University and college faculty and administrators will have the chance to learn about “Reacting to the Past,” an innovative teaching tool, during a two-day conference in April. Participants will engage in a series of elaborate games in which they are assigned roles with victory objectives informed by classic texts in the history of ideas.
The Department of French, Classics, and Italian at Michigan State University will sponsor the conference on Saturday, April 1, and Sunday, April 2, at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center on MSU’s campus. Participants will learn to lead two games, "The Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 BC" and "Rousseau, Burke, and Revolution in France, 1791" by playing shortened versions of the games.
“The conference provides a great opportunity for faculty from MSU and other institutions to learn about “Reacting to the Past” and ways it can be incorporated into an undergraduate curriculum, especially in the areas of general education and honors programs,” says John Rauk, chairperson of the Department of French, Classics, and Italian. “Mark Carnes, who developed “Reacting to the Past,” will also be on hand to share his experiences.” Carnes pioneered the tool at Barnard College.
In the classroom, a game takes place over several class periods. In the first few sessions of a game, the instructor provides guidance on the issues and historical context on which the game is based. In the second or third session, the instructor gives each student a role assignment, which is based on a historical figure. Early in the third session, the class breaks into factions as students with similar roles meet together to accomplish their objectives. By the fourth or fifth session, the class meets again as a whole. Students whose characters function in a supervisory capacity – for example, as president of the Athenian Assembly – preside over what transpires next. The instructor steps in only to resolve disputes or issue rulings on other matters.
The heart of the game is persuasion. As members of factions, students must persuade others that “their” views make more sense than those of their opponents. Students’ views are informed by important texts cited in the game’s objectives and are expressed both orally and in writing.
“'Reacting to the Past’ engages students in ways that no other type of course can,” Rauk says. “They come to appreciate the forces, motives and contingencies that shaped the past and that form the world in which they live.”
A summary of each game follows.
* “The Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 B.C.” recreates the intellectual dynamics of one of the most formative periods in the human experience. After nearly three decades of war, Sparta crushed democratic Athens, destroyed its great walls and warships, occupied the city, and installed a brutal regime, the Thirty Tyrants. The excesses of the tyrants resulted in civil war and, as the game begins, they have been expelled and the democracy restored. But doubts about democracy remain, expressed most ingeniously by Socrates and his young supporters. Will Athens retain a political system in which an Assembly of about 6,000 citizens makes all decisions? Will leaders continue to be chosen by random lottery? Will citizenship be broadened to include slaves? These and other issues are sorted out by a polity fractured into radical and moderate democrats, oligarchs and Socratics, among others. The debates are informed by Plato’s “Republic” as well as by excerpts from Thucydides, Xenophon, and other contemporary sources. By examining democracy at its threshold, the game provides the perspective to consider its subsequent evolution.