Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Sample Text on Trial Assignment: Writing a Brief- Thomas Hobbes (+ some personal reflection at end)

Thomas Hobbes receives all of 2 paragraphs in our textbook, which is in step with one of the text's most common biases, lack of substance. As we've discussed, for source work to be productive and thoughtful, you must approach the sources with questions. Accordingly, your job is to prepare questions in advance of your analysis of some of Hobbes' writings. Your 'interview' with Hobbes will begin the process of adding to and supporting the textbook's thin account of him.

Start by reading what is in the text about Hobbes. With another history detective, create a brief discussing your reading of the text and the questions you have generated.

Sample 'Brief'

In one of the text's introductory paragraphs, the author states that the Enlightenment "started from some key ideas put forth by two English political thinkers of the 1600s, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke." The implication, it appears to me, is that these two individuals were solely responsible for birthing the intellectual movement that historians refer to as the Enlightenment. Such a narrow view of causation, I think, warrants tremendous scrutiny.

I was unable to find a visual of Hobbes in our text. I checked the textbook's index, discovering that he is also mentioned in a single paragraph on page 22, as is John Locke. The text discusses one of Hobbes' writings called Leviathan (1651). The language in the text almost makes it sound as if Hobbes has no other writings. I doubt that this is the case. Hobbes is partially quoted twice in the two paragraphs. The book also states some of his assertions about government, human nature, and life in a so called 'state of nature'. Here are the questions that I am going to begin  my source work with:

1. How many other works, besides Leviathan, did Hobbes write?
2. The text mentions no biographical details about Hobbes other than that he lived in England during the English Civil War. What are some other details about Hobbes life? The textbook is little help here, presenting him one dimensionally.
3. Did Hobbes really believe, as our text states, that all people were naturally selfish and wicked? Why did he believe this?
4. What thinkers influenced Hobbes? The text fails to place Hobbes into an immediate context. Who were his contemporaries? Who influenced him?
5. Was Hobbes the first to use the term state of nature?
6. Our text says that Hobbes believed that the best government was an absolute monarchy since it possessed the tremendous power that was required to keep people in order. Wouldn't an absolute monarchy, given its significant power, treat people poorly? Did Hobbes try to reconcile these two ideas? If so, how?

My Reflection
In the past, I have definitely looked at two paragraphs on Hobbes as content that students needed to be fed in preparation for a test. With a little effort, I am sure, I can find numerous powerpoint slides that I have created expressing ideas similar, if not identical, to the text about Hobbes. I am also sure that I can find a variety of worksheets containing questions that ask students to pull and copy these ideas from the text. About a half hour with me and the textbook, and this caricature of Hobbes, and we would move on, only to do the same with the next figure in the text, Locke, and the one that follows him, Voltaire.

The change in my teaching that I am looking to initiate involves deliberately doing more than this.
In addition to exposing my students to more than just two paragraph accounts of important thinkers, I want them to grapple with some of the same issues and questions these thinkers wrote about.

This type of teaching doesn't have much room for powerpoints and worksheets. Indeed, it requires teachers who are comfortable planning learning experiences that rarely involve powerpoint and worksheets, teachers who possess patience, creativity, and curiosity, along with a willingness to model and support students as they learn complex and meaningful skills. Above all, this model of teaching requires a willingness to say textbook history is not enough. I refuse to treat the text as an end rather than a beginning.

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