Teaching the causes

by I.A. Isherwood

This is the fourth time that I have taught a course specific to the First World War. Each time I’ve offered it, I have changed the way I have taught the causes of the war, hoping for some sort of perfect blend between coverage and specificity. This semester, I have ceded defeat in this task: we could spend the entire semester on the causes if we wanted to and that’s not why they signed up for History 219.

So this semester I’m focused more on interpretation and offering them the opportunity to exercise some mental flexibility in the way that they approach the subject. The one thing I don’t want them to do is to emerge from the first three weeks of class believing that they have a formula for understanding causality. What I do want them to be able to do is to 1) understand something of international relations in the late 19th and 20th centuries; 2) be able to distinguish between structural (systemic) causes and intentionalist causes of the war; 3) to be able to understand the July Crisis and the events that led European empires to war.

We’re not going for mastery here – which is impossible – but we are learning how to examine causality and touching upon the complexity of July 1914 without drowning ourselves in scholarship/historiography on the subject.

To complement this approach, I have assigned a paper on the causes in which they pick a nation and dissect their decision for war (or non-decision if they pick a neutral nation, an option I suspect that a few might take). My hope is that by examining a specific case study, they can take the general information garnered from the secondary literature read for class and apply it. In other words, I hope that they can connect the structural causes to the intentions of those making the decisions for war.

The classroom dynamic has been very lively, much more than I figured it would be at the start of the semester. Usually the first week is an awkward period of adjustment for both sides of the desk. My teaching style is for a participatory lecture, where I have key points outlined on a power point (no more than five slides usually) and then we work the material together through exposition on my part and layers of complexity (and questions) coming from them. Or, I write the draft of the narrative, but they supply additional research and help me revise the draft. About half the class is participating with consistency (about 12-15 students), which sometimes means more raised hands than I have time to call upon.

Here’s an example. Yesterday, we were discussing nationalism as a cause of the First World War. This is trickier than it sounds as it involves a concept that doesn’t, in itself, lead directly to conflict unless a bunch of other factors are considered. So we tried to tease out some of those other factors and the (long) conversation became a little heated, in part, I suspect, because the term itself has resurgent meaning. We kept the conversation about the past, but I think the present was on a lot of minds.

I am not saying, exactly, that the current political situation in the USA and growing instability in the world is having an impact on the classroom, but I do think there might be a connection between the enthusiasm expressed from learning about the causes of a cataclysmic world event and growing insecurity outside of the classroom. Is this professorial paranoia? I don’t believe it is. Earlier in the week, we discussed a basic question on why the First World War matters. Overwhelmingly, the answers focused on using the past as a blueprint or warning for the future, an approach that is problematic in its application, but one that certainly got my wheels turning a bit about the way we see the past in the present.

Students, feel free to comment.