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Can We Learn From History?


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L Skinner

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For this assignment, you will

  • Select a question that affects you personally and is relevant  to you or to society right now, in the present time, place, and circumstances.
    • Examples:
      • What do I need to do to get ahead?
      • What difference does privilege make?
      • What does it mean to live a fulfilling life?
      • Does money buy happiness?
      • How does democracy make a nation stronger?
      • What makes a romantic relationship (marriage, partnership, etc.) work?
  • Try to answer that question by considering 3 historical scenarios and imagining how a historical person in each of the 3 times/places/situations would have answered or reacted to your question.
  • Present what you've learned using either a traditional form (essay), or something more creative, such as having your characters participate in a podcast, panel discussion, TV show, etc., or having your characters write you letters or engage in another form of dialogue with you and/or each other.
  • In your conclusion you must
    • identify similarities and differences between the 3 individuals
    • share the insights you gained from thinking about your question in a historical perspective. Some things you could discuss are:
      • What did you learn?
      • Was your question answered?
      • If you didn't find an answer, why do you think this is?
      • Did you learn anything from your historical exploration?


How to Do This Assignment

  • Before you begin working on this assignment, read the assignment instructions and the rubric carefully, until you fully understand what’s expected of you.
  • If you have questions about the assignment instructions, contact your instructor.
  • As you read the assignment instructions, start thinking about what your question will be. Remember that you will need to work on something that’s on your mind at the present moment and that is relevant to you or to society right now.
    • Examples
      • Someone who is getting married soon could ask “What makes a marriage work?” or "What are some advantages and disadvantages of marital agreements?"
      • Someone concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic could ask “How can I successfully survive a pandemic?” or "How can I make a living during a deadly pandemic?"
  • You will be looking at 3 different time periods to find answers to this question and choosing from time periods covered in the course.
  • You will use course materials and may also need materials from the library, such as books and databases.
  • You will start by providing context to your question. If you chose a personal topic, why? Why is this something that interests you? How is it relevant? If a societal issue, what is happening right now? What information can you provide about the issue? Why do you care?
    • Example:
      • The student analyzing life in deadly pandemics would provide the context of the current situation (the COVID-19 pandemic), explaining why this is of personal or societal interest and relevance.
  • You then need to seek answers to your question in the past, specifically 3 different historical periods and countries.
  • Pick historical periods that are separated by centuries and deal with different countries and cultures.
    • Example:
      • The student answering the question "What are some advantages and disadvantages of marital agreements?" could seek answers in Hebrew law 2000 years ago, 7th century Ireland, and 1800s America.
  • You will either choose real historical characters (Dolley Madison, for example) or create a fictional but credible character. If you create fictional characters, they will need to fit in with the period, location, social class, culture, etc. that they are from.
  • To find information that can help you learn about real characters or create and flesh out fictional ones, use the materials in your course as well as materials from the library. The library has many books about daily life in different historical periods, and this can help you understand your characters, as well as create answers that could credibly come from them.

How will you present your findings? You have some choices:

  • You can write a traditional essay
  • You can come up with something creative, like a conversation involving all 3 of your characters, perhaps as part of a TV show or podcast -- you could submit a written script or you could enlist the help of friends to act out the parts and you could videotape or record the conversation.

Regardless of format, you will need to provide

  • an introduction that goes over the issue and provides some context
  • a conclusion that
    • identifies similarities and differences among the 3 individuals
    • identifies insights you gained from thinking about the question in a historical perspective, for example:
      • did you learn from history?
      • can you answer your question better/differently after conducting the project?
      • are the answers from the 3 individuals relevant to the present? Why or why not?

The introduction section of your presentation will go over the issue and provide context.

If you chose a personal topic, explain

  • why you did so
  • why the topic interests you
  • how it is relevant to you
  • why you picked the question you're seeking answers to

Example: Helen

Helen's topic is "pre-wedding marital agreements," and her question is "How do pre-wedding marital agreements affect a marriage?" In her presentation, Helen will include an introduction that presents the context for her choice of topic and question.

In her introduction, Helen will explain she is getting married soon, and that this makes marriage-related topics very relevant to her at the present time. She will explain that marriage and married life are preoccupations for her, meaning they take up most of her attention and thoughts. She will tell her audience that she has read about prenuptial agreements, and that she and her fiance have discussed them, and although they were not serious about them, the idea sparked questions, curiosity, doubts, and a bit of anxiety in Helen, and this is why she will turn to 3 historical characters from different countries, cultures, and eras to look for an answer to her question.

If you chose a societal issue,

  • explain what is happening right now
  • provide information about the issue
  • explain why you care about the issue and why it is relevant to you
  • explain why you chose the issue
  • explain why you chose the specific question

Example: Harry

Harry has been glued to CNN for the last several weeks, and has been disturbed by images he has seen and reports he has heard concerning political unrest. In the past month, Harry's world has been rocked by all of this, so the topic of democracy has become a preoccupation, meaning it has taken up most of his attention, thoughts, and feelings. His instinct is that the rule of law makes a nation stronger, and he would like to explore this concept by going back in time to discuss it with 3 different historical figures from different eras, countries, and cultures.
In his introduction, Harry will cover the context of his choice of topic (democracy) and question (how does the rule of law make a nation stronger?) by describing events of the last month, briefly mentioning specific reports, videos, news, etc., he has seen, and explaining how they have become preoccupations by taking up so much of his focus and attention. He will go over his reactions, gut feelings, fears, anxieties, concerns, curiosity, etc, and explain why the topic and question matter to him and why he feels they matter to society. He may cover very briefly why he chose specific countries, cultures, and eras, and how he thinks they may help him answer his question.

Your Introduction

Use Helen's and Harry's examples to work on your own introduction.  A lot of this project focuses on you, so make it personal, and convey to your audience what led you to your choices,  including the context of the issue, its personal relevance to you and/or to society, and how you plan to seek answers in history.

What is a conclusion?

A conclusion

  • rounds off a presentation (essay, speech, PowerPoint, video, etc.)
  • recaps/summarizes all the central points or arguments made in the rest of the presentation, without repeating the same words, and
  • gives the audience a sense of closure.  

A conclusion is not

  • a repeat or rephrasing of your introduction
  • just a summary of the previous content
  • a place to add new content, arguments, or points.

A conclusion should tie everything together in a meaningful way, with simple but powerful words that will leave a lasting impression on your audience. Think of your conclusion as your parting shot, your last chance to impress and enlighten your audience. Make it count by not repeating what you've said before, but by finding ways of enhancing the content and creating closure. And do not start your conclusion with "in conclusion." Your conclusion should feel like a conclusion without you announcing it is.

Your Conclusion

In your conclusion for this assignment, you will

  • identify similarities and differences among the 3 individuals you selected to give you answer
  • identify insights that you gained from thinking about your preoccupation in a historical perspective
  • analyze whether you think there is anything to be learned about present day concerns by doing historical research
  • report whether you think you are better able to answer your question or whether you can answer it differently as a result of working on this project
  • explain whether you believe history is relevant to understanding current concerns and events. Can we learn from history? Yes? No? Explain your answer.

Example: Helen

Helen wanted to explore the concept of pre-wedding marital agreements. To do so, she created 3 characters: A Hebrew religious leader from 2000 years ago, a young bride-to-be from 7th century Ireland, and a recently married woman from 1801 America.
Helen pointed out differences in gender, religious views, and philosophical views among the three, but found that the 3 were similar in their views regarding some kind of marital agreement between husband and wife being beneficial for the wife, to protect her in case her husband died.
She found that the 3 characters gave her some ideas as to how and why marital agreements may have some merit, but she also felt that the answers were somewhat lacking because the characters couldn't add modern insights.
Helen concluded that historical research can help understand an issue, even though there might not be exact parallels between situations and circumstances. It can provide background to an issue or question and help understand how it may have evolved. Helen's verdict was that yes, one can learn something from history, even if the situation is not exactly the same.
Example: Harry
Harry wanted to explore how the rule of law can make a nation stronger. He found that while the term "rule of law" is relatively recent, the concept has been around since antiquity. He chose 3 historical characters to help him answer the question: Cicero, Aristotle, and Samuel Adams.
Harry pointed out the differences in culture, country, and time period between the three, and found similarities between Cicero and Adams (both statesmen, politicians, and to a certain extent political philosophers), and thought that Aristotle was also similar to the other two because of his interest for multiple subjects, even though his main approach was through philosophy.
Harry felt that all 3 showed him a kind of intellectual continuity throughout Western civilization about  the concept of the rule of law, and concluded that each of them contributed strong arguments in support of the value of the rule of law to a society. Harry's verdict was a resounding yes: history did help him understand the value of the rule of law, and he felt strengthened by the arguments offered by his 3 characters. He concluded that researching history helps us not have to reinvent the wheel and shows us that there are threads that unite us through time.

Use the resources provided by your instructor in your course, plus library resources.  The library has several books about what life was like in times past, for example:

To find other, similar books, go to the library's homepage and under FIND BOOKS, run title searches using the words "everyday life in" and "daily life in."

You can also explore the resources linked below.

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