History as Inspiration

“Dare to dream, dare to connect, dare to improve.” Those words from Jeremi Suri’s TEDx talk on the importance of history have stuck with me. His examples of how these characteristics were critical in the transformation of the world in the era of the Great Depression and then in the world after World War II resonated with me leading me to apply those ideas to other historical episodes and to education itself.

I started thinking about my classes and my students. In Modern Middle East, we are studying the Arab Spring, beginning in Tunisia. It struck me that what Prof. Suri pointed to as important qualities for Americans in the 1930s and 1940s, ones worth reminding ourselves about as we face tough problems, have much more universal significance. The revolution in Tunisia happened because people got over their fear of the regime and dared to connect. Once they connected, they began to see the potential for change. They dreamed a different society without a hated, corrupt dictator. Now, comes perhaps the hardest part, the sacrifices necessary to sustain the change. There are no easy answers to creating an operational civil society and a sound economy. The problems are great. But, with hard work and the imagination to see a different life, there is a chance.

Next, I considered the subject matter in my Modern World class – the American Revolution. That episode in history seems the perfect embodiment of dreaming, connectivity and hard work. The Founding Fathers imagined a different government, forged connections with one another and worked hard to get it right. We look back and marvel at those men, but perhaps we should not be so awestruck. It seems to me that is a cop out. To say that the Founding Fathers, or the Greatest Generation were somehow extraordinary lets us off the hook.

With all of this history swirling in my head, there was still one more connection I saw. I think that Prof. Suri’s lessons of history apply to education itself. If we want students to be better equipped to tackle the hard problems in the world today, we need an education system that imagines school can be different than it has been, that fosters connectivity locally and globally, and that demands improvement through hard work. Students need to know the relevance and importance of what they are learning and doing. We must challenge them to dream, connect and improve. Before we can do that, as educators, we need to think of education differently.

I hope I have not taken Prof. Suri’s ideas out of context. The talk inspired me to see patterns across time and space. While there are always differences (like Prof. Suri I do not believe that history repeats itself) there are certain elements of the human condition that are consistent.

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Enlightenment and Purple Passion

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I had a revelation about my Modern World history class the day after I struggled to engage my students in any meaningful way. I ended the class feeling unsatisfied and frustrated because I thought I had pretty much tried everything – until I realized I had missed the most obvious opportunity.

It was Friday, only two days back from Winter Break and the topic of the day was an introductory discussion of the Enlightenment. Students greeted me cheerfully but with a distinct lack of focus. Several asked if we could watch a video about Ray Lewis, trying to convince me of how inspiring his story is. Although we were all decked out in purple Ravens gear, and I even sported a “Thanks, Ray” t-shirt, I said no. I spent the rest of the class trying to spark discussion, asking students to read in their packet and generally pleading with them to “do their part” to make the class work. In the end, I let them go five minutes early.

In response to this, I decided that I needed to create an awesome next class and spent all day Saturday crafting a scavenger hunt where students would decode clues that they had to find (including several books in the library) and then discover the key Enlightenment principle illustrated by each clue, an activity in inductive reasoning. As an aside, this class went well, where even the incident of sabotage provided an important teaching moment. Still, it did not make up for the lost class of the previous week.

Somehow after working on this activity for several hours, I had a simple, yet powerful thought. I should have challenged my students to connect the life of Ray Lewis to principles of the Enlightenment. One of two things would have happened. They would have been creative and thoughtful in making the connection, which would have led to an engaging and relevant discussion about the Enlightenment. Or, they would have failed at making the connection, and we would have moved on to discussing the reasons why. Either way, they would have been engaged, thoughtful and productive, which was the opposite of what actually happened. Lesson learned – I hope.