Using Morality for Classroom Engagement

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There may not be a better book regarding the practice of teaching history than Dr. Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. It should be required reading for all social studies education majors. Although a post could (and perhaps should) be devoted to each chapter of the book, there is one in particular that stands out the most. This section, titled “Lost Words: Moral Ambiguity in the History Classroom,” recounts a classroom observation in which public school teacher Richard Stinson engaged his history students with a moral question. In the midst of discussing “the rules that govern American society,” Stinson proceeded to ask:

“Is there any authority that transcends the Constitution?”

Students fidgeted at their desks, but no one uttered a word.

“Well,” Stinson continued, “What about moral authority or religious authority?”

The mere mention of religion set off a flurry of “oohs” and “ahs,” the students’ signal that a taboo had been broached. Paul, sitting in the front row, seemed to initiate a script that had been played many times before. “So, Mr. S., are you saying there is a God?” 

Wineburg goes on to explain how the classroom erupted in energy, as students bantered back and forth with Stinson and their peers. Several boys in the room boldly resisted the idea that citizens, especially soldiers, were bound to any sort of “divine authority.” Distressed by this thought, Stinson (who himself is a devout Christian) posed to them questions concerning Nazi war criminals and the tragedy at My Lai. The class ended with many of the students still having not been “won over” by Stinson’s historical and philosophical implications.

Although it may be easy to critique Stinson’s performance (perhaps a redirection to historical arguments of divine authority would have served him better), Wineburg rightly points out Stinson’s success “in creating an atmosphere where education is not ‘academic’ but instead is a process of debate, discussion, and questioning.”

Learning to Engage

Perhaps it is no surprise that history classrooms are seen as “boring” and “tedious” by many of today’s students. This truth continues to be one of the biggest travesties in America’s modern educational system. In response, tools, activities, and other “gimmicks” continue to be developed for the purpose of better engaging history classrooms. However, Stinson’s example is a reminder that while these devices have their place, history teachers must first learn to engage students with the content itself. Participation is not an indicator of  historical thinking. Instead, the goal must remain for educators to use historical thinking as the motivator for participation, a task that Stinson does brilliantly (yet imperfectly).

Although much easier to conceptualize than practice, the implementation of moral questions into the history classroom may be the key. After all, morality is what makes us human. It is, in essence, a motivator in and of itself. Ultimate purposes, regardless of one’s worldview, are undergirded by moral justifications. A truly engaging classroom is one that appeals to a person’s humanity, and tugs at the strings of their heart. History, like theology and philosophy, is uniquely able to do this.

While personal morality may be the gateway to the past, it should not be confused with the past itself. Historical figures, even those to whom we can best relate, often thought vastly different about the familiar concepts of “good” and “bad.” Students should be forced to interact with, and wrestle out, the implications of these various modes of thought – while simultaneously understanding the perils of making moral judgements.

The best method for presenting this moral content is perhaps one that is purposefully ambiguous. Stinson’s frustrating inability to directly convey the importance of moral absolutes may have ironically been his greatest strength. The detrimental effects of dogmatic religion teach us that people are more likely to disengage when moral assertions are forced down their throat. Moral questions are most compelling when students must contemplate them on their own, at least to some extent.

Conclusion

History teachers should not be afraid to guide and lead students in discussions of morality. It must be done purposefully and shrewdly, while drawing upon historical context. Presented somewhat ambiguously by the teacher, students must be forced to think through moral implications, and how moral decisions have effected historical events. In doing so, teachers will not only be promoting an engaged classroom, but much more importantly, a future generation that knows how to ask and solve moral questions about our world – something we seem to need now more than ever.

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