In the latest iteration of the left’s ostensible conquest of the moral high ground, consider the average liberal arts college student. These days the most oft-used tools of analysis in any classroom come from within the students themselves. The archive of a student’s very essence—heritage, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, preferred gender pronouns, instincts, thoughts, feelings, and actions—are the resources that are frequently wielded in the deconstruction of a text or in scrutinizing an ideology. The source material is no longer important as it stands alone or in the context of its time; rather, it only merits consideration through the lens of its relation to today’s cultural norms or the individual students perusing its message.
The Yale English majors who sought to “decolonize” their curricula and thereby solve the problem of their professors’ shameful ableism, transphobia, racism, sexism, and—insert ism of your choice or creation here—are only the latest reminder of the bizarre zeitgeist dominating campuses around the country: redrawing the past in the image of our present.
But amidst this grim, dim, and wholly self-centered campus culture comes a glimmer of hope that higher education might still have a few champions interested in actually educating.
Mark Carnes, professor of history at Barnard and Columbia, and author of Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College (Harvard, 2014) is that glimmer. In the 90s, he created a history seminar called Reacting to the Past which thoroughly and successfully separates the solipsistic focus of and on students from the material they are ostensibly studying.
In a Reacting seminar, students must leave the totality of their identities at the classroom door. They are assigned a role within a specific plot point of history, and all their behavior—oral presentations, papers, etc.—must be exercised through the lens of that given role. If the year is 1600, the American Revolution has not occurred. Its leaders have not been born, its literature unwritten. If students want to utilize the ideas and values it popularized in order to argue for a different cause, they must be able to root them in an earlier, different period of history. They cannot use concepts or writings (or new terms) that had not yet been conceived before or during the time period into which they’ve been dropped. What a student believes, or thinks he/she believes, is irrelevant; what matters is only their ability to best represent and argue the position and identity that they’ve been handed.
“Reacting,” Carnes explains, “has spread to over 350 colleges and universities within the past decade, chiefly because students find it exhilarating to inhabit complex games where they are freed from the fetters of their all-too-perfect (and restrictive) sense of self.” The students, he reports, enjoy “imagining what it was like to oppose Athenian democracy during the time of Plato, to debate the meaning of Confucianism in the Ming dynasty, to argue that the Sikhs needed their own state in 1940s India, and so on.”
But beyond being enjoyable, the class is an intellectual exercise that demands from its participants a willingness to challenge the norms, beliefs, and preconceived notions that otherwise define their collegiate experience. Consider how intellectually rewarding it would be for a pro-choice student, perhaps a volunteer for Planned Parenthood, to spend an entire semester arguing against the merits of contraception. Or ponder the experience of an atheist who plans to study astronomy and finds him/herself thrust into the Catholic Church during the trial of Galileo.
Too often, Carnes explains, students “hunker down, accepting the absolute right of others to ‘do their own thing’ but equally resistant to ideas that might challenge their own sense of self.”
In the age of the safe space, where unfamiliar or outdated ideologies are regarded as tangibly dangerous and unfit even for discussion, a class like Reacting re-fertilizes the barren intellectual landscape of modern education. It’s exceptionally easy to look back at eras of history that are unlike our own and thrust upon them a 21st-century label. But it is far more rewarding to attempt to inhabit the mindset of an earlier generation, exploring without value judgments why they believed what they believed.