The Swerve in the Classroom

I haven’t taught World History in about 10 years, and I miss it. Although there are times when I go back in the midst of teaching Multicultural Studies to the histories of different parts of the world, it just isn’t the same. There’s something about teaching the stories of hundreds of years ago in distant lands that almost makes me think I am dusting off some scroll somewhere.

That’s exactly what happened to Poggio Bracciolini in 1417.

He is the subject of a book I just finished reading called, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt. It’s the story of a papal secretary who, after having his boss jailed, takes his time scouring Europe’s hidden monasteries trying to find, copy and share the writings of the ancient world. He belonged to a group of thinkers called Humanists, who all shared the same goals. Well, in 1417, Poggio stumbled across a scroll written ages ago by Titus Lucretius Carus, a Roman philosopher. It was called, On the Nature of Things – and surprisingly, the author of this book (The Swerve) came across Lucretius’s work in almost the same way, in a used book bin one day.

Greenblatt’s thesis is that the poem, On the Nature of Things, helped catalyze the changes going on in Europe during this period by challenging basic ‘truths’ that were violently enforced by Church dogma. Once other thinkers also read this poem, they were forced to look at the world in a different way as well. This meme would shape the Renaissance. So…

What does this have to do with the classroom?

In my time teaching, I’ve often wondered what creates that spark. What memes cross from me (or our research, lessons, activities, projects, debates, etc.) to my students? What ideas have the longest lasting power? Which ones stimulate the deepest pondering? What stories connect personally to students? Where is the swerve?

The title of the book was chosen to represent a central theme by Lucretius in his poem. He points out that the universe is made of invisible particles that do not move in a predetermined order. The smallest variations, combined and recombined infinitely, create what we know as free will. This swerve accounts for all awareness and wonder.

So, in the history class, is it justice? Does that idea move through students to focus awareness and wonder? Is it identity that personalizes the events and issues in history through the eyes of different, unique individuals? Is it the concept of time, binding cause and effect in a seemingly endless cycle?

Well, I’ve got some questioning to do. The wonder has begun…

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