“Your professors will give you some fine books to read, and they’ll probably help you understand them. What they won’t do, for reasons that perplex me, is to ask you if the books contain truths you could live your lives by….No one will suggest that you might use Plato as your bible for a week or a year or longer. No one, in short, will ask you to use Plato to help you change your life.”
--Mark Edmundson, "Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?"
I’ve recently been thinking how about to teach students to think like historians. Sam Wineburg’s website Historical Thinking Matters is my go-to source--for its clear delineation of historical thinking skills, and for the videos it provides which I can use to model good practices for students. And I've been thinking about historical skills also as part of a project to coordinate skills teaching across the middle and upper school history departments at my school.
So I talk with my students about sourcing. We do close reading, and contextualize what we're reading. We learn to act like good historians.
But somehow, it didn't seem like enough. And Edmundson's article made it clear to me why not. I'm teaching them to think. But I'm not making in personal. It's analysis, which is, almost by definition, detached. And I don't want detached. I wanted engaged. I want students to take what we're studying personally. I want them to think, "What does this mean for me, for my life, and how I should live it?"
Around the time I was reading Edmundson, I also finally finished Foucault's "What is Enlightenment?" (because I'm about to teach the Enlightenment, and I was looking for a different perspective). He makes clear that the Enlightenment wasn't just an epoch, it was a project--a project of personal and social transformation. That makes it personally relevant to my students. Now, Foucault disliked the Enlightenment project, and he put forward his own preferred alternative--rather than seeking a life hemmed in by "reason" he saw the good life as the pursuit of freedom, understood as an escape from all the roles and expectations from society that hem us in. But the key is, it was history taken personally. It was history understood as ethics, seeking to answer a question, the most important question a person can ask: "How should I live?" If the Enlightenment is a project, my students need to ask, "Would I like the Enlightenment as my project?"
This is education as transformation. Our aim as teachers should be to have students come out of the room transformed, enabled to reexamine themselves and their lives critically. Our classes should tell students, "You must change your life."
And so I need to allow time, in all the discussions of how to write a thesis, and how to take notes, and why the Scientific Revolution happened, and what Descartes believed--amidst all of that, I need to allow time to ask my students, "What do you think of this? What if all this is true--what does it mean for how you see yourself and your life?"