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:
Joan of Arc
Susan B. Anthony
The dude with that moustache....umm, Hitler
(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:
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:
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):
Alexander the Great
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?