First Content, then Context

Today I stepped away from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations in class to concentrate on the history of the late Roman Empire, so that they would understand the time in which Marcus Aurelius lived.  In the past, we’d read from a textbook the night before, I’d give a lecture, and they’d be bored; then there’d be some questions in the textbook for homework.

YAWN.  I’m tired just thinking about it now.  How did I survive so many years as a teacher doing just that?

Today I fell back on that old pattern, but with one important difference.  This time, they had been armed with a primary source. They already knew Marcus Aurelius from his own words.  I wasn’t telling them about him; they already knew him, better than any textbook could tell them.  Sure, they probably didn’t have the perfect comprehension that I’d like them to have, but it’s the first week of school.

They were actually interested in the lecture today. They got what it was like to live in Marcus Aurelius’s empire — that these legions on the frontiers were simultaneously a source of protection and a source of worry. That their generals could be the loyal servants of the emperor; or they could be ambitious, venal men, ready to do anything to become emperor themselves.

What was the difference?

The difference was that they were already engaged.  They’d spent four days puzzling out the words of a world leader from two thousand years ago — a world leader who cared about honor and duty and having a sense of right and wrong.  They actually thought he would have been a kind of cool guy to meet and get to know.  And in a sense, they DID get to know him.

And hence, they wanted to know more — so they sat still for a lecture, and absorbed the information they needed about his empire, so that they could understand him better.

But it’s still a bad habit.  I did them a disservice by not making them dig out the information themselves.  I spoon fed them a bunch of data instead of making them go digging.

So tomorrow we’re going to start on Suetonius’s description of the reign of Nero.  Sure, it’s a hundred years and more earlier.  But they now have a sense of what good government looks like; now they’ll have a chance to see really bad government.  And we can start talking about how to read primary sources against each other, instead of relying on a one-voice textbook.

I’ve been thinking about what sort of mental assignment to give them to work on, and I think I just figured it out.  Please feel free to comment on this idea, but here’s the assignment: Pick a line or a part of a line from Marcus Aurelius, and then find a parallel moment where Nero violates this advice. Explain what Marcus Aurelius’s advice to himself is; and explain how Nero violates that principle or rule.  What is the result of this failure?

Suetonius is full of details about life in the empire — the theaters, the baths, the games, the chariot races and more.  They’ll get more of a taste of the daily life in the empire from that than from any lecture I can give them.  And it continues the principles I learned at NECC and in every writing class I ever took: show, don’t tell.  If they read about Nero’s fantastical shows, and the way he suborned the Olympic Games and other contests, they’ll feel the same outrage that Suetonius did in telling it, and they’ll have a sense of how awful it can be to have a self-serving, insecure and monomaniacial blockhead as absolute ruler.

This is the thing, though… As teachers, I think we forget that a TEXTBOOK IS NOT CONTENT. It provides context, but it’s not content in and of itself.  This is particularly true in history, where a textbook is usually a Chronicle — a list of events and persons grouped by geographical region and time period.  Thus a textbook provides an overview of a given place and time. But real content is composed of the stuff of history: not dates and places and obscure people centuries-dead-and-dust, but rather the stories of their deeds, the reasons for their actions, and the things they left behind.  That’s the material historians work with, not chronicles… but stories and reasons for stories… the things that underly the chronicles.

Marvin Minsky said to me this summer while I attended Constructing Modern Knowledge that stories exist in order to provide DNA with important information that would otherwise be lost to catastrophic failure.  DNA passes itself on to another generation through sex and reproduction, and that’s a success. But the failures don’t transmit useful information that way; only stories do… to borrow the Nero example, “don’t put 19-year-old boys in charge of your Empire — especially if the teen in question is insecure, overly sexed with poor moral senses, and too fond of flattery, and profligate with money.  It’s a sure way to start a civil war.”  That’s a useful story for kids, because it reminds them to be strong, secure in themselves, and to be good financial managers, as well as sexually responsible and mature. Those are important lessons at the age of fourteen to fifteen.  Will they get it all at once? Maybe, maybe not.

By contrast, my official textbook mentions that Nero was a good but vicious administrator, a murderer, and a persecutor of Christians.  That’s not content; that’s a summary. It doesn’t explain how Nero got that way, or how he got to be emperor in the first place.  Moreover, Marcus Aurelius persecuted Christians too — why does he get to be a “good emperor”?  Because he was generally a decent man in other ways…  and that’s the kind of thing you can learn only from teaching content, as opposed to starting from context.

So remember… teach content first… then provide the content.

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