Instilling Civic Responsibility in the Classroom

Rebecca Bates, December 2011

Editor’s Note: Readers would have noticed references in the three Teaching column essays (by Moynagh and Weintrob, Bates, and Shifrin) to Project Pericles. Project Pericles is a nonprofit organization founded by philanthropist Eugene Lang to facilitate and encourage the integration of participatory citizenship into the educational programs of institutions that become members of the project. For further details, visit the web site of the project at www.projectpericles.org.

Since the early 1990s, there have been calls inside and outside the academy for a reform of higher education. Reformers advocate teaching methods that include engaged learning and ethical training for citizenship, rather than mere knowledge acquisition and abstract speculation. In response, many teachers of American history have experimented widely with service learning, although those of us who specialize in other historical fields have generally not embraced this trend. Instead, we have responded to the call for engaged learning with the old claim that our discipline uniquely prepares students to gain citizenship skills by cultivating critical thinking skills, objectivity, cultural sensitivity, and an awareness of the complexity of our world.

Committed to helping students become independent learners (rather than regurgitators of rote answers), I must confess to being a bit skeptical of service-learning courses which appear to me to have the singular objective of helping "the other." Consequently, I responded to a funding opportunity offered by Project Pericles to design a course that encouraged social responsibility and participatory citizenship. Much to my delight, Project Pericles endorsed my proposal to design a non-service learning course. As this brief discussion of the course design and implementation illustrates, I hope, history classes can be excellent models of a civil society.

Interested in focusing on a topic with a rich historiographical tradition, I proposed to teach a class on English responses to poverty from the 17th through the 20th centuries. Entitled "Social Responses to Poverty," this upper-division history course was open to students of junior and senior standing, regardless of their major. Enrollment was limited to 10 students. Topics included institutional responses to vagrancy; the criminalization of poverty; definitions of the family; the socialist critiques of capitalism; the rise of voluntary associations; and the relationship between philanthropic organizations and the state.

Given my concerns and goals, I chose not to focus on a singular historical interpretation of the causes of poverty. Instead, my efforts turned to incorporating elements of civic virtue into the classroom experience. Four elements of civic virtue, identified by Nannerl Keohane in her address, "Moral Education in the Modern University," became essential to the course. First, the class was designed to increase "an understanding of the interconnectedness of human beings, in the sense of our dependence on others to provide many of the goods and services." Second, students were required to consider, appreciate, as well as put into practice, "the need to subordinate some of our selfish impulses to the needs and aspirations of others in order to create a more secure and fruitful society." Third, readings and class experiences were selected to develop a "tolerance for individuals whose ways of doing things are different from one's own." And, fourth, the students were evaluated on their ability to collaborate to achieve a desirable goal that they could not achieve alone.1

To introduce the historical content of the course, a combination of primary and secondary texts were assigned: indeed, one-third of our class time was devoted to unpacking the readings together. Given the students' varying levels of knowledge, active discussion was occasioned by impromptu mini-lectures that were intended to clarify or to deepen their understanding of the social, economic, cultural and political changes that underpinned English understanding of poverty and shaped policies for its alleviation. In this way, one-third of the course functioned as a standard seminar. I assigned the texts, students discussed the ideas, and then through continued dialogue we worked to a deeper understanding of the themes of the course and to develop historical skills. Verbal responses to sources suggested that the students were moving beyond thinking about poverty from their own context and beginning to look more critically at how responses to poverty were historically contingent. Through traditional academic study, the students had achieved one of my four goals: they were understanding, or at least exploring and considering, our dependency upon each other as human beings.

In pursuing the goal of subordinating personal achievement to achieve a more secure and fruitful society, I used a two-pronged approach. First, the selected readings, particularly those on the New Poor Law and workhouses, encouraged students to think critically about the complicated ways that people have tried to achieve a "secure" and "fruitful" society. We discussed how assumptions about the poor in the 19th century, in particular that the poor were latent criminals, meant that simply acting for the greater good did not assure that the greater good was achieved.

The course also stressed working collaboratively by a unique pedagogy. Rather than being assigned a research paper, on the first day of class the students were asked to decide collectively how they would share their historical findings with a wider audience. Their choice was to design a web site containing essays on the subject and drawing attention to parallels in contemporary society. Given their collective interest in writing "public essays," and their desire to use the web, the weekly structure of the class emerged. Two of the four hours a week were devoted to the students working together on their web site. While I attended some of these meetings, most of the time the students worked without my oversight. It was their responsibility to identify when and where they needed help and to ask for it. For example, it was not until the students asked for help in web design that I contacted the instructional technology department and arranged to have a web consultant work with them.

The additional two hours a week were discussion time. However, given their interest in writing public essays, each tutorial was framed around a student sharing a draft of his or her essay written on the subject for the day. In order to develop expertise and bring an element of coherence to the web site, the students elected to each follow a subtheme through the course. As a result, by the end of the term each student had written a series of essays on the subject of poverty through a specific lens. One student, for example, focused on Christianity, while another looked at the role of the family. Each class began with a student reading his or her short essay, while the other students were responsible for written and verbal feedback. Collectively, we practiced subordinating individual achievement for the collective goal of creating a web site. The great bonus was that it resulted in excellent peer review.

Tolerance for diversity also developed through the innovative class structure. Students had to work with each other closely, setting deadlines for web site development, determining which themes were significant, and reviewing each other's essays. Ethical issues were faced by students as they worked collectively. What do you do about a classmate who fails to turn in her essay on time? How do you fairly critique a fellow student's essay on poverty when you fundamentally disagree with his understanding of the relationship between personal responsibility and poverty? Rather than providing the answer as the teacher, my role became that of a mediator. In the example of the students' disagreement regarding personal responsibility and poverty, for example, we discussed the fundamental differences between Gareth Stedman Jones and Gertrude Himmelfarb. And, rather than coming to a consensus regarding which historical interpretation was valid, the class turned to discussing the strengths and weaknesses of Stedman Jones and Himmelfarb, as historians.

Above all, however, the major project of the course achieved the goal of setting aside individual achievement for a collective good. The students, with only minutes to spare before the project was due, constructed a fully functional web site on the subject of poverty. It contained essays and images that had been collectively vetted and appropriately linked. Hyperlinks in the essays on motherhood, for instance, brought an interested reader over to essays on the role of the Charity Organization Society in constructing notions of proper motherhood. Collectively they had produced a web site, while individually the students learned a great deal about Britain, poverty and a new form of communication.

This isn't to say that it all worked as I planned. Connections to the contemporary world never appeared on the web site. Furthermore, the essays were more academic than a public audience would be interested in reading. In the future, I may ask students to focus on historical figures, setting the figures in their historical context, and using historical voices to appeal to the public.

However, even when I consider these drawbacks, the achievements were many. The students walked away from the course having clearly learned about the changing nature of British society. They understood that poverty has a history; it is not a timeless phenomenon. The creation of workhouses, the propaganda of philanthropic organizations, and the demise of the welfare state tell the tale of changing understandings of poverty, but reflecting on these details from the past also offers an opportunity for students to shape their own ethics. And through the use of politically divergent historical scholarship I avoided promoting a single ethical interpretation and believe that I offered venue in which students could develop the tools to become free-thinking citizens.

Rebecca Bates is associate professor of history at Berea College.

Note

1. Nannerl O. Keohane, "Moral Education in the Modern University," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 142, No. 2 (Jun., 1998), p. 246.