AcademicsDec 29, 2021

— updated Jan 12, 2022

How Do We Know That?

History Department Chair Michael Alexander Questions Accepted Truths

Michael Alexander wanted to be a History Teacher since high school.

"I had Mr. Forbes for A.P. U.S. History and European History, and his classroom was like a museum and super engaging, not just cinder block walls,"Recalls Dr.. A., as he is known to students and colleagues. “He was also a very good storyteller, and you could tell he loved his job.”

Fast-forward thirty years and Dr. A’s classroom on the second floor of the Thompson Humanities Wing resembles something of a museum. Students settling in for World History class file past a Darth Vader helmet, walls adorned with maps and posters, and shelves holding a collection of “antiquities” — a rotary phone, Blackberry, VCR tape, and an 8mm video camera.

“I try to create something visually appealing and engaging for the students,” explains Dr. A., who was named this summer as the new Chair of the History Department, succeeding Matthew Rutledge, who held the post for almost twenty years. You can also tell that Dr. A. loves his job.

“Take out your notes and we’ll do a check-in,” he tells the students, who were asked to read two sections of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The class is grappling with Harari’s notion of “Cognitive Revolution” and the evolution of modern humans.

“Get with your teammates and find one or two or three quotes from those pages that you think are particularly important or problematic,” Dr. A. continues. “At 11:10, we’ll come back together and try to make sense of this.”

As an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University, Dr. A. majored in European History. He earned an M.A. in Late Medieval Italian History from the University of Virginia, where he also earned his Ph.D. in Medieval & Early Modern European History.

“I like the extent to which history can be debated and is contested and is not fixed,” he says. “Everything is interpretation, and we have a very imperfect record of the past. The general thinking on subject X in 1960 is very different from the general thinking on subject X in 1980 or 2000. The field evolves.”

Dr. A. finds that lack of fixity — and the idea that there are not answers, but possibilities — intellectually engaging.

“One of the points I try to get across to students is that a textbook is just one point of view, and forty years from now, that point of view may be very different,"Says Dr.. A., who wants his students to question accepted truths. “I want them to ask, ‘How do we know that? Why is that the story we tell?’”

It was teaching at the college level for seven years that ultimately steered Dr. A. toward MHS. Disillusioned with the priority placed on presenting at conferences and publishing — rather than teaching and learning — he began considering alternatives.

Now in his ninth year at MHS, Dr. A. has taught thirteen different courses, including World History, eight electives, three Hallmark classes, and one Advanced Placement class.

In his new role, he sees further opportunities to tie skills development to the School’s Core Competencies and open pathways for students to deepen their sense of who they are as learners. There is also room for strengthening interdisciplinary ties. Dr. A. and English Teacher Rebecca Cook-Dubin have co-taught Hallmark Humanities for three years, and he and English Teacher Richard Scullin plan to tie English and World History together more closely in the spring semester. Additionally, the department also continues offering courses that appeal to a broad range of students.

“I am proud of our diverse offerings and that we are not just teaching big surveys,” he adds. “It does give the students a sense of what it’s like at a liberal arts college.”

This morning’s ninth-graders have filled white boards with notes and quotes using multi-color markers to highlight their points before reconvening for discussion. It is quite a contrast from a 150-person lecture hall.

“Let’s talk about what Harari’s point is in this chapter,” Dr. A. begins, and the students are off and running, their discussion covering human development, the construction of societal systems, and how those contributed to the ascension of modern humans as a dominant species.

“Ultimately Harari’s whole thing is, ‘How did we get here?’” Dr. A. notes. “No other animal has changed its rank on the food chain so quickly. This cognitive revolution, I believe it happened. The thing that gets me is how, and why, and can we prove it?”

But, it’s almost lunchtime, so that’s a topic for another day.