Fall Course Previews: Modern Europe

Today Chris Gehrz continues our preview of some Fall 2012 History courses, discussing his upper-level survey of modern European history.

Course

HIS354 Modern Europe

What are some of the big themes of this course?

There are some classic themes that you would find in almost any modern European history survey (industrialization, urbanization, and migration; the development of ideologies like liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, socialism, anarchism, and fascism; changing ideas of gender and class; imperialism and decolonization; “total war” and genocide), but I tend to see Europe since 1750 as one particular context in which to ask some much bigger questions central to any field of history: How do historians understand a past that they never experienced? How do they cultivate empathy for people who are both very different from and very similar to them? Where is there continuity and discontinuity in history? (e.g., just how revolutionary were the French Revolution or the British Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions?) How do individuals, groups, societies, nations, etc. remember their pasts, and what role do historians play in that process?

How many years have you taught the course?

This is going to be my tenth year at Bethel, and I’ve taught Modern Europe every one of those years.

What do you most enjoy about teaching it?

I say often that I enjoy art forms in which artists have to work within boundaries (e.g., twelve-bar blues, a three-act sitcom, a fourteen-line sonnet), since those seemingly stifling limits actually foster creativity. In the same way, I like that I teach the same course with the same historical beats over and over — it encourages me to innovate within those confines. In particular, because Modern Europe is so clearly within my fields of expertise and interest, I enjoy treating it as a pedagogical laboratory: the material is so familiar that I feel comfortable getting at it using new, untried teaching methods.

Talk about one or two changes to the course you’re planning for this fall.

The first is actually going back to something I once did, which is starting out by having students read selections from Robert Darnton’s famous cultural history of France, The Great Cat Massacre. It introduces the challenge of trying to imaginatively understand people who would, say, massacre cats, or tell stories about wolves eating grandmothers. And, early on, it teaches students that there’s a vast gulf separating two cultures that seem obviously “Western”: 18th century France and 21st century America.

Second, I’d like to do more with Modern Europe to help our majors think about history as a vocation: why has God given them an interest in (even, passion for) the past? How do they follow that calling as they cease to be undergraduate students with the leisure of taking a dozen courses on history? In particular, I want them to think about how they will encounter history in the future: as writers of history books, or readers of them; as teachers of social studies classes, or parents of students in them; as curators of museums, or visitors to them; as makers of historical films, or viewers of them. So, for example, students will be able to choose from two or three separate versions of the final project: all will require them to frame a question, locate and analyze sources that will help them answer it, and then present their findings in written and non-written formats; but within those confines, they can choose between different vocational emphases (some doing a more traditional research paper and presentation; others developing a proposal for a new work of public history; and still others designing a teaching exercise for an AP European History course).

What do students seem to enjoy most about it? What do they find challenging?

Well, above all, the songs. (I’ve had a long tradition of making everyone sing “La Marseillaise” once or twice; I’ve since expanded the national anthems component somewhat.) And I think my occasional use of roleplaying exercises tends to be a nice change of pace. Some are a bit goofier than others: I highly encourage stuffy British accents when we explore pivotal moments in British history using the “Prime Minister’s Questions” format. But one such exercise I’ve used pretty much since the beginning is fairly sobering, and I think it’s the one day of the course that’s most stuck with the greatest number of students: the mock trial of three of Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, German reserve military policemen who participated in the Holocaust — for no obvious reason, since few of them were Nazis or SS members. It’s particularly challenging for the three students who play the roles of defense attorneys, but for the “prosecutors” and “jurors,” too, they have to wrestle with the question of whether we in the present day are able to balance an objective study of the past with an innate desire to render moral judgments on it.

If students take away only one thing from the course, what would you like it to be?

The Holocaust is such a significant moment in world history that I tend to slow down the narrative and dwell on it: Why did it happen? Was there something unique about German culture in that era, or does the Shoah suggest some deeper, more universal problems with humanity? Is there justice for such a crime? How do we remember it? And, of course, the problem of evil: why would a good, just, all-powerful God permit such unimaginable suffering and death?

For me, however, and for at least some students, it’s also the moment in the course when we are most likely to turn to Jesus Christ: by the knowledge that he knows suffering and grief but also provides a remedy for it; through the witness of that wide variety of European Christians who risked their lives to save others; with the realization that far more Christians failed to do so or even participated in the killing, that we’re probably more like them than the heroes, and that, apart from God’s grace, our striving would be losing; and in the hope that a resurrected Lord has triumphed over death itself.

Over the past decade, I’ve come to realize this: it’s not in the syllabus and it has nothing to do with students’ grades, but my highest objective for this or any course is that students will encounter Jesus Christ in it, answer his invitation to “follow me,” and receive the abundant life he promises.

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