“Reacting to the Past” in the Community College: Introduction

You walk into your class a few minutes before it is scheduled to begin. To your pleasant surprise, six or seven of your students arrived sufficiently early to arrange the tables in a large half-circle, in preparation for discussion and debate. They did this without your request, but it’s exactly the formation they needed today. You also notice a large portion of the students already seated, pouring over their copies of Plato’s Republic.  Some students are wrapped in white linens, in imitation of the tunics worn in Athens, circa 403bc. One has a garland in her hair.  Rather than walking to the front of class and introducing the day’s main topics, you instead quietly take a seat in the back and pull out your own copy of The Republic, turning to the pages on the goals of an excellent education: to make good citizens first, and to give them the tools so that they may contribute to society in the way they are specially suited as individuals. Though you have not provided specific guidance, most everyone is reviewing the same pages.

The minute that class is scheduled to begin arrives and passes. Nothing has changed. You are still sitting in seat, saying nothing, unless a student approaches to ask a question about the text. Otherwise, you can clearly see your students clustered in groups about the room, speaking in hushed voices, The Republic in hand. Occasionally, a student from one corner of the room stares menacingly to another cluster. A young, petite woman raises her fist and booms, “Athens is a city of democracy! The men who fought for us have the right to participate in government!”  A young man from the opposite group retorts, “giving the rule to the mob is giving Athens over to the passions of the appetite! That’s no way to rule wisely or justly!” A commotion begins, and chaos threatens. You continue to sit in your chair, taking notes about who is saying what. Ten minutes after the scheduled class start, you, the instructor, have yet to say a word.

Suddenly, another young woman approaches the podium at the front. She raises her hand in the air, but it has no affect. “Citizens!” she says meekly. When it does nothing, you make eye contact with her and nod assuredly. She starts again: “CITIZENS! TAKE YOUR SEATS! The assembly is about to begin!”  That gets their attention, and the entire class of 27 students quiets down and takes their seats around the ring of tables. “Good day, citizens,” she continues.

“Today we begin the discussion of how we educate our young. The oligarchs believe that education is a private affair and a luxury, and therefore a city-funded education is a waste of resources. Both parties of democrats and the so-called students of Socrates are advocating for a city-funded public education. But while the democrats believe this should be about instilling a love of Athenian democracy and a study of our heritage, the Socratics believe the only way forward is to institute a merit-based system that abolishes any traditional ideas that conflict with the idea of the good. But before we begin, we must make our ritual sacrifice to the gods. Herald, would you do the honors?”

What then takes place is quite unusual. Another student approaches the podium with a cardboard cutout of a pig and a bag of pretzels. He raises his hands to the sky, and praises the wisdom and virtue of Athena, patron goddess of Athens, the divine huntress, goddess of wisdom and the temperate side of violent conflict. Everyone else is standing and raising their hands. Some have smirks on their faces, but most look like they are taking it seriously. You know that this is a definitive transformation point in the session. Moments ago, they were Harold Washington College students, coming from different homes, with diverse and all-too-often troubled education and family backgrounds, worrying primarily about money, grades, friends, and how to enjoy the weekend. Suddenly, they are citizens of Athens, with one concern: how to use the best ideas of that day to rebuild Athens into something both prosperous and socially just. The array of issues and perspectives is greater than most students expected, more than most students see in the contemporary world. As students in Chicago, the hustle and bustle of life often gets the better of our reflective sides, and we forget how ideas and arguments build and run a community, whether that be a nation, a grand but grizzled city like Chicago, or even a classroom, a family, or a workplace. But many of the most fundamental ideas concerning justice, governance, delegation, responsibility, and the role of knowledge are found in all these places. When these students sacrificed the pig and ate of its body, they are transported to a different place: a game, but like all games, it raises our attention, brings us to focus on different issues, allows us to play and grapple with ideas directly, rather than seeing them from afar as in a typical lecture class.

For the next hour and fifteen minutes, class proceeds entirely by students making speeches, presenting arguments for particular positions in response to the problem of education’s role in society, and what obligation the state has to draw on public funds to finance that education. A member of the oligarch faction makes a compelling argument that education is a luxury, and should therefore be privately funded. And besides, obligatory education is a burden on working-class families who depend on their sons and daughters to perform tasks around their farms, vineyards, or shops. As the speech concludes, a retired sailor, disillusioned with the dream of Athenian democracy, voices his support, while the carpenter’s son, fascinated by the famous Greek tragedies of his day and eager to write one of his own, retorts that it is in education that we maintain a sense of the traditions and history of the Athens and Greek people in general. The radical democrat faction has been huddled in a corner, strategizing a coordinated multi-pronged argument against both the oligarchs and the form of education advocated by the present students of Socrates. And after the radical democrats astound those present with a sophisticated, textually-grounded argument in support of a public education used for the purpose of teaching Athenian democratic ideals, the students of Socrates look a bit defeated. But then they rally, knowing that they can beat the Radical Argument if they spend more time reading the words of their teacher.

During the entire class, you remain almost entirely silent. You occasionally think of something that might assist one faction or another, write it on a slip of paper, and pass it to the proper student. Once, when you felt everyone was being a bit vague, you made a short speech, as a former army buddy of Socrates, stating that the discussion seemed to have drifted off topic, and that anyway, you were old and needed a clarification. This got the message across and was met with nods and chuckles, and the subsequent speeches were more clear. You find eye contact with the speakers, and nod in approval as the construct their arguments well, or provide a sympathetic raised eyebrow if they start getting out of character. With a few minutes before the class is officially over, you have yet to provide even a sentence of lecture, and besides the one question, you haven’t said one word to the class as a whole. The acting president approaches the podium, and takes the vote. There is confusion about what the votes mean. They look to you in appeal, and you pretend like you didn’t hear them. They get that message, too, and the president thinks of a way to resolve the situation. She announces that the democrats have won the vote, and that three years of obligatory education will be funded by the state for three years, and the curriculum will focus on the Athenian ideals of democracy, and on the ideological patriarch of Athens, Pericles. The oligarchs howl in defeat, and the students of Socrates make some ineffectual comments that Athens is embracing the will of the mob. You realize that class has gone five minutes passed the official end-time, and people are just now starting to pack their bags.*
The above story illustrates my experiences in using the “Reacting to the Past” pedagogy in my Philosophy 107 “Ethics” class at Harold Washington College.  As a student nine years ago, I was introduced to the unique pedagogy involving historical role-playing games. When I first tried using the games at Harold Washington, they were a disaster. But after tinkering with the game-play a bit, it has resulted in a classroom environment that students find challenging and exhilarating. Though I use the games in my philosophy and humanities courses, the pedagogy can be used in a wide variety of classes. Around the country today, faculty from a wide variety of disciplines use RTTP games, especially in history and the social sciences, but also physics, biology, fine arts, literature, and first-year seminars.

The aim of this short series of posts is to introduce interested readers to the pedagogy. I aim to have one post per week for the next three or four weeks. Thanks for reading!

Students playing the “Struggle for Palestine” game at Barnard College of Columbia University.

A list of current published games can be found here: http://reacting.barnard.edu/curriculum/published-games   There are a number of unpublished ready-to-play games as well, and game materials can be acquired through the “Reacting to the Past” faculty forums: http://reacting.barnard.edu/curriculum/games-in-development

Any faculty or administrators who are interested in knowing more about the games, leave a comment or contact me at bswanson1@ccc.edu. 

*Excerpted from my tenure project, “Adapting Historical Gaming Pedagogies to the Community College.” Each game book begins with an “opening vignette” in a similar, 2nd person style, illustrating “you” walking through a historical setting, building a liminal experience. ie, as the Darwin game begins,

“As you step off the railway car and onto the platform at Waterloo Station, you realize with amazement that, although the noisy steam engine has stopped running, you are still overwhelmed by the noise around you. London is teeming with people and the dark oppresive air is not the result of the train you have been riding; rather, it is the permanent haze that has been thickening around London for many years now. Since it is midday, you are not yet privileged to see the amazing effect of the new gas lamps that have apparently turned night into day in the heart of London, but you wonder if one ever actually sees the sun through this yellow-orange fog.”

3 thoughts on ““Reacting to the Past” in the Community College: Introduction

  1. Great idea for a series of posts. Because this is so far outside most instructors’ past experiences as students, it’s really helpful to have you paint a picture about how one of these classes could go. It’s particularly useful to me to read about how you as the instructor participate in them. The details you give about adopting a role that allows you to ask for clarification/refocus the discussion are illuminating in helping me switch from a general sense of appreciation of RTTP in theory to gaining a better sense of how it does/could work in practice. I look forward to the rest of these glimpses into the RTTP world(s).

    • I understand the skepticism, but for any doubters, I can verify that these things happen because I have actually seen it happen EXACTLY as Kamran describes it.

      More than once, no less.

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