Hysteria and Martyrs

I didn’t care what my students thought. Their opinions were no business of mine. That they knew how to express those ideas, using factual information, was my business.

To introduce point of view, and critical thinking a quick textbook analysis did the trick. In groups (I assigned) students researched various history texts to spot biases in the presentation of historic facts. 

Over the years, a collection of comped survey books had accumulated on my classroom shelf. I used them for my own preparation, but decided to teach the same techniques to the kids. The task was pretty simple. All groups were asked to look up the two same topics: The Salem Witch Trials of 1692, and John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859. They noted the title of the text, the authors, the publication date, and any particular word choices used to explain or describe each episode.

This was the first day of school, mind you, and holy cow the results rocked these 15-year-olds orderly world.

When each group reported their conclusions, skewed viewpoints abounded. In other words the same facts drew decidedly different conclusions.

One book blamed the Witch Trials on tensions stemming from continuous Native attacks. Another blamed simmering resentment over social class, inheritance disputes, and property ownership. Moldy grain was to blame according to the Prentice Hall book. The good people living north of Boston were tripping on ergot fungus, a hallucinogen spreading on damp wheat baked into bread.

Nearly all texts made use of the terms “fear,” and “hysteria.”

The John Brown case provided even more interesting results. If the book had been published before 2001, Brown generally came off a saint. If after, the language use grew more sinister. In pre-911 America, fighting slavery had a righteous, noble language, that justified the violence. Something to the effect that, in the name of the mighty Jehovah, Brown martyred himself to strike a blow against evil. By contrast, books published after the collapse of the Twin Towers dismiss Brown’s means as unfortunate, though slavery was still bad.

By the end of this exercise students often seemed flummoxed asking “who can we believe?” 

“Yourself, of course, and your analysis skills,” I always replied.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle.

For more explanation on this lesson email at gailchumbley@gmail.com

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