By Stephanie Jass, Special Contributor…
ADRIAN, Mich.—On a cold winter’s day at United Methodist-affiliated Adrian College, Charles Dickens hosted a literary forum to discuss Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass with such historical luminaries as Edgar Allan Poe, Sojourner Truth, John Jacob Astor, William Lloyd Garrison and John Quincy Adams.
But not everyone in the room was so well known: There was also a lady’s maid, a small-town farmer, a southern minister and a runaway slave. They were all there to talk about issues surrounding slavery and abolition, personhood and freedom, constitutional law and “higher law.”
This scene, while unusual to an outsider, is commonplace in the world of “Reacting to the Past,” workshops in which students take on the roles of historical personas, wrestling with important historical issues. The teaching method, developed in the 1990s, is being used in Adrian College’s revamped freshman skills courses. Every first-year student will progress through two semesters of this core curriculum.
Faculty and students from a number of colleges in the area came together Jan. 25-26 to play a new Reacting game, “Frederick Douglass, Slavery, Abolition and the Constitution,” authored by Eastern Michigan University history professor Mark Higbee and James Brewer Stewart, professor of history emeritus at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.
Dr. Higbee led the game, set in 1845 in New York City. The game starts with Dickens’ literary forum, where players discuss the truth and value of abolitionist Douglass’ autobiography. Then the scene shifts to Delmonico’s restaurant, where participants assigned to defend slavery hold a banquet in honor of Sen. John Calhoun, a slavery apologist. The game ends at the Broadway Tabernacle, where abolitionists lead a debate on the morality of slavery.
Learning to debate
Between the game sessions at Adrian College, participants heard from students who have played Reacting games in class and discussed the method with other faculty.
Lee Schriber, a junior History and Political Science major at Adrian, took a Reacting class last year and is now serving as a student instructor. Mr. Schriber said the games helped him develop thinking and speaking skills and challenged him to work harder to achieve his goals as a character. Clint Spotts, an Adrian student was playing Sen. Calhoun, shared that the game exposed him to diverse points of view, and he felt it was beneficial to understand a mind-set very different from his own.
But it’s about more than just role playing. Reacting to the Past requires students to engage in healthy, often fierce, debate. The games provide a dynamic setting in which students can discuss serious issues. And after students have assumed personas different from their own, they often feel safer making controversial arguments with classmates.
In the Frederick Douglass game, students confront the depth of racism that was present throughout American society in 1845, not only in the South but also in the North. They discuss issues of human rights and morality that are still hotly debated today: Is a Christian morally obligated to obey unjust laws? Is the Constitution an immoral document? Who deserves which rights? In this way, Reacting is not just about the past. It’s easy to assume that past generations were less enlightened than we are, but the games encourage students to see that in many ways, we still have the same arguments about societal problems that our forebears had.
Educators at Adrian College were particularly interested in the Frederick Douglass game because the school was founded in 1859 by staunch antislavery advocates. The college’s first president, Asa Mahan, had a national reputation as a radical abolitionist and supporter of equal opportunity education. In the 1830s, Mahan had allied with antislavery students at Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, and led an exodus with them from Lane to found Oberlin College. Mahan left Oberlin in 1850 to pursue parish ministry, eventually ending up as Adrian’s president.
The game featured Asa Mahan as a character, and gave Adrian College a chance to bring forward its own early history. Only a few months after abolitionist John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, the most popular student group on campus endorsed his actions as consistent “with what Christian duty required of him,” and an early faculty member, the Rev. Luther Lee, provided an oration at Brown’s gravesite. Students today can hardly imagine how controversial those actions were, but by playing the game they begin to understand and appreciate the courage of their predecessors.
However, the Rev. Christopher Momany, Adrian College chaplain and part-time professor of philosophy and religion, hopes the game does more than help students understand the past. He’s encouraging them to use this fresh knowledge to change the present.
Dr. Momany, also an Adrian alumnus, has long appreciated the college’s abolitionist history and has called for a modern abolitionist movement to end human trafficking. “We thought we had the matter settled in 1865. But today there are as many as 27 million people held in bondage throughout the world,” he said. “We’ve been in the anti-trafficking ministry for almost 154 years, and it’s past time to end such abuse.”
Dr. Jass is associate professor of history at Adrian College.