Rewinding history to rouse thought

Two teachers from Fort Wayne, Ind., are using ''preventive History'' to heighten student interest and demonstrate cause-effect relationships. Don Evans, head of the social science department at North Side High School, and I have collaborated to replace ''what was'' with ''what if'' in the analysis of some historic conflicts.

What Mr. Evans calls ''the preventive perspective'' was used to reverse chronology and look both backward and forward to assess causes and effects of the Mexican War, the Civil War, the France-Prussian War, the Russo-Japanese War and the Spanish-American War.

Students were asked: '' At what point could a decision or a group of decisions have been made that would have improved later events?'' What treaty provisions were included or could have been included that would have removed the original causes of conflict?'' ''What lessons can we find for the future?'' Students were urged to consider how leaders were chosen in the nations in the conflict and how important it is for citizens to understand the decisions their leaders are making.

Students discovered many ways conflict could have been avoided -- lover-key reactions to ''trigger'' incidents, a better informed citizenry as a check on political leadership, the presence of open communications between governments. ''If there had been a UN, maybe the war could have ended before it started,'' one suggested. Students formulated their own conclusions: ''There are no winners in a war.'' ''It is very difficult to stay neutral.''

Mr. Evans used such questions in planning the study of World War II and the period from 1945 to the present. In future years he expects to use it to investigate various international conflicts.

Evidence that countries need to revitalize political processes appears in the number of United States citizens who don't vote, worldwide resort to terrorism, and tyrant leaders who keep their powers through armed bullies. The young are least likely to vote; worldwide, they also constitute the backbone of terrorism. Urged to cast their ballot, students say it doesn't matter who gets in because nothing changes, while terrorists maintain they have no other way to get anything changed. Social studies classes can alter this perspective.

One way to do this is to introduce each unit, sometimes each lesson, with such questions as: What unhappy events happened during this period in history? Was there something - rooted in the past - that made these events occur. What could have been changed in preceding years that might have prevented the events we deplore? Who could have behaved differently and changed the course of events? Might such changes have had worse side effects? How do we locate the point at which intervention could have been effective?

Conclusions may indicate that events really could not have been altered without a different kind of leadership. This turns thought to ways people choose leaders, ways leaders emerge, and the kinds of leaders needed to accomplish productive change. If existing leaders did not provide needed leadership, given the limitations of the times, given who they were and what they believed, how could better leaders have emerged? What processes of choosing leaders and decisionmakers lead to good decisions?

Preventive history directs thought to the past as prelude to the future, provides effective review, and bridges epochs. It encourages looking ahead, suggesting that seeds of future events lie in decisions being taken now. At North Side High School, the aim is to use this awareness of consequences to challenge fatalistic apathy and transmute violence-prone frustration into creative action.

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