History lesson reflects the present in the past

When confused, turn to the past for clarity, Michael Zuckerman recently told a group of Philadelphia high school students, student teachers and teachers.

At an Oct. 19 interdisciplinary workshop on teaching primary texts in public schools, which was co-hosted by the Graduate School of Education, the Annenberg Foundation and Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Zuckerman said that the American Revolution and the events following Sept. 11 share surprising similarities.

During the workshop, Zuckerman, a professor of history, referred to Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” to make his point. He argued that Paine’s pamphlet, which was integral in pushing America towards the War for Independence, reveals the state of “paralysis [that existed] in [the] citizenry” during this volatile time. He said the public’s state of uncertainty post-Sept. 11 mirrors this past. Unlike many of the Founding Fathers, who fluctuated on whether or not America should engage in war, Paine strongly supported independence. “Paine is a wonderful window of how confused the Founding Fathers were. He was so cocksure during a time of confusion,” said Zuckerman.

And Zuckerman is not the only one who sees the relevance of historic documents today.

Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Richard Beeman, MIT Constitutional Historian Pauline Maier and Graduate School of Education Teacher-Educator Ellen Braffman joined Zuckerman to demonstrate how history can serve as a framework for understanding today’s events. Beeman, dressed in colonial garb, showed teachers how such documents can be made more engaging by speaking and acting as though he were Paine himself.

Maier, who placed the text in historical context, said the very use of primary sources makes for exciting dialogue. She said primary texts “break down the authority between teacher and student,” making learning a more give-and-take process because students sometimes glean insights which might otherwise be overlooked.

Lauren Grossmen, a senior at Philadelphia’s High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, said she enjoyed the challenge of reading “Common Sense.”

“There are some parts which I had to read over and over again. But you have to have patience,” she said. “It’s not going to be an easy ride.”

Fellow classmate Nicole Santiago said the workshop reflects what she already enjoys most in her social science class. “Our teacher is really open to conversation, comparing things now to what has happened in the past,” she said.

Originally published on November 8, 2001