SCHOOLS by James GilchristNews Weekly
History of ideas course offered to Year 10 students
, August 2, 2014
One morning recently, I had a conversation with my class about the similarities between the skull in Hans Holbein’s Renaissance painting, The Ambassadors, and Yorick’s skull in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which inspired the Danish prince’s famous soliloquy on friendship, death and the levelling effects of mortality.
It was a gratifying, effortless dialogue with a group of girls, all of whom appeared thoroughly engaged by the topic and its wider context within a new Year 10 subject they have been studying, A History of Ideas.
I have been teaching for 20 years, but it is conversations such as these which give me a deep sense of vocational fulfilment.
Around five years ago, I took advantage of some curriculum leeway at our college to devise this course, A History of Ideas, as a Year 10 elective. It was intended to be a subject for students interested in learning about the great currents of thinking that have affected our modern world, with a particular emphasis on Western civilisation.
Topics were chosen with an eye to supporting studies that high school students commonly undertake to qualify for the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE).
For example, examining ancient Greek concepts such as hubris and Fate enhances students’ appreciation of ancient Greek and Shakespearean tragedies in classical studies and English literature. An understanding of Aristotle and humanism deepens their contextual appreciation of Renaissance history. Learning about Marx and Darwin gives them valuable insights when studying the VCE history subject, 20th Century and Revolutions.
Other topics in A History of Ideas include Thomas Aquinas’s medieval synthesis, Francis Bacon and the new scientific method, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Enlightenment and Romanticism.
Films such as Dead Poets Society (1989) and the German science-fiction action-thriller, Run Lola Run (1998), were used to give a contemporary perspective to age-old views about the purposes of education and the role of fate.
Students enrolled in A History of Ideas are assessed according to fairly standard tasks and skills, such as research, analysis, essay-writing, oral presentations and exams.
At one point, however, they are invited to think creatively and conceive of an ideal school with its own distinctive philosophy, curriculum, rules and co-curricular activities. In performing this exercise they explore contrasting ideas of education.
In A History of Ideas we examine some of the “big” universal questions. For each theme drawn from the ancient, medieval and early modern world we can almost invariably find some corresponding contemporary issue, such as:
• Does overconfident or unscrupulous behaviour (hubris) inevitably lead to one’s downfall? (e.g., Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and Kevin Rudd).
• Are people inherently good or bad? Should criminal justice grant offenders early parole or impose longer jail sentences?
• Is civilisation better than the natural world? Should concerns for the environment and indigenous rights take precedence over economic development?
• Are balance and moderation in all things the best approach to life? Or should our thinking be guided by moral absolutes and religious dogma?
• Should evidence always be used to oppose dogma and find answers to the unknown? How can we resolve satisfactorily the debate over climate change and the degree to which it may be influenced by economic activity?
As you may imagine, questions such as these make for a lot of stimulating and enjoyable discussion. Every year, girls at our college have selected A History of Ideas in more than adequate numbers in the midst of ongoing changes to the curriculum.
I confess to feeling a certain satisfaction in presenting some of the fascinating, and often admirable, ideas and principles on which Western civilisation has been founded.
In many education circles, by contrast, Western civilisation is held as uniquely responsible for promoting greed, corruption, oppression and colonialist exploitation.
However, it is vital that students should, without ignoring the negative aspects of their civilisation, at least come to appreciate the positive elements of their heritage and discover some of the great thinkers who have grappled with all-important questions concerning truth, responsibility, reason and how to live a good and honourable life.
A History of Ideas helps students to explore the nature of our civilisation in a more objective framework. For example, they can compare Rousseau’s belief in humanity’s inherent goodness and his idealised concept of the noble savage with the bleaker appraisals of humanity found in the writings of St Augustine, Charles Dickens and William Golding. This leads on to discussion about how much order and control should be imposed on people in society, how much we need to be “civilised”, and so forth.
By way of introduction to the course, students read Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder’s bestselling book, Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy (1991), before embarking on a study of a myriad of diverse sources to encourage their own thinking and discussion of the “great ideas”.
A number of visiting teachers have been quite struck by the spirit of free inquiry and sophisticated level of discussion in the classroom, in addition to being astonished that a subject such as A History of Ideas actually exists.
Recently, some visiting French teachers and students became as animated in their involvement in the class as my own students, while an American student-teacher taught the subject herself for a term and loved describing to the girls the medieval world-view, and helping them analyse the debate between Luther and Erasmus on free will and salvation.
Inspired by the positive response of students to A History of Ideas, I have recently initiated a Year 9 elective called Inspiration Ink, which introduces students to great books that have shaped the world, while explaining the socio-historical context from which these books emerged. I hope next year to introduce an artistic perspective on social history in the form of A History of Aesthetics.
It has been a challenging experience to try to nurture and maintain these subjects within an increasingly crowded and regulated curriculum.
However, it has all been worthwhile, as these subjects are a pleasure to teach and help make every day in the classroom a stimulating and enjoyable experience for teacher and students alike.
James Gilchrist is a senior history teacher and head of humanities at Genazzano FCJ College in the Melbourne suburb of Kew.