idealism / realism

i have to give a shout-out to my colleague M, who is always up for an intellectual discussion, maybe especially one that is challenging or provocative. sorry we haven’t gotten to the non-gendered sports teams yet. coming up soon, i hope.

so, M and i are co-teachers: we don’t teach in the same room, but we do teach the same class: 10th grade modern world history. we laid down the structure of our class back in july/august and have been co-planning, developing units, assessments, and to some extent, weekly and daily plans, since the beginning of the school year. it has been very fruitful, and i believe that we’ve built a potent class that is challenging our sophomores with new ways of thinking about history.

in quarter 1, we studied political revolutions; quarter 2, economic revolutions such as the industrial revolution and case studies of imperialism; quarter 3, we studied world wars (and wars today). the questions are good: ‘Are revolutions worth their consequences?’ ; ‘Is wealth a creative or destructive force?’; ‘Is war ever justified?’. We’ll certainly do some reworking of the curriculum for next year, but i’m happy that we’ve managed to make the class very much based in historical thinking skills, somewhat driven by inquiry, and very discussion- and project- based.

now we are beginning our last quarter of the year, which is the study of social movements. M and i are teaching the indian independence movement as a case study, and the students will choose their own movements (civil rights, indigenous rights, responses to dictators, etc.) to study as well.

so the question is, how do we do this?

M’s idea is to provide the students with a quick orientation to the Cold War, and to present the social movements as examples of the dictum “the political is personal; the personal is political”: to have the students research the movements in the political context of rival ideologies and to use the Cold War framing to explain the social movement’s success/failure/response from the local government.

when we spoke about this a few weeks ago, i realized that i had a totally different understanding of the unit, and that i intended to teach it in a very different way. i wanted to teach the social movements by analyzing their ideologies, organization, and action; to consider the question of the power of individuals and groups to shape societies; and to have the students analyze the movements’ effectiveness and impact. i wasn’t so much interested in providing and using the Cold War as a frame; in fact, i hadn’t considered giving the students a political frame at all. rather, i wanted to teach the unit as a lesson in the power of ordinary people, and to have a kind of invigorating resolution to the course.

this difference in our intentions toward this unit is certainly influenced by M and my different teaching experiences, educational backgrounds, and the other courses that we teach currently (me, Psychology and IB History; M, Theory of Knowledge and IB Global Politics); but, fundamentally, we uncovered the idea that we perhaps have a different orientation to teaching history, and studying history, in general.

M summarized the dilemma: should we teach idealism, or realism?

as history teachers, is it our responsibility to teach reality, or hope?

to expand: should we be focused on equipping our students with the tools to understand political structures in the world, to navigate those structures and to work within them? or should we be inspiring them to challenge the structures, the ideology behind the structures, and to attempt to work outside of them, even though it might be fruitless?

poli sci friends, what do you think i should do? other educators, citizens of reality: to what extent does cynicism belong in a high school class? is history about darkness or about light? if i’m teaching the future leaders of the world (in Boston, Jordan, or Argentina), should i let on that the world is stodgy and stupid and takes forever to change? or should i lie a little and say that individuals and groups can greatly affect it?


is idealism too naive for the privileged?

do i really believe we can subvert the dominant paradigm, or is it too late?









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