Academic Skills, history, Pedagogy, teaching

Discovering new “Sacrificial Lambs”: Challenging Preconceptions about “Why” we Study History

It’s been an exciting and rewarding first week of school thus far (and it’s only 60% over, so perhaps I should look forward to even bigger and better things, or not draw hasty conclusions…we’ll see). The reasons for the positivity are various:

  • I’ve been really pleased with the enthusiasm, level of engagement, and wide range of participation I’ve seen from my students.
  • I’m excited to be teaching U.S. History to Juniors for the first time.
  • Tomorrow (Thursday, August 26) I’ll have a guest post appearing on ProfHacker. The post is a revised (read: pared down to reduce its soporific-quotient) version of my earlier post about using a “Sacrificial Lamb” as a pedagogical technique.

Given that the final item in my list above deals with the issue of “sacrificial lambs,” I thought I’d write a follow-up about this technique detailing its usage in my introductory classes this first week. I’m coming to realize that the idea of what I’m calling a “sacrificial lamb” is really something that’s present in and essential for engaged, constructive learning. In part, this realization has been brought about by my heavy reading of Alfie Kohn‘s work over the past few weeks — presently I’m entering the home-stretch of the really excellent The Schools Our Children Deserve.

In TSOCD Kohn describes one of the essential ingredients for meaningful, active learning:

“the source of intellectual growth is conflict: conflict between an old belief and a new experience, conflict between two beliefs that prove to be mutually exclusive, or conflict between your belief and mine. We make sense of things and them remake sense of things, and we do it from infancy to death” (133).

The Dialectical Process - image courtesy of

(Aside: Now after having re-read that passage and having typed it up, I realize that Kohn’s effectively describing the dialectical process.)

It seems to me that the idea of a “sacrificial lamb” is something that very much fits within this concept of “conflict” that Kohn describes. In essence, using a “sacrificial lamb” pedagogically centers around creating intellectual conflict and dissonance, where the students are forced to grapple with previously held conceptions and ideas and challenge those through exposure to contradictory concepts or frameworks. It was this idea that I attempted to lay out and describe in my previous post about using the World’s Smallest Political Quiz as a” sacrificial lamb,” and it’s hopefully what I’ll be able to do again in this post.

The particular “sacrificial lamb” I’ve dealt with in class the past few days is far less concrete than the World’s Smallest Political quiz, but instead has to do with students’ common conception of history. Although this “sacrificial lamb” is ultimately based on an abstract idea, the origin of the concept does have its root in one particular individual: George Santayana.

TIME Magazine sketch of George Santayana, 1936 - image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Now, in all fairness to Santayana, I must admit that I’ve never read any of his works in depth, and while I don’t think any of my students have either, I’m nevertheless amazed at how he’s been able to permeate their collective attitudes toward history so effectively and thoroughly. If you haven’t yet guessed, the particular tidbit from Santayana that seems to have so much mysterious popularity is the following oft-quoted statement:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– Life of Reason, Reason in Common Sense, Scribner’s, 1905, p. 284

So, how do I get from introductory discussions about World and U.S. History to students quoting an early 20th century philosopher? Easy — I ask them to explain “what is the purpose of studying history?”

As you can gather from the previous paragraphs, students almost always respond with some variation of Santayana’s quotation. Sometimes these paraphrases will differ and discuss how it’s important to learn from the mistakes and successes of the past so that we’ll avoid the failures and be able to improve on the successes. Sometimes students explain how it’s important to understand the past so that we’ll have a reference point to draw on so that we can see how far we’ve come. In all cases, the reason for studying history has to do with identifying progress, advancement, sophistication, or improvement.

Something about these responses that include a version of Santayana’s quote has always made me uneasy — it’s too easy of a reply; the unanimity that students show in this response never reflect their true diversity of opinions, backgrounds, and attitudes; it encourages an uncritically rosy view of the present. So, rather than just stew in my own existential angst about these issues, I decided to spend some time figuring out how to plumb the depths of these assumptions and hopefully get students to question, or at least recognize, their own assumptions. In short, I decided to take on Santayana’s quote as a “sacrificial lamb.”

My first step in getting at the underlying assumptions students have in expressing this Santayana-esque view is to ask them to assume that it is true that we study history because it helps us improve from the past. Given this assumption, I then ask them to illustrate graphically what this vision of history would look like. This question, for those who caught my earlier post, jives perfectly with my desire to get students engaged in “information reorganization” as often as possible.

Almost always, the graphs come back looking something like this:

It is interesting to see the common, upward-slope to all these graphs. While some students create lines that suggest moments of regression, usually associated with wars or other crises, the general trend-line is nevertheless positive. I then push the students to consider some of the implications of this graph — what does it suggest about our present status in relationship to those who lived in the past? Where precisely do we fall on the graph? Students are quick to recognize that this graph, and by extension, this view of history, suggests that we, at this very moment (!), are existing at the pinnacle of human history.

I then ask them to consider whether or not they actually believe this is true. Is this moment right now really the best humanity has ever been? This question, unsurprisingly, generates a fair amount of productive disagreement amongst the students. What we quickly discover upon examining the root causes of this disagreement is that those who do think we’re existing at a pinnacle are not only viewing human history and progress through the lens of “technology” or “medical advances,” but are also looking at it from the perspective of an individual in a country with vast resources and high quality of living.

Pushing them to then reconsider the slope of this line, I ask if there’s a different lens we could use to examine human history that would provide an alternative, perhaps bleaker, picture of the “progress” we’ve made. Typically students respond that by looking at something like “the environment,” “ecological health,” or even “human happiness” (which they are also quick to recognize is impossible to measure) this positive trajectory is likely going to be inverted, or at least hold constant.

As a quick aside, I also think it’s important to point out that this view isn’t something that is unique to students, but is rather an idea that has a lot of pull in popular culture. Just take a look at this progressive teleological graph of history!

Botox® History Graph

Botox® History Graph - image courtesy of

(Really?!? The FDA’s approval of Botox® for treating muscle stiffness constitutes the ultimate achievement of humanity? Okay, back to the class.)

I then conclude this conversation by asking whether any students have revised their ideas about why we study history. Some seem to abandon their Santayana/Rose-colored lenses quickly, while others still find this reason for studying history and its concomitant vision of human history appealing, which I understand, because frankly, it is (who doesn’t like to believe that we’re getting better and that the future holds only good things? Well, I suppose nihilists don’t like this idea, but other than them, who?). In any event, I’ve helped introduce them to some important ideas about history, subjectivity, and the importance of perspective — both in the sources we read and in ourselves.

My goal in initiating these philosophical discussions about history early on is to help establish the importance of inquiry in my classroom, and my emphasis on identifying and closely analyzing the underlying assumptions behind the arguments put forth in the wide range of texts that we’ll encounter this year. Moreover, I also hope that having these discussions in which I question students’ assumptions and definitions forces them to improve their ability to articulate and defend their stances, and also communicates that I’m not in the business of telling them what to think so that they can memorize it and spit it back to me on a test.

While I don’t think dissecting this idea about history constitutes as clear-cut a use of the “sacrificial lamb” idea as the World’s Smallest Political Quiz, I nevertheless think that the intellectual processes at work are fundamentally the same.


7 thoughts on “Discovering new “Sacrificial Lambs”: Challenging Preconceptions about “Why” we Study History

  1. Western Dave says:

    At some point, when my students are thoroughly confused about what it is that we are trying to do as historians, I bust this out. “Look, there are three basic ways of narrating history: one, the world is getting better and better – we call this progressive history; two, the world is going to hell in a hand basket – we call this a declension narrative; and three, the more things change, the more they stay the same – we call this the shrug narrative. Our job is to avoid all three of these.

    • Nate says:

      Thanks for your kinds words and for the resource to accompany Brinkley’s textbook. Now that you mention it, I do remember that Today’s Meet chat where Shelly was AWOL…I found those chats pretty helpful; I wonder if he’s got any plans to bring them back?

      I actually didn’t know about that website, and, quite frankly, am surprised to find so useful a resource attached to a textbook website. Currently, I’m in resource collection/acquisition mode for my U.S. History course, so knowing about those readings is definitely helpful.

      FYI, I’m keeping a collection of resources that I’m finding and using for my U.S. History course (and related to other things) on Diigo. Here are the links to U.S. History resources I’ve found thus far:

  2. Pingback: A cursory reemergence to critique the research skills of sports journalists « The History Channel This Is Not…

  3. Pingback: Santayana Redux | The History Channel This Is Not…

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