In this post Jon describes two lessons that ask students to make a specific judgment about a recurring question: Who gets a statue?

Question Four in the Four Question Method is “What do we think about that?” This Question asks us to pass judgment on something that happened in the past. A classic judgment question from American history is, “Did Truman do the right thing in dropping the atomic bombs?” As we explain in our book, a full answer to Question Four requires us to go beyond the singular case, and to articulate general principles that we could apply to other cases. If we believe Truman was wrong, what general principles can we build from that judgment? Is it always wrong to target civilians in war? Is it sometimes acceptable? Under what conditions? Asking students to move from the specific to the general forces them to think rigorously about their own values and beliefs, and gives them a meaningful opportunity to listen to people who may disagree with them. 

If you plan a course really well, you can circle back to your Question Fours more than once. General William Tecumseh Sherman was famous for targeting Southern civilian property in the American Civil War — he clearly thought such a strategy was acceptable in his context. Sherman and Truman would make a nice Question Four comparison in a U.S. history course: it would be interesting (for teachers and students) to see if students who supported Sherman also supported Truman, and vice versa.

Does Genghis Khan Deserve A Statue?

This year I’m teaching AP world history, so a lot of my course is pre-modern. One problem with asking “What do we think about that?” in pre-modern history is that the contexts are so different that it can difficult to find an engaging question about which we might need a general principle today. “Under what conditions is it acceptable to lay siege to a city and sack it?” doesn’t really come up much today. (Thankfully.) But I found a way around this dilemma by asking a contemporary question about some key historical figures: Who gets a statue?

My first unit in the course is about the Mongol Empire, and at the end of the unit I ran a Question Four discussion about the Mongolian government’s decision to build a giant statue of Chinggis Khan, the brutal Mongol conqueror, outside their capital city. The statue is 131 feet tall, made of stainless steel, and tops a visitors center and museum. Should the Mongolian government honor Chinggis in this way? 

Our discussion was enthusiastic, with varied opinions. A substantial number of students said that the five million dollar statue was fine: Chinggis is a hero to the Mongols, and he didn’t do anything especially unusual for his time. I remember one boy in particular who said that “the Euoropeans would have done exactly the same thing if they weren’t so weak.” Others thought that it was wrong to honor a man today who famously said that his greatest joy was in conquering his enemies and making their loved ones weep, no matter what the mores of his time were.

What About Columbus?

Two units later I was teaching about European exploration and maritime empires, and I led a discussion about the city of Boston’s decision to take down a statue of Columbus from a waterfront park (I teach at a Boston charter high school). The decision was taken just last year, so the topic was timely. And it allowed us to return to our earlier discussion: Who gets a statue?

The Columbus conversation was more one-sided: almost everyone thought the statue should have come down. But in making their case, students were able to recall and use the thinking they had done about Chinggis’s statue. A few students did argue that the statue should stay, because Columbus was a man of his time, just like Chinggis. (One student pointed out that yes, Columbus did bad things, “But the Aztecs were ripping people’s hearts out!”)  Some argued that just as a Chinggis statue makes sense in Mongolia a Columbus statue might belong in Italy or Spain, but that he was no hero to the United States and so should not be honored with a statue here. Most students thought that honoring Columbus as an individual with a statue in Boston was inappropriate, since his behavior towards Native Americans was reprehensible even by the standards of his own time, and since if he hadn’t sailed to the Americas someone else would have. 

With a broad consensus on this particular decision about the Columbus statue, we then tried to arrive at some general principles for who should get a statue. My students started out by saying that only individuals who had done something truly extraordinary and overwhelmingly good should be so honored. (Harriet Tubman was put forward as an example; Chinggis Khan would probably not qualify.) When I asked about George Washington, the consensus fell apart, in a really productive way. Some students felt that the general principle of extraordinary achievement of overwhelming goodness was satisfied by Washington (independence!), while others disagreed. Some wanted to modify the principle, while others wanted to soften its terms.

In our book we explain that Question Four is a generalizing question. One of the main reasons we study history at all is so that we can learn from the past to inform our decisions in the present, and generalizing about the principles underneath our judgments is one way to make sure that our learning from history is rigorous and relevant. The Four Question Method helps to guide students and teachers alike in designing lessons in responsible generalization.