Gary and I stack up blog post ideas in brief notations of one or two phrases to come back to later, and this week an experience in my tenth grade AP World History class brought me back to a file labelled “Q2/Q4 Problem.” This is a very common problem that happens in discussion classes and results in students avoiding difficult thinking; hopefully after reading this post you’ll be better prepared to deal with it in your own classes.

This week we are studying the French Revolution, and on Thursday we were discussing Robespierre’s speech on Justification for the Terror. I love this document because it’s such a clear illustration of radical Jacobin thought, it demonstrates Rousseau’s idea that sometimes government will “force people to be free,” and it sets us up nicely for future conversations about radicals who believe they know how to create justice and are prepared to use violence to achieve it (Lenin and Mao, for example). My lesson plan follows a classic “Q2, Q4” structure: students start by interpreting Robespierre, taking plenty of time with this difficult text to make sure they understand what Robespierre was thinking. Then in the second part of the lesson we shift to Question Four, and I ask the students if they think Robespierre did the right thing. That’s where the Q2/Q4 problem often arises, as it did in my class last week.

Here’s how this problem shows itself. We’ve established that Robespierre believed that he was part of a global struggle between the forces of democracy and the forces of tyranny, and that violence was the only way to remove the enemies of democracy. He admits openly to using the methods of tyrannical governments, but justifies that by saying that it’s alright when he does it, because he’s using tyrannical methods in order to create justice, not to enforce more tyranny. (His actual sentence, which I find both elegant and chilling, is “The government of the revolution is liberty’s despotism against tyranny.”) So far, so good: this is all Question Two (“What were they thinking?”). Then we move to Question Four (“What do we think about that?”), and ask if Robespierre did the right thing. This discussion is often very powerful, as students grapple with their own beliefs and assumptions. If you believe that democracy is better than monarchy, should you support Robespierre? Do methods matter if the end goal is just? What if the methods seem to directly contradict the goal? Could it be that democracy is not always the best form of government? 

Students Duck The Hard Questions

The problem comes when students duck all of those hard questions by saying, as one of my students did this time, “I think he did the right thing because his intentions were good.” Variations on this include, “His heart was in the right place,” “his goal was admirable,” and “he cared about the people.” The problem is that all of these statements describe Robespierre’s thinking, not the student’s. This student is avoiding a difficult Question Four by answering a much easier Question Two. 

Of course there are many ways to respond to this in the moment. If your students are aware of the Four Questions you can simply point out the shift: “You’re answering Question Two: you’re telling us what he was thinking. I’m asking you a Question Four. Of course he thought he was right. Do you think he was right?” One way to make the difference between the two Questions clear to students is to ask the “monuments” question, which is an obvious Question Four: should Robespierre get a monument in Paris? What should it say? Bruce Lesh’s book, Why Won’t You Just Tell Us The Answer? has a chapter on this question, and it’s a great way to make kids see that making judgments about history is not the same thing as interpreting the thinking of historical figures. (For the record, Robespierre has no monument in France, just a metro stop named for him in a Paris suburb.)

My students all know the Four Questions, so this past week I pointed out to my student that she had confused Questions Two and Four. She then reconsidered, and decided that while she admired Robespierre’s passion for democracy and justice, she thought he had done wrong. She could not agree that terror, violence and suppression of individual rights would in fact produce democracy and justice. 

Hopefully this post has helped clarify the difference between these Questions for you as well, and given you some guidance on how you can push your students to do that hard thinking that makes history class engaging, rigorous, and fun! 

J. B.