In the Classroom: Spotlight on History

February 01, 2012

Dan Raffety is a historian through and through. He tends to take the long view. He majored in history as an undergraduate at Connecticut College. At Olney, he enjoys teaching history through the Humanities program, which makes ample use of primary sources.

Teaching ancient history and literature – “from the cavemen through Rome” – to 11th graders this year, he notes the relevance of including such texts as The Iliad and The Odyssey. “Even though they’re more literature than history, they still show you what the people of the time believed, and the stories they knew about their past,” he says. Raffety supplements the regular course material with brief history lectures, side readings, and documentaries.

In their junior year, students at Olney write a research paper of 8-10 pages in length on a topic of the student’s choosing. This is preparation for the longer graduation essay of 15-20 pages the following year. This year, juniors with a bent for history have selected topics ranging from the history of the Moors in medieval times, to the interwoven histories of theater and religion, to a history of the Roma people (gypsies).

 What challenges has Raffety faced this year? “Especially in teaching ancient history, I’m learning how much I don’t know. When I set out to research a lecture, I find a world of information I’d either forgotten or I didn’t know existed. If I lean toward the topics I’m excited about, that usually excites the students, too,” he says.

Striking a balance between breadth of coverage and depth is also a challenge, he notes. Part of the depth comes in focusing on a few key persons in an era. “Often, it’s the ones we’re most familiar with: Julius Caesar, for example, or Pericles.” One effect of learning history, he notes, is the debunking of modern-day myths and stereotypes about previous eras as popularized in movies and TV shows.

The full range of ancient peoples to be studied this year? These include the Mesopotamians, the Persian Empire, the Zoroastrians, ancient Egypt, some African civilizations (including Nubia and Ethiopia), the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Celts.

At Raffety’s suggestion, I spoke with half a dozen Olney students who are avid historians. You Li ’12 of Shenzhen, Guandong, China enjoys Chinese history before the 17th century. Why that time period? “Afterward, the Chinese people were conquered by the Manchurians. I’m not interested anymore.” He is, however, interested, in “close modern history,” by which he means from the late 19th century to the present. What especially draws him? “All the revolutions. The founding of the Republic of China,” he says.

Catherine Arjet ’13 of Austin, Texas is fascinated by “the incredible bursting forth of life” in the European Renaissance. On a somewhat related theme, for her junior research paper, she is writing about the history of theater and its ties to religion. Asked to name one interesting thing she’s learned so far, she replies, “There are so many. When the Church outlawed non-religious plays, communities of performers sprang up who might not have otherwise formed. That’s how commedia dell’arte began,” she says, referring to a performance featuring masked types representing stock characters.

What kind of history does Maria Jones ’15 of Connecticut (by way of Guatemala) enjoy? “I like American history, including the history of the US colonies. I also like medieval and Renaissance history – especially the transition from one into the other.”

In addition, she enjoys Olney history. “That’s what I love about this school – all the history behind it. The families – the Tabers, the Guindons, the Rockwells. The alumni wall interests me so much! I can’t wait till kids will come along and look at me on that wall.”

Why does Sohrab Amiri ’12 of Germany – by way of Iran and Kurdistan – study history? “I’m very interested in how people use knowledge to scare people,” he says. “I’m personally very interested in the history of what has happened in a place, not just in the history of one people: for example, what has happened on the Iranian plateau?

“I’m also very interested in one certain religion, Zoroastrianism, and the influence it has had on Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. I’m interested in the history of how major events have affected us. I’m interested in innovations – for example, the discovery of gunpowder in China. Also, I love the Italian Renaissance, especially the architecture. Italy was like the New York City of Europe,” he says.

How about Daniel Washburn ’13 of Greensboro, North Carolina? What kind of history does he love? “I’m interested in the grand narrative of things: the vast stretch of history.” How did he decide to focus on the Roma people for his junior research paper? “They’re an interesting group of people with a unique culture. They migrated from northern India to Europe, where they were mistreated for centuries while maintaining their own distinct culture and managing to get along,” he says.

Reflecting on the pairing of history and literature in Olney’s humanities program, some of the students miss delving into a full class block of history daily, as they did at their previous schools. Instead, they delve into a double-block of interwoven history and literature each day.

But Amiri notes with appreciation the pairings of historical and literary texts the format makes possible: “This year, [humanities teacher] Promise Partner is doing a very good job of balancing history and literature. As we were learning about World Wars I and II, we were reading All Quiet on the Western Front and a Holocaust memoir, Night. I would not split it. Those were just right,” he says.


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