Last semester I ran an entire class organized around three Reacting to the Past (RTP) games.  For those of who unfamiliar with RTP, it’s a curriculum that introduces students to major ideas and texts through a highly detailed, intense role-playing format to replicate the historical contexts in which these ideas acquired significance. These games are interdisciplinary, involving not only humanities but often social science and even STEM topics — and they require active learning in which the students are motivated to excel. Simply put, it’s the most fun and the most engaged learning I’ve been able to foster in the classroom.  But more than that, it also engages students’ emotions, in a way that education has historically neglected, and, at least in the United States, we need more than ever.

There’s plenty about RTP: in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, the New York Times, directly from Mark Carnes, who originated the curriculum in the late ’90s at Barnard College, and on the RTP website.  It gives students a sense of historical contingency, fosters a sense of historical empathy, motivates them to delve into sources in ways that they otherwise might not, and provides a structure for practicing public speaking (there’s something that we don’t do enough in most undergrad classes).

But to me many of the best moments of the game are when a student comes to me with a problem: what should she do?  If she does X, she might get certain benefits, but those come with risks; if she does Y, there are yet other consequences the probabilities of which are hard to determine.  In other words, students get deeply confused.  And by the second game, students coming to me with such problems already predicted my likely nonverbal answer: a supportive smile and a very theatrical shrug of the shoulders.  Of course, I sometimes helped them clarify the choice(s) at hand, but always tried to do so in a way that would not provide any additional guidance, so that the student would ultimately have to decide for herself.

This moment of confusion is something that I haven’t observed in other other kind of pedagogy, others’ or my own.  Sure, we’ve all seen students flummoxed by the difficulties of research, by dense material, and sometimes by a lack of clarity in assignments.  But not that sort of confusion in which they are emotionally invested, unlike these wonderful (for me) and torturous (for students) moments of useful confusion.

What those moments teach, I believe, on a visceral rather than on an intellectual level, is humility.  Not the idea that we should be humble, which is one that most people agree to without much reflection, but the feeling of humility in the face of challenge.

What if every pundit, every blowhard talkshow host, every member of Congress, every lobbyist, heck, every citizen, had the opportunity to feel someone’s deep confusion concerning issues of deep personal, cultural, political importance: identity, rights, community, cultural retention, race, and so on?  I have a sense that if that were to happen, we could have much more mature and sensitive public discourse.

Maybe I’m a little idealistic (what the heck, I’m an academic after all, one of the dreamiest of professions), but this seems to me to be the kind of lesson that we rarely, if ever, teach in college, and yet could be among the most valuable we have the opportunity to impart.

Whatcha thinkin'?

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