Trying To Teach Empathy 2

Hello friends,

Teaching went great!  Let me give you a recap of how the class went.

I introduced my students to the ideas of “robber baron” and “captains of industry” and I asked an essential question of whether Carnegie and Rockefeller were people Americans wanted to aspire to be like, or if they were like a “necessary evil” (best term I could think of) that was needed to jumpstart American industry.

My co and I did some background knowledge on both figures, and after we went over each one, we would ask the class if they thought the students were robber barons or captains of industry.  We got great responses.  One student gave this interesting argument about how ruthless Rockefeller was and classified him as a robber baron.  Another student immediately shot back and argued that Rockefeller just did what anybody else would do in that time, and this led to a good debate that ended whenever one student (who I hope can consistently give these great answers) stated that Rockefeller was a “both and.”  The student stated that Rockefeller showed qualities of both a robber baron and a captain of industry, and that it is hard for us to understand everything from our current lens (seriously, I was blown away by this answer).

The students were very sympathetic to Carnegie.  They thought the fact that he gave money away was a clear sign that he wasn’t a robber baron.  Then my co asked “If he [Carnegie] didn’t donate money would you still consider him a captain of industry?” and immediately half the class said “no”.  Then when we asked somebody who said they still thought Carnegie was a captain of industry to explain, they said because Carnegie was still going through capitalism and business how anybody else would to turn a profit, and donating money doesn’t always make you a great person (as our class saw from an Ida B. Tarbell quote in their textbook).

Then my co started talking about the American Dream in that time.  We asked students how Carnegie and Rockefeller might have fulfilled this idea of the American Dream (going from nothing to gaining a lot of power) and the students talked about how Rockefeller was the son of a peddler and Carnegie was a poor, Scottish immigrant.  Then we addressed that essential question from the beginning of class.

I think this is when I had my first teaching moment.  A student I called on said that he “couldn’t care less, because money doesn’t get you happiness.”  I then engaged with the student on this.  I asked the class to put themselves not in the 2013 mindset of money, and rather to look back to the early 20th century, and asked what money delivered.  One student said “Food for your family.”  A great answer, and I applauded the student, and said money may not buy happiness, but it did make sure your family could eat, and so many people wanted the wealth of Carnegie and Rockefeller (greed is one of those contingent things in history).  I think the student that asked the question understood the point, and then gave a great answer saying that he “would want the wealth, but not have to do the dirty work to get it.”  I thought coming from a high school student he gave a solid answer.

At the end, I summed up how Rockefeller and Carnegie were people who many Americans wanted to aspire to be like, successful, wealthy, powerful.  However, they could also be absolutely ruthless and cut-throat which led to them being kind of like a “necessary evil.”  Then I kind of had my own historical rant (Messiah students may know it is a Fea-ism) where I talked about how history is not just a simple memorization of facts, but that there is a debate behind how people are perceived, and that is what makes history so much fun.

Then the students were sent on a mini-research project, where they had to research an inventor or industrialist from multiple different sources, and write a paragraph “auto”biography that had to be written, obviously, in first person.  What they wrote down had to be something that their figure would have said, so rather than one group referring to someone as a robber baron, I asked them to think about how their industrialist would have phrased that term in order to sound more positive.  They got it, and gave one of the best presentations of all the classes.

Some students after class approached my co and I and told us how much fun the lesson was.   We were so glad to get engaged with them in the discipline of history, and I cannot wait to get to teach them all again.

This was my hope.  History is fun.  History is challenging.  History teaches us how to dive into the shoes of others and try to see how these people lived their lives.  Hopefully they will understand, and engage in the idea of historical empathy in the future.



Christian, Lover of History, Aspiring Teacher

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Posted in Teaching History

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