Curriculum E-Learning Historical Thinking

Reflections on Decolonizing Revolutions and Enlightenment in World History

A recent activity in my AP World History classes brought together the original and the current foci of this blog: online pedagogy and decolonizing history curricula. Students in my classes (54 kids), another class in my building (16) and two classes at another school in my district (47) discussed revolutions and the Enlightenment in small groups (7-8 students) using Moodle. My two colleagues and I organized the discussion as I outlined on the Lessons and Resources page for decolonizing the Age of Revolutions.

On January 2nd AP World History got back to work by reading DuBois and Cotard’s visual history of the Haitian Revolution. Many found this engaging, and it provided a platform to discuss what makes a revolution “revolutionary?” The next day I presented slides defining and complicating the Enlightenment; and, during class on the following day students began the discussion. Since this was the beginning of the unit most students spent most of the time learning about revolutions, one each from two lists.

List A:

  • American, French, or Haitian Revolutions
  • Latin American Wars of Independence.

List B:

  • West Africa in the Age of Revolutions
  • Indigenous North American resistance, such Pontiac’s Rebellion
  • Indigenous South American resistance, such as theTupac Amaru rebellion
  • Caribbean or Brazilian revolts, other than Haiti.

Students used their textbooks for List A and online resources for List B linked on the forum page (and at the bottom of this page of resources). Their first posts were to compare the role of the Enlightenment in two of the revolutions.

Initially, students were much more comfortable and fluent when comparing revolutions than they were evaluating the degree of influence from the Enlightenment. When they did incorporate the Enlightenment, their understandings of it were often quite shallow. Students frequently conflated the Enlightenment with simple notions of “freedom.” Thus, some posts concluded that the Enlightenment was a universal cause of revolution since all of revolutionaries, “even illiterate slaves,” according to one student, strove for liberty. Others indiscriminately applied the Enlightenment theme of challenging tradition to all revolutionary or rebellious action, sometimes even indigenous rebellions led by Tupac Amaru II or Pontiac, as an attack on “tradition.”

These initial posts disappointed me, because they dashed my hopes that presenting the complications of Enlightenment thinking would cause teenagers to reason complexly. My bad. Students needed additional time and space to consider what was meant by the Enlightenment. As novice learners they were not able to take in the complexity of the Enlightenment while learning about it for the first time. The low rate of out of class textbook reading in this year’s group probably contributed to it. Ideally, my presentation of the multiple outcomes of the Enlightenment project would have shaped student reading of the textbook before students were applying book learning to a specific task. In the future I will need to carve out a little more time for students to wrestle with Enlightenment texts in order for them to develop more complex understandings.

In addition, students’ over reliance on “Enlightenment” as a causal mechanism suggests that World History teachers cannot push too hard to decolonize the course. The weight of legacy understandings in previous coursework–US History and Civics for my students–and textbooks makes toppling the standard narrative difficult. Students learn about Lockean social contract theory in ninth grade Civics and the US History textbook is titled Pursuing American Ideals, a framing that suggests that the founding ideas of America were only laudatory and injustice was a result of mistakes of commission or omission. I think this is fundamentally misguided. Moreover, As I mentioned in my first post on decolonizing the Revolutions, the textbook my students, eventually, consulted foregrounds Enlightenment ideas. Students quickly scanning the book for a response to the discussion prompt understandably recreated this sequencing.

In a sense, this is good news. I am not looking to displace the role of the Enlightenment in the American and French Revolutions, instead, I aim to complicate overly facile linkages of enlightenment and revolution. Next time I’ll lean in harder from the start.

Some students, however, did intuitively understand that enslaved Jamaicans did not need to read Enlightenment philosophy in order to organize resistance and assert their humanity. As one student intuited while I was helping her with the assignment, “they were just fed up!” A few students were able to work this understanding into their initial posts, especially those who consulted Bram Hubbell’s post on the Tupac Amaru rebellion as an assertion of tradition. One such student concluded their initial post by arguing that ” In the Tupac Amaru Rebellion, they didn’t rebel because they believed they needed a just government, instead they rebelled because they saw that, they as indigenous people were being taken advantage of.”

More students caught on as the activity continued. Online discussions can powerful sites of formative assessment. Teacher and student replies pushed some students to consider the matter more deeply. This is also why teachers need to push students to post early and often. For instance, one thoughtful student amended their thinking with a response to the previously quoted student that included the claim “that whether or not these people had knowledge of enlightenment ideas, they still would have rebelled. Since it is obvious to resist when being treated unfairly.” Such comments still evince room for growth, as student understanding of the powerful, communal thinking in many indigenous societies is missing, along with a sense of how Enlightenment thinking was sometimes weaponized and used against the subaltern.

The forum discussion more successfully encouraged students to consider indigenous and enslaved peoples as historical actors. Students had no difficulty considering the indigenous rebels in the Ohio Country and the Andes as historical actors. Similarly, rebels asserting their freedom in Jamaica, Brazil, and Barbados featured prominently among the posts. Many students found the Dig History podcast episode on resistance and rebellion in the Caribbean useful. A few listened, but more read parts of the transcript. I recommend this episode for both including a concise summary of the Haitian Revolution and explicating resistance across the Caribbean. Unfortunately, students using this episode did not pick up on Marissa Rhodes discussion of Jamaican rebels as continuing African traditions of leadership and religion in their resistance to enslavement. Next time I will point more students in this direction. I also know that some historians of the Haitian Revolution see continuities from West African politics in that event. There is always more to learn!

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

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