Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Big Five

I teach a group of 9th graders who have a unique talent for taking class in their own direction. While I may come to class prepared to discuss the Iconoclastic Controversy (or some other historical topic), they have another agenda. They are most successful at this game of distractions when they deliver an interesting question. When that happens, the beauty of the course's curriculum is that we can explore the distraction, having fun and learning at the same time.

So it was a few weeks ago that 9th grader A asked me: who are 5 people who most changed the course of the world? We spent the rest of the class period exploring the question. I reserved the right to have some time to compose my final answer and I sent them off to create their own lists.

I figured there was no reason to answer this question on my own, so I recruited help. I sent the question to college professor Jason (he was once a student capable of asking the most engagingly distracting questions himself). And my college roommate (and fellow political science major) Michelle also agreed to play a round.

Now we were cooking with gas.

Jason refused to be bound by the rules of the question and offered up these compelling lists:

Ancient History:
Thucydides
Saint Peter
Genghis Khan
Archimedes
Muhammad

Medium-term History:
Charles Darwin
Joan of Arc
Henry Dunant
Susan B. Anthony
Rene Descartes

Contemporary History:
Eleanor Roosevelt
Sigmund Freud
Mohandas Gandhi
Mao Tse-tung
The dude with that moustache....umm, Hitler

Environmental History:
John Muir
Increase Lapham
Bob LaFollette
Aldo Leopold
Gaylord Nelson
(Oh, hey, they're all from Wisconsin. You're welcome, rest of America!)

My 9th graders had never heard of any of the environmental figures (and may I defer from Jason's Badger State claims and note that Californians also claim a piece of John Muir for their own). But it was their ignorance of Henry Dunant who got their attention. There is nothing as indignant as a smart 9th grader who discovers something previously unknown to them. They set forth to learn about Dunant, who is credited with founding the International Red Cross and was the first recipient of the Nobel Peace prize, and are now a veritable fountain of Dunant knowledge.

Michelle teaches kindergarten and, as a consequence, she knows how to read and follow instructions. She delivered the following 5:

Aristotle
Leonardo daVinci
Copernicus
Gutenberg
Alexander the Great.

And then I composed my list, also opting to also cheat on the assignment. I identified 10 folks grouped into two categories: Philosophers and Leaders:

Philosophers/Thinkers:
Aristotle
Gutenberg
Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Jefferson
Karl Marx

My guiding principle in selecting leaders was that they must have been considered a force for good (demonstrating a more optimistic tone than my normal realist's default setting):

Leaders:
Alexander the Great
Queen Elizabeth
Franklin Roosevelt
Nelson Mandela
Gandhi

My class immediately noted that only Michelle followed the instructions, for which they awarded her extra credit. We spent an entire day talking about daVinci, whose nomination they whole-heartedly endorsed. About our mutual selection of Aristotle and Alexander the Great, they had suspicions, feeling that we should have selected one or the other. Fittingly, they voted for Alexander, feeling that the student was busily applying his teacher's lessons and was therefore more deserving of the nomination. I deferred, perhaps wanting credit for that semester of grad school when I read Aristotle on a non-stop basis.

From one question, I got a whole lot of thinking mileage. And now it's your turn. Who makes your Big Five list?

6 comments:

Nichole said...

Honestly, I think GW Bush may belong on that list somewhere. Not as a force for good. I think history will view him as very influential in world politics and how America's place in the world changed over 8 years. It's hard to say at this point, but maybe 10 years from now we'll have a better idea. Also, was any administration ever so sucessful in convincing Americans that their core values as Americans (freedom, liberty, etc.) needed to be set aside? I know Japanese internment was a HUGE spot on America's white shirt, but still. . . It will be interesting to see what a little man from Texas did to a great nation.

This is a great question. I'm going to ask my 10 year old.

supedr: why boys go to Jupiter

Jason said...

I think this Jason fellow has a good head on his shoulders.

BUUUUT, Wisconsin also has to take credit for the Republican Party (thanks a lot, Ripon), the John Birch Society (thanks a lot, Appleton), and the bad McCarthy (Wow, Appleton again - those jerks.)

Sharkbuttocks said...

In addition to my woeful ignorance of history, I have the added disadvantage of being entirely mentally overrun by papist history revisionist and otherwise so my choices are largely based on the extent to which these people added to the sum total of human suffering or either by action or example subtracted from it.

Pope Paul VI, John Paul 2 (I count them as one as they largely seemed to consist of the same tight assed white guy - wait - that's all of them so far)
Hitler
Mao Tse Tung (whom I'll always think of as mousy dung)
George W Bush
the late great JC both for his own attempts at easing human suffering but for his mad skills in hiring help. And by mad I mean a lot of his most outspoken minions are just fucking nuts.

rgbirmingham said...

Galileo Galilie - Astronomer
Christopher Columbus - Explorer
Thomas Jefferson - AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE
OF THE STATUTE OF VIRGINIA FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
AND FATHER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA
Nikola Tesla - Inventor
Thomas Edison - Inventor

Shereen said...

Mmm, I love games like this. Just to put my own, contrary spin on things, I started thinking about non-European-focussed history, as well as that hard-to-quantify history of women-who-weren't-considered-important-because-they-were-women, and came up with:

Pharaoh Akhenaten, thought by some to be the first recorded monarch to embrace monotheism

Hannibal, often considered to be Alexander's equal in strategy, if not rapacious empire-building

Also Candace of Ethiopia - Alexander wouldn't even try to invade Ethiopia, because she was so good

Marie Curie - obvs

Simone de Beauvoir - in many ways, the literary architect of modern feminism

Empress Cixi - made a profound, if misinterpreted, impact on the world's view of China in the 19th century, as well as managing to rule China for most of her life

Jawaharlal Nehru - helping to dismantle the biggest element in British colonialist rule

Sir Alexander Fleming - without penicillin, the world would be a vastly different place

Tim Berners-Lee - invented the World Wide Web.

James D. Watson - mapping the human genome

Man, you can play this game all day! Gotta get back to work now...

Nichole said...

Hey Shireen, I heard that Al Gore invented the Internet. . . :-)