Tuesday, July 26, 2011



A Modest Proposal

Teaching history to kinesthetic high-schoolers is challenging because history is usually studied by reading and listening; to learn history has heretofore meant using books, or hearing about events from savants who, having devoted their lives to such study, can highlight, and simplify complex matters for easy reception by tender minds.(1) (see notes at end) Now, however, with students who find it difficult to learn by such antique methods, modern pedagogues must develop new rubrics, new praxis, new epistemologies.(2)
We present here an exemplary project that we hope will stimulate many other educational professionals (“teachers”) to develop and expand innovative methodologies.


One of the most dramatic and important events of the early 19th Century was the French invasion of Russia. Project 1812 focuses on the catastrophic dénouement of this, the largest military operation before World War I, which set in motion the downfall of the First Empire and the victory of the reactionary regimes of the Age of Metternich (1815-1848).

The retreat from Moscow has often been described--e.g. Tolstoy’s magnificent treatment in War and Peace--but how can one bring the reality of what happened to people who cannot readily comprehend the written or the spoken word? We think we have found a way.

Most Modern European History courses will reach the second half of the Napoleonic Era in December or early January, which is the perfect--indeed, the only--time when this Project can be properly conducted.

* On a very cold day with high wind chill, all the kinesthetic learners will be driven to a mall or other public location about five miles from campus. They may wear only light summer clothing, such as T-shirts, shorts, cotton slacks, and sandals. Each will receive a sandwich, a pint of bottled water, and a knapsack containing about fifty pounds of hockey pucks.

Rationale: The flimsy clothing and scanty food simulate the dress and rations of most French soldiers during the retreat from Moscow. The knapsacks simulate the vast assortment of loot that the French took from the ruined city, confident that they could bring it back to France.

* The students will be told they will get $1 for each hockey puck they bring to campus.

Rationale: Students will have the opportunity to experience the common dilemma of greed vs. reason, in that they must decide whether, and when, to lighten or discard the valuable but heavy knapsacks in order to have a better chance of reaching home.

* The students will walk back to campus.

* It is highly desirable that, as a part of our Community Relations, a number of local people take part in the Project. Their job is to follow the students, and, when any fall behind the main body by more than fifty yards, to pelt them with stones, throw them into ponds, or beat them with clubs.

Rationale: The citizens simulate the Russian peasants and Cossacks who followed the French army from a safe distance but attacked stragglers.

* A teacher will ride beside the students in a chauffeur-driven car, calling out encouragement to his “troops” and composing bombastic “official bulletins” announcing that the campaign is going very well. (To assist with the bulletins, he may be accompanied by a “chief of staff” provided by the Office of Institutional Advancement.) When his limousine is half a mile from the school, he will wave encouragingly to the freezing remains of his “army” and be driven quickly back to campus, leaving his men to finish the trek on their own.

Rationale: The teacher simulates Napoleon, who departed the army in a swift coach on December 5, two weeks before the epic retreat ended.

* Those students who reach campus will be given a cup of hot chocolate and sent to the hospital. The others will be buried.

The 1812 Project gives haptic learners a “hands-on” experience like no other. Instead of merely looking at artifacts in a museum or using colored markers to occupy their fidgety fingers, they will feel they have actually participated in an important historical event. It is an experience they will remember to the ends of their lives. (This is especially true for those who do not reach campus, since their lives and the Project will end simultaneously.) At least half of the survivors will have permanent “memory triggers” right on their bodies (such as the stumps of frostbitten fingers and toes after amputation at the hospital).(3) No need for hard-to-read books or boring lectures to teach them what happened!

Hardy kinesthetics who insist on remaining at the school after Project 1812 will take part in Project 1941, “Hitler’s Retreat From Moscow” (which is very similar to Project 1812 except that the local people may use rifles).

Schools in warm climates may obtain satisfactory results from Project 1917 (The Project to End Projects), a simulation of Passchendaele (3rd Ypres). It takes place in soft, muddy ground in early spring or late autumn. (Project 1917 provides a fine opportunity for some cross-disciplinary activity: for added realism, the Science Department can manufacture phosgene and mustard gas for use as the kinesthetics slog through the knee-deep mud towards distant, unattainable objectives.)
1 Kinesthetic (or “haptic”) learners (for the benefit of nonprofessionals who might not know) are those who, we are told, cannot learn much from reading or listening, but who learn best by doing things with their hands and the movement of their bodies. Some laymen, ignorant of current pedagogical “best practice,” might think that such students would not be enrolled in preparatory schools or aspire to college diplomas, but would instead be directed into shop classes, vo-techs, the lower enlisted ranks of the armed forces, and similar places where they could use their talents to best advantage without cluttering up the halls of academe; but that is not the case today.

2 I do not really know what these last words mean, but I have noticed that the most esteemed educational experts and holders of Doctorates of Education use them quite a bit. I thought I should use them too, so I will be taken seriously.

3 For these, the “hands-on” experience can also be a “hands-off” experience!

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