One of the things I most want my history students to be able to do is to apply what they’ve learned in a new situation. If they read a primary or secondary source or if we discuss something in class, it’s important to me that they be able to take their cumulative understanding of a period of time, or a place, or a culture, and apply it to answer a fresh question.
One way that I do this is by having students play with the question of ‘liberty’ in my American history classes. Liberty is a weighted concept – it’s part of the dominant narrative of American history in the U.S., as well as being something that is often thought of in absolutist terms. I want my students to think about liberty in much more complicated ways.
My approach: I give my students a handout up to a dozen composite historical characters on it (see below). Each character is written so that their liberties (or lack thereof) are complicated – it’s never as simple as “this person is free” or “this person is unfree.” Students have to consider race, gender, sexuality, class, religion, enslavement, indenture, geography, and political allegiances to correctly weigh how free someone was. To make this easier, I put students in small groups of three or four so that there are multiple perspectives to consider and multiple opportunities to remember details that might be relevant.
When each group has had time to complete the worksheet, we come back together as a class and I draw a spectrum on the board of unfree to free.
We then try to decide who had the greatest liberty in the period we’re looking at and who had the least. We always get into (delicious) arguments about this. Even things that seem clear cut (like “The King of England”) turn out to be nuanced once you think about the limitations Parliament might be placing on the monarchy, the price of war, the jockeying for position among other claimants to the throne, and global geopolitics.
The point is not to definitively classify any one person’s liberty or lack of it, but to get into tussles about what liberty is. The exercise is definitively about considering social identities and how they’ve played out in the past, and restoring to our central narrative people who have too often been erased. It’s also about considering intersecting webs of oppression.
It’s a really fun class exercise, and it’s adaptable to any concept you choose, any region you want, and any time period you can think of.