Two Reflection Activities for the Age of Revolutions

For the past two weeks, my world history survey course has covered the revolutions that made modernity. Last week was about politics in the Age of Revolutions. This week is about the Industrial Revolution.

Impressionist image of boats, workers, and possible factories along an industrial waterfront, with the center of the city rising in the distance
J.M.W. Turner, Dudley Castle from Tipton Canal (c. 1830)
Image courtesy of Black Country Museums (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Over the weekend, coincidentally, I caught the latest episode of the Harvard EdCast. It’s a conversation with the social psychologist Geoff Cohen on the “crisis of belonging” among American youth. In this conversation, Cohen spoke about the wide-ranging educational benefits of inviting students to discuss their values together:

And in a number of studies that my colleagues and I and others have done, we found that the simple act, for instance, of just asking students to reflect on, what is core to you? What are your most important values? What would you stand up for? What would you die for? What is really dear to your heart? Giving students the opportunity to write about their core values in the classroom has been found, under some circumstances, to have these wide-ranging benefits, closing achievement gaps in GPA, even after just a few sessions of doing these kinds of activities, improving health and well-being, leading to greater retention throughout high school and college. And this has been replicated in several studies. 

It doesn’t happen all the time, but in schools and classrooms where there are resources and pathways to success, if I now feel like this is a place where my whole self is accepted, I’m more likely to seize those opportunities. So these are just examples of many of little things we can all do to make the situations a lot better. 

This comment helped nudge me to plan the activities with which I began each class this week.

Defining the Good Society

On Monday, before starting our exploration of the Industrial Revolution, I asked students to form small groups and get something to write on. I displayed a question—”What makes a good society?”—and a set of possible answers that I had generated haphazardly that morning. The list looked like this:

  • Peace
  • Consumer goods
  • Spirituality
  • Closeness to nature
  • Longevity
  • Individual expression
  • Physical health
  • Equality
  • Shared identity
  • Shared purpose
  • Education
  • Friendliness
  • Power
  • Fulfilling work
  • Pleasure
  • Family ties
  • Traditions
  • Justice

I encouraged students to add their own answers to the list, too, as they discussed the options. But I asked them to decide, in each group, what their top four or five values would be—and then to rank them in order of importance.

After a few minutes—that first part of the exercise took less time than I suspected it might, even with pretty animated discussion—we compared answers, focusing on the top value each group had picked.

What emerged from the general class discussion was the way students’ values are interconnected. Most groups had picked their top value because they believed it made all the other values possible, because the others would be ineffective without it, or—when they chose something like equality—because without it, the other values would be available only to the few.

I asked basic prodding questions like “What made this exercise so difficult?” Then, once everyone had been able to speak at length, I followed up with a global observation: “Most of you seem to be suggesting that it’s impossible to separate out a single key to the good society because they all make each other work. Your most cherished values probably need to be in place at the same time.

“What that means, it seems to me, is that it may be easier to break a society than to repair it. It’s easy to destroy one or two things like make everything else work; it’s hard to establish all the conditions for your ideal way of life. This may help explain the difficulties we saw last week, when many revolutions faced dangerous infighting or ended up disappointing some of the revolutionaries in their old age.”

If the conversation had gone differently, I might have made a different concluding observation. In any case, the exercise proved to have a direct bearing, just as I had hoped, on the way we should analyze early modern revolutions. More importantly, it got students talking with each other about what they consider important.

The Veil of Ignorance and the Industrial Revolution

The next time we met, I began class with a discussion activity designed to build on the first one.

A bit more background: Several times this semester, I’ve started class with a light dusting of theory, previewing a concept that students would be more likely to encounter in a more advanced humanities course. One day, for example, I very briefly introduced Edward Said’s work, talking about the deep way Orientalism may have shaped Americans’ habits of thinking about eastern societies, before starting that day’s examination of the Qing Dynasty and the Ottoman Empire. Students seem to be enjoying this approach, and it seems to be promoting more thoughtful analysis of various topics in our curriculum.

This time, I started class by quickly explaining who John Rawls was and sketching out the Veil of Ignorance thought experiment. Then I asked students—considering the question individually this time—to imagine they were transported into the world just as the Industrial Revolution was beginning in Britain.

“You don’t know what your class, gender, race, age, or belief system will be,” I reminded them—”and you don’t know where in the world you’ll end up, either. Under these circumstances, across the veil of ignorance, do you want to be reborn in the world of the early Industrial Revolution? … And does the Industrial Revolution bring you closer to living in the good society you described last time?”

In each class, several students had strong opinions about this. They weren’t all in agreement, either. They talked about various factors we had examined so far, about prior knowledge they already had before taking our course, and also about various vantage points—e.g., whether they thought the Industrial Revolution would be a good thing for them in the short run or toward the end of their life (or their descendants’ lives).

Overall, I thought, the discussion very effectively called into question the concept of industrial and social “progress”—not by turning students against the Industrial Revolution, which definitely wasn’t my goal, but by asking them to clarify in their own minds what “progress” means to them, and how inclusive their concept is.

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