate between the teaching of Western Civilization and World History, World History has gained ground because practitioners have argued that our increasing global community requires citizens to be able to "think, speak, and write about world issues and problems intelligently and confidently."6 Students and parents want history to be useful. If it's not useful, if it simply teaches about problem-solving or critical thinking, why not study Computer Science? The public expects the study of the past to help students evaluate the present. 6
    Our current political discourse is filled with pundits who use the past to suggest courses of action for the present. Newt Gringrich's recent comparison of Lincoln and Bush is one example,7 another is a September 2006 editorial from David Brooks on Islamic Extremism. He writes, "To his eternal credit, after 9/11 George Bush quickly understood that the terror threat was fundamentally an ideological threat, a product of deep historical consciousness….Today's extremists are not the product of short-term historical circumstances, but of consciousness and culture. They are not the fault of the United States, but have roots stretching back centuries. They will not suddenly ignore their foe—us—when their hatred of us is the core of their identity."8 As a teacher, I have no preference as to whether my students agree or disagree with Brooks, but I do think that they need to be equipped to engage in this type of debate. Is the conflict in Israel and Palestine a product of short-term circumstance or a deep historical consciousness? For students to have a measured opinion, they need to study both, and this course attempts to give them the tools to study the modern world as well as see how the past, with all its contingencies and complexities, may have shaped the world we live in. If World History shies away from helping students build these kinds of connections, where in school will students learn to debate David Brooks? 7
About Us  
    First, a bit about us, our school, and our students. We were four young teachers with less than 20 combined years of experience and one technology integrationist supporting us. We taught at the Noble and Greenough School, an independent school outside of Boston. We had no state standards and no real expectations from our department in terms of content. There was no race for coverage- if we believed that "less is more," we could exchange breadth of content for depth of understanding. Our students tend to be bright and alarmingly hard-working, though they possess a variety of intellectual abilities. We also have an increasingly diverse student population, which motivated us to broaden our studies to encompass the more traditional boundaries of Western Civilization. We taught to freshman who were too green to fully grasp that they were our lab rats in this experiment. Indeed, despite telling them the first day that we completely re-wrote the class, they kept asking me "Did you do this last year?" In many ways, independent school classrooms offer tremendous freedom for this kind of experimentation. Although our course would need to be modified significantly to fit within a standards-driven environment, certainly elements of our overall strategy could be used anywhere. 8
     One inspiration for our work was Jared Diamond's book, Guns, Germs and Steel,9 a book that invites readers to join in the historical explanation of a significant contemporary problem. Diamond organizes the book around answering a question from his New Guinean friend Yali, "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we Black people had so little cargo of our own?" Yali's question is simple and powerful—why is there global inequity? With a compelling motivation to investigate the reasons for the world's great disparities, Diamond's book surveys thousands of years of environmental history, delving into the intricacies of subjects like plant genetics and disease transmission. Guns, Germs and Steel is a World History best seller because readers care about the question, and they are willing to travel with him through dense historical thickets to find the answer to a problem that grips our society and world. We did not have the skill or audacity to try to find a single question to animate our study of all the world's history, but when my colleague suggested that we try to write a course like Diamond's book, I suggested that we could not do that between June and September, but maybe we could do something a little smaller. 9
    We chose three contemporary conflicts and crafted essential questions about those conflicts that would force us to study both the recent history of events and the deeper history of religious and national identity. We chose to investigate Israel and Palestine, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Civil War in Bosnia. Our topics were driven a diverse array of programmatic needs: we wanted to teach about major world religions, we wanted to look at different regions of the world, and we wanted to tap our own limited expertise (I had been teaching classes on Race in America and the Middle East, one of our team was interested in Bosnia). Each unit had a simple essential question- "Why has this conflict in Palestine proven so unsolvable?" "What was the role of religious identity and ideology in the Civil Rights Movement?" and "Was the Bosnian Civil War the product of ancient hatreds or modern nationalism?" Each of these questions required that we survey a recent conflict, but they also required us to spend the bulk of our time searching for answers in the ancient world. Most importantly, they are the kind of questions that a high school student and their teacher guide can get worked up about—the kind of questions people can argue about as they are walking out the door. 10
    Another source of inspiration for the course design was my own experience as a graduate student where I became gripped by a contemporary problem and spent several years digging around the past to solve that problem. My own research was motivated by a paradox—a moment of counter-intuitive history—when at Shenandoah National Park I stopped at a scenic vista and read a park sign that explained how the forest unfolding in front of us was untouched by human hands- even though right below the sign the shrubbery had been weed-whacked in order to manufacture the view. From this puzzling contradiction (why are they clear-cutting around the sign which says there is no cutting in the park?) I became interested in the history of the park. To understand Shenandoah, I needed a deeper sense of context, so I studied the history of National Parks. To understand that I needed to understand American attitudes towards nature and wilderness, and to get a better sense of the development of particularly American views, I needed to reach through the history of Western Civilization to learn about the largest trends that shape our views and stories about nature. And after all that and a number of other forays into various regions of the past, I feel like I can drive back to that overlook and have a pretty good sense of why the twists and turns of history left me smiling at that sign.10 11
    Like many history teachers, we wanted our students not just to learn history but to be historians. Historians in training are drawn to the field by particular problems, and then reach forwards, backwards and sideways in time to better understand that problem. Questions that emerged from the study of one topic or area lead to research in another. While the structured nature of a course constrains the natural, individual nature of the journey, we wanted our course to feel the same inspiration to explore. 12
The Process  
    Collaboration allowed our team to redesign the entire course over the summer. We sat down as school was wrapping up in May and worked on two parallel projects. The first was to consider the subjects we wanted to teach. We considered the material we had been teaching and knew well, other subjects that we were passionate about, content from our old curriculum that we believed was essential, and new topics that we felt need to be included as our school population grew more diverse. We also tried to identify topics where we could most easily lead students to see connections between the ancient world and our own. 13
    At the same time we also considered the skills that we wanted students to develop over the course of the year. We broke these skills up into four categories—Writing, Historical Inquiry, Information Literacy, and Technological Fluency—and we considered how we wanted skill progression to occur over the course of our year. We then figured out how this skill progression would line up with the units we wanted to teach. Three of us then spent the summer designing units that would balance the coverage of content with the development of skills and would prepare students for future work in History and Social Studies. These plans also gave us a metric for evaluating the course at the year's end- did we teach what we set out to teach? 14
    We departed for the summer and reconvened a few times in August for a series of meetings. We had two meetings for each of the units that we expected to teach in the fall semester. In the first meeting, the chief architect of that unit would explain his or her strategies for teaching the unit, show some sources he or she planned on using, and explain an assessment plan. Those ideas were critiqued, and a week later in a second meeting the unit designer would roll out the curriculum for those eight or so weeks.
    This is the original plan we had for teaching skills for the course. (Note that we ended up cutting out plans for a fourth unit on China and Tibet due to time restraints, though this year that unit will replace the Bosnia unit) 16

Paragraph Main idea, Topic sentence Conclusion or transition sent Supporting assertions with evidence Incorporating quotations Incorporating primary sources FINAL- multiple paragraph assignment   Using the Reference Section Creating citations Citing in-text   The computer as an organizing tool- Portfolios Note-taking Etc.   Taking notes on secondary sources Evaluating primary source Introduction to visual evidence Class discussion and debate skills  
Document Analysis Page-writing Connecting Paragraphs Crafting Theses FINAL- 3-4 1 page essays   Web skills Evaluating websites   Inspiration for outlines and visual organization  Connecting details, themes, patterns 
3 Pages Refining thesis statements (general to specific, lists to categories, describing to explaning) FINAL- 3 page essay   Databases: Infotrac Lexis/Nexis Other?   Word as editing and publishing tool  
Comparisons Deal with multiple topics FINAL- 3 page comparison   Using the web to research visual evidence.   Communication with PowerPoint   

Our Teaching Model  
    While the study of different parts of the world and different time periods requires shifting approaches, we needed a structure to the course to facilitate consistency amongst our team members. We crafted a basic structure to all of our units which we modified to meet the needs of each particular inquiry. 17

The Two-Four-Two Model of the Conflict and Identity Course
Weeks Sub-Unit Goals
One-Two Introduction the Conflict
Modern Era (19th-20th C)History of the Conflict
Hook students
Develop Essential Question
Three to Six History of the identities of each group/nation involved Examine essential questions
Identify essential elements of identity
Seven to Eight Re-examination of the contemporary conflict with the historical context Re-examine history of the contemporary conflict with a stronger sense of participant identity.

    We designed our units to be roughly eight weeks long, using what we called a Two-Four-Two model. We dedicated the first two weeks to the modern history of the conflict. Each unit began with a hook, or some kind of historical problem that on the surface makes little sense. Why, in September of 2000, when Ariel Sharon went for a walk in his own city to give a speech at the Temple Mount, did that seemingly benign action spark the Second Intifada? Why did Rosa Parks become such a powerful symbol of a national movement? How could people in Bosnia who were neighbors and friends for decades suddenly turn on each other with murderous intent? 18
    We used these moments of counter-intuitive history to find a problem to latch on to, and from there we spent a few weeks making sense of the 19th and 20th century histories of the contemporary conflict and crafting questions to guide our inquires into the ancient and medieval worlds. Very little of this time was spent on "Current Events." The course did not attempt to keep pace with the twists and turns of the present, especially since the premise of the course is that a deep sense of history is a prerequisite for following current events. Instead, we traced the history of a region through the modern era, compiling questions along the way that required further research into the past.   19
    The four weeks in the middle are spent studying the historical identities of the peoples involved. Four weeks to cover the ancient history of the Jews and Muslims is under any condition an impossible task, but in our model we have this advantage: we can focus on the aspects of history that relate to our question. When we make choices about the vast material to cut and the few pieces to keep (choices that every World History course faces), we can be guided by our essential questions. This almost always meant keeping some of the expected elements of study- for Judaism, Abraham, Exodus, the Torah, Exile and Diaspora are our main objects of study, but we also find good reasons to stop at some less visited events- for Islam we spend some time looking at the Prophet's Night Journey and the Caliph U'mar's invitation of Jewish families to return to Jerusalem.   20
    In our final two weeks we returned to the contemporary period, armed with our new understanding, to make better sense of our world. For American students with little background in world affairs, the Middle East conflict often seems to be the result of people being "stubborn" or "greedy" or even "stupid." Armed with a deeper understanding of identity, students understood that Middle East negotiators are attempting to barter with negotiating chips that are intimately tied to peoples' deeply held beliefs, beliefs that are hundreds and thousands of years old. For the subjects that we teach, students can pick up the newspaper and read an article with a broad and deep context for a more specific piece of news. For the subjects we don't teach, students can pick up a paper and know that for the article they are reading, there is a broader and deeper context that they should be looking for. 21
Our Tools  
    There is no textbook for the Conflict and Identity class, so we depended greatly on a reader that we created as well as online sources. For the study of religions, we did use a World Religion textbook (we chose Huston Smith's and Susan Meredith's, but there are other good choices, too).11 Our reader was a collection of fair use sections from published books, online textbooks, online articles and online primary sources. We also used websites with timelines, maps, and images as homework assignments. We pulled together most of the materials for the year over the summer. For instructors who are unhappy with the selection of World History textbooks, the internet has made making your own a viable option.   22
    Each of our classes had the good fortune of have a cart of laptops available for our use, and we made extensive use of technology in our classes. Students took notes in Microsoft Word, held simultaneous discussions using instant messaging, peer edited each other's work online, and used the World Wide Web, Infotrac, and Lexis-Nexis for research and exploration. Access to these research tools provided the best opportunities for students to be historians.   23
    Having a course driven by essential questions makes assessment design simple. Over the course of the unit, we used short, content-heavy tests to help students learn about the facts, people and dates necessary for wrestling with an essential question. At the end of each unit, we sought creative ways of asking students to answer the essential question.  24
    For the Israel-Palestine unit, we had students engage the question of "Why has this conflict proven so unsolvable?" by having students simulate a peace conference. Each student represented a leader from within some faction of Israeli or Palestinian politics (B'Teslem, Zionist Settlers, Fatah, HAMAS, etc.) or they served as Chief Negotiator- Sharon or Abbas as of last fall. We used a classroom blog to have students share their proposals with each other, which can be viewed at 25
    The end of the Bosnia Unit was a more conventional essay about the causes of the Bosnia Civil War, with a question that required students to address both the recent and ancient past. The best of these essays grappled with how the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman histories in Bosnia were exploited by nationalists to divide a diverse community. Here is one student's conclusion, which shows some of the efforts she made to connect Bosnia's history with Europe's empires to Bosnia's recent history and to her own experience:
Although the war ended in 1995, after the signing of the Dayton Accords, the effects are everlasting and will still have an impact on the daily life of Bosnians for years to come. Families were torn apart and lives were destroyed. These are the costs of nationalism, costs that are still being paid by the Bosnians. This whole conflict is an example of how one idea can change a nation and its people forever. No matter how insignificant an event in the past may seem at the time, it has in some way changed and had a lasting effect on the future. The events of today may shape the events that occur hundreds of years from now, just because of a change that was made in the past. ‘While many outsiders cling to the insupportable generalization that tribal hatreds and ethnic warfare have characterized Bosnia for centuries, those familiar with Bosnian history and culture more typically have the opposite perception. They ask how Bosnians, who lived together in relative tranquility and mutual tolerance can suddenly turn on neighbors and friends and commit vicious and murderous acts that have become the commonplace in the current Bosnian conflict.' (Donia and Fine).12 This, what happened in Bosnia, can happen to anyone who has a history, which is everyone. The world should learn from this, more so than anything else, when remembering and observing the Bosnian conflict. -Corey S.
    Many of our assessments asked students to step into the shoes of actors and observers of history. Students read extensively from primary sources to capture the perspective, language, and arguments of our research subjects. Students wrote a debate between an Israeli and Palestinian for a fictitious school assembly, they wrote a sermon to be delivered in Birmingham on the day of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, and they worked in teams to publish a newspaper special report for March 1, 1993, a day that the Vance Owen Peace Plan was discussed in the United Nations. Having immersed themselves in the history of a people or culture, the shoes fit their modern feet a little more easily.   27
The Research Project  
    Our final unit of the year was a collaborative research project. Students worked in teams of four to investigate the historical roots of a contemporary conflict. Groups were assigned to study Darfur, Kashmir, Northern Ireland or Tibet. Each of the four students in a group tackled one of the four basic questions that corresponded to our Two-Four-Two model:  
1) What is the recent (late 19th, early 20th) history of the conflict?
2) What is the history and identity of Group A
3) What is the history and identity of Group B
4) What is the current state of the conflict?

    Each student was charged with the task of researching one of these questions, and then pooling their resources to give a one class period presentation on the conflict and its history. To help the students get started on their task, we gave each group more detailed research questions and key terms that were particular to their group's conflict. The final task was to work together to create a unit plan like the ones their teachers had used all year. Each student needed to compile a reader, design homework assignments, make simple outlines for lesson plans, and craft an assessment. Thus at the end of the year, we asked students to try to emulate the job their teachers had done all year (this included some eye-opening "Hey, this is really hard!" moments for the students, which the rest of the faculty appreciated). We gave students templates for all of these different tasks to help provide some structure for the exercise, and students enjoyed the opportunity to prove their understanding in a different way. As teachers, we enjoyed learning from our students and getting terrific ideas for the next year.  29
The Methodological Minefields   
    Before addressing the specific methodological concerns of our approach, it is only fair to note that World History is a methodological minefield. There is no good way to teach the history of China or Rome in three weeks. Important stories and themes are inevitably cut, and parts of the curriculum are inevitably taught with less than ideal context. Nevertheless, the goal of creating a citizenry aware of global issues and global history makes dashing across this minefield worthwhile. Below are a few warnings.   30
    Our history omits some very traditional parts of a world history course. When we study Rome, we skip the Republic. We'd love to teach it (and we can imagine some great units about modern government that explore the classic governmental/political history of Ancient Greece and Rome), but to make sense of Bosnia we need a foundation of Christian history, and so our study of Rome starts with Constantine. We believed that less is more, that depth offers a more valuable intellectual experience than breadth, so we carefully chose a few places to focus closely in the hopes that we would teach our students a set of skills and a systematic approach so that they could make their own inquiries in the future.  31
    This course also does not take full advantage of some of the most recent efforts within the field of World History to adopt a truly global perspective and transcend regional and national boundaries in the study of history. The in-depth study of a particular conflict often requires a study of the global phenomena that bring diverse peoples to the same geographic places. As this course gets revised further, greater attention could be paid to how global processes interact with local conditions to create particular points of conflict.   32
    The specter of presentism looms large over this kind of project. How do we use the present to inspire students to research the past without leading students to believe that the past lead inexorably to the present? Our experience is that researching intensively the roots of contemporary events reveals in great detail the contingencies and wild twists of history that shape our world, and these revelations are enough to keep presentism's specter at bay. When our students fall into the traps of presentist thought, pulling them out or throwing them ladders provides great opportunities for teaching. Some students, towards the end of our study of Bosnia, believed that Bosnia's historic diversity led to the war in the 90s. A terrific conversation begins with the questions, "If Bosnia's diversity inevitably led to war, what does that say about America's future? John, do you imagine that in the near future you'll be killing Juan's family?" We chose to work with the perils of presentism close by. If the success of Diamond's book is any indication, they are perils worth risking in order to engage an audience. If we accept that Brooks' column plays a significant role in American public debate, then students need to understand to potential and problems of connecting past to present in order to engage in that debate.   33
   One other challenge of this type of curriculum is that modern events can significantly change the nature of interesting essential questions. When we taught the course last year, Lebanon seemed to be throwing off the Syrian yoke and making good headway toward independence and integration into both the Middle Eastern and Western worlds. We made some passing references to it last year, but focused on other things. This year we chose to significantly change our essential questions, class work, and assessments to capitalize on our students' interest in the conflict that took place in Lebanon over the summer. We did not teach a "different history," in the sense that the surprising events of the summer of 2006 do not change the way we read the Balfour Declaration or the Sikes-Picot agreement. But they did require us to make different choices about what to keep in our study and what to omit. This type of course provides the opportunity for re-tooling in order to build connections to engaging, current day events, though the flip side is that planning will probably never be done.   34
The Rewards  
   The dynamics of our classrooms changed significantly as we shifted from moving through material we were supposed to cover to answering questions that we all genuinely wanted to understand better. We observed far greater student engagement and teacher enjoyment from our previous model of teaching. The course was as rigorous as it had been in years past, but students brought a different attitude towards their labors. One student wrote in a self-evaluation, "I feel like because the conflicts surrounding what we are studying are so important, I spend a lot of time on homework assignments and I really try to understand everything." Another wrote in a more back-handed compliment, "I never look forward to World History homework, but once I do it I am usually interested."   35
   Students reported that they had become more interested in world events as a result of the course. The student with one of the lower grades in my three sections at the end of the year said that he enjoyed reading the paper more. Another girl reported that dinners with her grandparents, which had been dreadfully boring in the past, had become much more fun since she could now riposte with her grandfather about the issues of the day.   36
   Students also reported that they felt empowered to think more independently. One student wrote, "Another area in which I think I improved was understanding complex and intricate political problems. I now see that there are always at least two sides to an argument, and simply stating yours does not prove it. You must provide evidence, not only in papers but in speaking your views, in order for it to be a legitimate argument... I also would like to keep improving the way I think about global issues. For example, I want to be able to form my own views on and understand where both the Palestinians and the Jews are coming from. I don't want to believe just what my parents believe but form my own views."   37
   Most importantly, students enjoyed our research into the ancient and medieval past more as we asked them to wrestle with authentic and gripping questions. More students participated in class discussions, we overheard more conversations and arguments in the hallways, and students had more positive feedback about the course than in years past.   38
   Our essential questions were the wellspring for these rewards. These positive responses from students all speak about an intrinsic motivation to learn and explore, a motivation that students derive from a desire not just to learn facts and dates, not just to learn how some facts and dates might connect to larger themes, but to solve vexing problems and answer poignant questions. Our experience with this course conforms to the results of Ken Bain's research on collegiate-level teaching, "People learn best when they ask an important question that they care about answering or adopt a goal that they want to reach."13   39
   For our freshmen, writing skills revolve around thesis and argument. We endeavor to have them make arguments in paragraphs, in pages, in essays, in presentation, and we help them see arguments in articles, primary sources, and books. On the last day of class, I revealed to students one final secret—that this class had a thesis. This class is a carefully orchestrated argument to convince them that a full, rich understanding of the gripping problems of the modern world is incomplete, perhaps impossible, without a sense of the identity of those involved, and in many places identity is shaped by thousands of years of thought, history, revelation and experience. I thought it would be pretty good if I could convince my students that, as story teller Utah Philips says, "The past didn't go anywhere, now did it? It's right here; it's right now"14—that the past has shaped who we are today. To my great delight some of my students went one step further. As one young woman wrote in a self-evaluation, "I feel like I don't just ask questions [in class] to get a good grade, I ask questions to understand what is happening in the world around me because I feel more responsibility to fix things that can be fixed." The course was designed to produce better informed citizens, and it was surprising and gratifying to discover that the course had produced more engaged young citizens as well.   40
Biographical Note: Justin Reich is the co-director of the Center for Teaching History with Technology, which publishes two web sites, The Best of History Web Sites ( and Teaching History with Technology ( He taught World History at the Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, MA.    


1Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 31.

2I'd like to acknowledge the work of Alex Keenan-Gallgher, Eleni Lampadarios, Meghan Cleary, Jill Walsh, Doug Jankey and Thomas Daccord in creating the course.

3Taken from Samatha Power, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (New York City: HarperCollins, 2002).

4Edward Gray, "The Little Picture; Or, who's afraid of the big question?." Common-Place 6, no. 4 (2006).

5We Are All Neighbors, VHS, directed by Debbie Christie and Tone Bringa. (1993 Chicago, Ill, Films Incorporated Video).

6Ross Dunn, "Why Learn World History?." World History for Us All. San Diego State University.

7Newt Gingrich, "Bush and Lincoln." Opinion Journal, 7 September 2006, (4 October 2006).

8David Brooks. "The Grand Delusion." New York Times, 28 September 2006, sec. A, p. 23. (4 October 2006).

9Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.) The inspiration was direct and literal. My colleague Alex Keenan-Gallagher asked me, "Why don't we make a course like Guns, Germs and Steel?"

10If that tangent interested you, Justin Reich, "Re-creating the Wilderness; Shaping Narratives and Landscapes in Shenandoah National Park," Environmental History, Jan. 2001.

11Huston Smith, The Illustrated World's Religions; Our Great Wisdom Traditions (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995); Susan Meredith, The Usborne Book of World Religions (London: Usborne, 1995).

12Robert J. Donia and John V.A. Fine, Bosnia and Hercegovina: A Tradition Betrayed (London: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

13Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do, 31.

14Utah Philips, The Past Didn't Go Anywhere (Righteous Babe Records, 1996).


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