Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Reacting to the Past

I've just returned from Barnard College in New York, where I attended the tenth annual summer institute of the Reacting to the Past series.  If you're a college or university instructor, you should know about RTTP; they're elaborate role-playing games set during pivotal moments in the past.  For example, there's one based on the French Revolution, in which students play Louis XVI, Lafayette, Danton, Robespierre, etc.  At the institute I participated in two new games--one set during the Constitutional Convention (I played Roger Sherman of Connecticut and yes, I did prevent the Convention's collapse by suggesting a compromise that satisfied both the large and small states) and another set in Kentucky during the secession crisis of 1861 (in which I played Maj. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, Inspector General of the Kentucky State Guard).

Of course, role-playing simulations have been used in education for years, but in my opinion most are not serious enough for use in college-level classrooms.  Reacting to the Past games are different in that they are tied directly to important texts.  In the French Revolution game students must become thoroughly acquainted with the work of Rousseau and Burke.  For the Constitutional Convention they must read Montesquieu, Hume, Paine, etc.  Those playing the Kentucky game had better be familiar with the Lincoln-Douglas debates, as well as the work of Frederick Douglass, Andrew Jackson, and John Calhoun.  Students must give speeches and write papers, in character, drawing on the texts.  But because these are games, the participants are highly motivated.  Each character has specific objectives that he or she must try to achieve; for example, in the Constitutional Convention game Roger Sherman prefers a confederal plan, and scores points for achieving it, but if the Convention falls apart Sherman earns points for proposing a compromise solution.  Working for a class grade is one thing; working to WIN is another.

A complete list of the available games may be found here.  Some have already been published by Pearson. Others are still being playtested, but may be downloaded if you'd like to give any of them a try in your classes.  Many more are at one stage or another of development--I am, in fact, working on two, one set in Japan during 1940-41, and another set during the Frankfurt Parliament of 1848-49. 

One further note: because these games are set in the past, there may be a temptation to regard them as only suitable for history courses.  This is not the case.  The subject matter crosses many disciplinary lines, encompassing (depending on the game) political theory, philosophy, religion, and even the sciences.  Since they are writing-intensive, they could be used in composition courses, and because they require public speaking they might be used for speech communication courses.  Having used a number of them myself, I can attest to their effectiveness in keeping students engaged. 

Categories > Education

Discussions - 4 Comments

Oooh . . . I want to play! You'd think some entrepreneur somewhere would pick up on these and realize that there are just enough "nerds" in this world who would enjoy (and would likely PAY) for the pleasure of spending a weekend in this way. Just sayin' . . .

I think the Ashbrook Center should sponsor a weekend like that.

Why just a weekend? Why not take the idea on the road to colleges as a summer semester or between semester small-credit event. There are programs that immerse students in cultures overseas. Why not offer a program to "immerse" students in an historical period through role-playing? This would be especially fun on site, like Independence Hall, but lacking the funds for travel, with imagination anywhere would do.

That's actually already happening, Kate. There were some representatives from the National Constitution Center at the conference, and they're going to be organizing a Constitutional Convention game at Independence Hall. There's also been a French Revolution game in Paris and a Second Crusade game played in Israel. There are probably others of which I'm unaware. But I'm sure these things are not being publicized as much as they should be.

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