Unconventional Wisdom

Unconventional Wisdom

Colby professors teach students to examine the complex forces that shape cultures—and conflicts

By Stephen Collins '74 | Photos by Jon Reinfurt (Illustrations)


 
Starting near the beginning, Professor of Classics Joseph Roisman uses Thucydides's first analytical account of war in a Technology, War, and Society course he team teaches. "I always ask my students, 'Why do you study history?'— Roisman said. "They keep repeating what they heard in high school—that you study history to learn from the mistakes of the past.
"The goal isn't to make them less liberal or less conservative, the goal is to ground them in understanding what these tensions are. It encourages students to adopt a more mature approach to looking at issues. Get the evidence before you make sweeping generalizations.—
Kenneth Rodman, professor of government
"My next question is, 'Do they learn from the mistakes of the past?' And here most people say, 'No, they don't.' And why they don't? Because people always think the conditions are different, that it's not the same, that they can do better than their predecessors, they have a better way to solve this problem.—

Roisman lines up with Thucydides, suggesting that wars are caused by human nature, that human nature doesn't change, that therefore we're not likely to prevent future wars. "The viability of historical lessons is very limited in my view,— he said.

So why teach history? For the same reason Thucydides recorded it: "Because it gives you a better understanding,— Roisman said, of what causes wars and how they progress.Kenneth Rodman, the William R. Cotter Distinguished Teaching Professor of Government, studies international sanctions, the International Criminal Court, and various other tribunals that operate in the transition from conflict to civil society.

"One of the things that students often have,— he said, "is an oversimplified view of these kinds of issues.— It's not unusual for students to come into a discussion on one extreme end of the political spectrum. But by studying source documents—international treaties, conventions, and statutes—students learn how international law differs from criminal law, and they see a broad range of theoretical perspectives beyond what they get in episodic news coverage. This can "help them make more sense out of what they hear on NPR or read in the New Yorker or even Newsweek,— Rodman said.

"One of the things that students will get from taking a course like mine is a more sophisticated understanding of when and how international law actually does matter. And I think they might be more skeptical of people who either try to make sweeping claims that it's completely irrelevant or that it plays the same role that domestic law does,— Rodman said. "The goal isn't to make them less liberal or less conservative, the goal is to ground them in understanding what these tensions are or what the court can or can't do. It encourages students to adopt a more mature approach to looking at issues. Get the evidence before you make sweeping generalizations.—
 
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