Changing History, and the Way it is Taught

Monday, May 11, 2009

PHILADELPHIA (May 11, 2009) - During the spring semester of 2009 at Saint Joseph’s University, a puzzling slogan was written on the white board of a classroom on campus. Its message was terse and to the point:

Wanli— Do the right thing!

Though curious and perhaps arcane to a casual passerby, it was a clear and incendiary message to Will Holman ’11 – a.k.a. the Wanli Emperor of Ming Dynasty China – who is in real life, a sophomore history major from West Chester, Pa.

Holman was enrolled in Reacting to the Past, and was assigned the role of Wanli by the instructor and Gamemaster of the course, Assistant Professor of History Jeffrey Hyson, Ph.D. Hyson says that introducing the unique pedagogy to 15 students was easily the most rewarding teaching experience he has ever had.

“Most history courses teach what happened,” Hyson says. “Historians deduce the factors that caused some consequence. But what is often missing from scholarly studies is the importance of individual actions and decisions.”

Hyson adds that a Reacting class is different because it immerses students in the historical record through a series of extended role-playing games, which presume that individuals play a significant role in history.

“It asserts that broader economic and social forces place constraints on what individuals may do, but that those forces don’t determine human events. People do,” he notes.

Marc C. Carnes, an historian at Barnard College, developed Reacting, and SJU is a member of the consortium of 40 colleges and universities that have helped develop the pedagogy. SJU is the only university in the Philadelphia area to offer courses using the games. This past spring semester marked the first time the course was offered here.

Holman played the Wanli Emperor Zhu Yijun of China, the “Son of Heaven” who faced a succession crisis in 1587. He and his classmates, who played members of the Grand Secretariat in Beijing’s Forbidden City, plunged into the highly formal world of Confucian China after playing a rabble of democrats and oligarchs of the Athenian Assembly in 403 B.C., who, among other concerns facing the world’s first democracy, were either intent on putting Socrates on trial, or saving him from execution.

From Holman’s perspective, watching his classmates treat him with the deference owed to the Emperor took some getting used to. “I felt a little silly, because they bowed to me – as they would to their ruler – when they got up to address the Grand Secretariat,” he says. “But as the game went on, and another student played a character who put up incredibly insulting posters about Wanli’s reign, I found myself getting angry. The Emperor expects a certain amount of respect!”

“The leap forward in time exposed the students to a major contrast in political governance and style,” adds Hyson.

It also exposed them to the second of three primary sources that helped them understand the ideologies shaping the lives of their characters. The students read Plato’s The Republic for the Athens portion of the course; Confucius’ The Analects for Ming China;and The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, when they entered revolutionary Paris circa 1791, for the third and final game of the semester.

“The pedagogy requires students to encounter the text in a different way than they would in a conventional seminar,” notes Hyson. “They addressed their classmates and played the games in character – both as speakers and in written communications – and relied on the text to obtain their character’s voice, which helped them inhabit their role. In this way, they entered the wider universe of the text, which was no longer simply a scholarly record of the time.”

“The texts came alive for me,” agrees Holman. “I had to delve deeply into The Analects in order to understand Wanli better.”

For sophomore Kelly McGlynn of Plains, Pa., the text she authored as a moderate Democrat in the Athens game – a speech she delivered to her classmates playing other members of the Athenian Assembly – came alive for her in a way that could help launch a future career.

McGlynn, a history major who is involved with SJU’s Student Senate as Vice President for Student Affairs, submitted the speech as a writing sample for an internship with Philadelphia City Council. This summer, McGlynn will intern for Councilman Curtis Jones of the Fourth District. Her supervisors have told her she will be writing speeches for Jones and other City Council members.

“Councilman Jones’ staff was impressed that I was already writing speeches,” says McGlynn. “I was told they usually don’t accept undergraduate students for the position, but they liked the style of my speech, which centered on a heated debate about government agency and the electorate.”

Hyson thinks it is “fantastic that there are ‘real world’ benefits to the skills McGlynn learned in class.” He says that Reacting to the Past asks students to make a deep investment in terms of time and commitment, but the results are positive and tangible.

Junior history major Brittany Burke, of Brielle, N.J., says that other professors commented on her improved participation in class. “Before I took Reacting, I spoke up infrequently. But because this class required me to express myself verbally – all of the time – I gained confidence, and now feel more comfortable offering my insights for discussions in other classes.”

Moreover, Burke says that Reacting has been her favorite class at SJU. “I’ll never forget what I learned in the course. I looked forward to going to class every day.”

According to Hyson, through engaging in debate, negotiations, compromise and sometimes, political subterfuge, the students did learn that history is contingent on the actions of individuals.

“As Wanli, I had a clear objective to pursue,” says Holman. “My actions affected the outcome of the game.”

So this begs the questions: Did Wanli (a.k.a. Will Holman) do the ‘right thing,’ as the Confucian purists in his Secretariat urged him to, and designate his first-born son and rightful heir, then a child of six, as his successor? Or did he promote his infant son, born to his favorite concubine, and therefore risk the wrath of heaven?

And since it was a game, who won?

“Will – as Wanli – did ‘win’ by containing his critics, gaining the support of undecided secretaries, and eventually naming his younger son as his heir,” says Hyson. “While the ‘real’ history turned out quite differently – Wanli ultimately caved to his critics – our version helped the students to appreciate just how and why those historical actors might have made the decisions they did.”

Media Contact

 Patricia Allen, Associate Director of University Communications, 610-660-3240,

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