Support the Bad Guy: A Lesson In Challenging Perspectives

“By its very nature, history is always a one-sided account,” Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code.

When teaching history, it’s very easy to get caught up in the events from the side of the triumphant. The moral messages that often accompany events are packaged from the perspective of the winners.

  • George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers were right to declare independence.
  • While certainly devastating, President Truman was justified in authorizing the use of the atomic bomb and killing tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) people in order to end the war.

Unfortunately, teachers don’t look often enough at events from differing perspectives. Try to get your students investigating history from the side of the losers.

One assignment which I love, is having students write a “letter to the editor” that takes the position supporting the “bad guy.” I do this during my Industrial Revolution unit, where students write a letter supporting child labor. I like this assignment for several reasons. First off, it requires students to take a position that they (hopefully) wouldn’t support. This helps them develop a counter argument and challenge their own ideas about right and wrong. I will often encounter resistance when students tell me that they don’t support child labor. My response is to reaffirm this and then explain that the idea of the letter is to look at history from a different perspective. Secondly, as they write their letter, they need to consider their audience, which means that their initial ideas may not fly.

In my Industrial Revolution letter, I tell my students that they are to imagine they are a factory owner and the goal of the letter is to convince the public that child labor is a good thing. Now, it won’t be very convincing if they write that child labor is good because this is America and we’re a capitalist society that values making money; that would be greedy and not very empathetic. This gets them thinking on a deeper level because they now have to create ideas to justify their actions and yet package them in a way that garners support. This leads to responses such as:

  • child labor allows young people to help their parents financially support the family
  • crime is reduced because children aren’t roaming the streets and causing problems
  • children learn valuable skills that will last a lifetime

I implore you history teachers out there to challenge your students’ perspective. By doing so, they gain a greater understanding of the time period and more complete mindset of those that lived back then.

Until next time…

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Posted in: FLN

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