Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Learning how to teach history . . .

Recently I've been training to be a docent at George Mason's Gunston Hall Plantation. Our mission is to present Mason's life and achievements to 4th and 6th graders, who are required to know Virginia and US history as part of the commonwealth's curriculum standards. While I have lectured before high school students before, this will be the first time that I will have an opportunity to work with grade-schoolers and I am looking forward to the challenge that a younger and less-knowledgeable audience entails.

One of the tools that I plan to use in my tours is something I picked up from listening to Scott Powell's course on European history. In his course, Powell presents the idea of "periodization" as a tool to identify and present the essential elements of a historical epoch in a few sentences. The benefit of this process is that it forces one to think though all that they know about a historical epoch and pick out the most crucial factors. For me, it's a effective way to identify men with their ideas and corresponding actions and present my knowledge in a concise statement.

For example, George Mason lived from 1725 to 1792 and was a key player in the American quest for political independence from Great Britain and the establishment of constitutional rights-protecting republic to replace the British king. As part of the colonial trend toward self-governance, Mason wrote the Virginia constitution and its groundbreaking Declaration of Rights; this was the first time the Lockean idea of natural rights was codified in a political charter in the Americas. After the revolution, Mason refused to sign the Federal Constitution on the grounds that it did not originally include its own charter of fundamental political rights. Being a southern planter, Mason owned slaves, yet he referred to slavery as a "slow poison" and slave-owners as "petty tyrants" and he all but predicted the American Civil War.

The problem with these and the myriad of other facts I have learned about Mason as part of my docent training is that they can quickly overwhelm anyone, let alone a young (and typically under-educated) mind. Furthermore, I think one of the problems faced by historical institutions such as Gunston Hall is while it is relatively easy for interpreters to focus on the available concretes (such as Mason's house, the available artifacts, ect.), it is much harder to concretize an abstract principle such as natural law and the principle of individual rights. Nevertheless, a proper periodization reminds one that at least in Mason's case, the abstract is the most essential element.

Thus I think Powell's periodization tool serves as a great method for me to introduce Mason's world. To follow Powell's method, I'd say "The American revolution was a period when English colonists, animated by the philosophic ideas of John Locke, forcibly removed themselves from the arbitrary power of the English king and pioneered the world's first individual rights-protecting government. The planter George Mason was a pivotal player in this revolution, and today we will learn about his ideas and his life . . ." And while I certainly would have approached the topic philosophically and hierarchically, I think Powell's program gave me a clear and useful tool with which to do it.

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