Last Thursday in European History Since 1648 at UNLV we tackled the French Revolution. If you’re thinking that zipping through arguably one of the most important events of the last four hundred years—an event many historians use to mark the beginning of “modern” history—in just over an hour sounds absurd, you’re correct!
And to add to the absurdity, the first part of class was spent on an exercise getting students to think about how to combine primary and secondary sources with an aim to asking good historical questions of an appropriate scale for a research project they might do for a class like ours. Each of six groups of students was given a different source, along with the “master list” of all six sources. They had to determine whether their source was “primary” or “secondary”, what its “takeaway” was, how it fit with the other six sources, what research questions they could ask based on this grouping of sources, and what kind of additional information or source material they would need to be successful in their research.
We reconvened as a class and discussed their ideas. Only time will tell if it was worth sacrificing some of the little time we had to deal with the French Revolution, but I enjoyed hearing students thoughts develop as they scrutinized the sources.
Being even more pressed for time than before, we talked our way through the French Revolution in lieu of lecture, using the five short texts the students had read. These allowed us to discuss the organization of French society and politics before the Revolution, identify key grievances of revolutionaries, discuss the rhetoric those revolutionaries deployed as they took power (and compare and contrast it to the language of the U.S. constitution), and discuss the limitations of the Revolution.
Students seemed most interested in material from Olympe de Gouges, a feminist critic of a “Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen” which left women out; and Maximilien Robespierre, whose discussion of “terror” and “virtue” marked a turning point of the Revolution. This sparked an interesting discussion about the balance between “liberty” and “order” which was just getting going when the clock called time on class.
Hopefully we’ll be able to return to the discussion in the coming days and weeks.