I love how Socrates always ends his dialogues unanswered. The end seems to be a multifacted mystery rather than a three-point outline. Similarly, throughout the gospels, Jesus tells parables that confound and confuse his audience. It seems counterintuitive that two of the greatest teachers of all times were both difficult to understand. As a teacher, I learned the art of checking for understanding and simplyifying concept for the social context of my students.
Before teaching the Great War, I attempt this concept of deliberate confusion. I tell a parable. It’s quick, but it captures the students’ attention: A man meets a person who claims to be a genie. When given his first wish, he feels benign, so he asks for world peace. The genie (who some believe worked for the Pentagon) orders the launching of a nuclear weapon on Moscow. Within minutes, the entire world is obliterated.
I tell the students to write a reflection. Most students describe how we have to be careful what we wish for. Not exactly the point. Others suggest it’s a demonstration on why humanity is messed up and will never accomplish the goal of world peace. Yet, as we begin the dialogue, we start talking about the paradox of whether it takes violence to cause peace, about whether destruction can lead to creation, about whether world peace is attainable. Students link it to the Progressives and this sparks a dialogue about the chain reaction of the alliance system and the beginning of World War I. It’s a difficult discussion and many students leave frustrated that I failed to tell them the “right answer.”
The dialogue was unpredictable – often meandering from pop references to philosophical musings. Yet, as students described World War I, the death of Progress and the birth of modernism, almost every student used the little parable as an analogy. I doubt that they would have learned the causes of World War I if I had simply presented a bulleted outline and offered a depiction of events in chronological order.
It makes me wonder if maybe I should be more confusing. Perhaps I simplify things too often to make things more memorable when the most memorable lessons are those that do not come easy.