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Debating the Bomb: Complex Historical Arguments in the Undergraduate Survey

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This semester, I’ve been using my World History survey course at George Mason as an experiment of sorts. I teach my own section of 55 students, in addition to leading two discussion sections (of between 10-20 students) in another, much larger section of World History (with up to 120 in lecture, and 6 sections of discussion of no more than 20 students). My section of 55 is classified as a lecture, and meets twice each week. However, I’ve been constructing the schedule along the same lines as the course which is broken down between discussion and lecture sections.

I decided to go this route in order to streamline prep, but also because I believe that lecturing to students for two and a half hours each week is counterproductive, and doesn’t really help them learn the material. Essentially, my students meet to discuss (largely) primary source readings during our Monday meetings, and our Wednesday sessions are devoted to lecture .

Throughout the semester, I’ve been trying to encourage students to think and write like historians by giving them the building blocks of the discipline each week. We try to get meaning out of the source material, read from a wide range of perspectives (especially necessary in a World History course), and develop arguments about these sources.

After lecturing about World War II and the start to the Cold War last week, I decided to shift gears from my intended plans on the original syllabus (which was discussing early Cold War era sources from Churchill and Khrushchev). Instead, I consulted a friend who studies Cold War U.S. history and nuclear anxiety (thanks, Sasha!) to find sources that would be clear, readable, and thought-provoking for my class of 55, non-history majors on a hotly debated historiographical issue: the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

My students were required to read three sources: a New York Times article (“Hiroshima: A Controversy That Refuses to Die“), and two scholarly articles (one on collective memory, and one on how the historiography had changed over time). These sources gave them the basics of each side of the argument, along with a critical interpretation of both arguments.

I have to admit, I was anxious about how this class session would go. The readings were much more complex and sophisticated (not to mention lengthy!) than what I usually assign this group. I emailed them ahead of time, noting that I wanted our next discussion section to be spent debating one issue: Was the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan necessary and/or justifiable?

I took a poll at the beginning of class, asking them after reading, who believed this action was necessary, and which of them believed it was not. To my surprise, the breakdown was nearly down the middle, dividing the class evenly in their opinions (I had also worried about having to assign them sides, but luckily this wasn’t the case). I had them work together and in small groups with their like-minded peers for about thirty minutes, asking them to consider all evidence, the strengths and weaknesses of their argument, and potential points the other side might make (so that they could anticipate these comments). Then, I had them face each other, and start debating, giving them only one direction (aside from the prompt): be respectful of each other.

My role in the process was to be out of the way as much as possible. I recorded the students’ major points on the board, and interjected once or twice to get the debate back on track and pose one question about casualty estimates.

The result of my students’ debate on dropping the atomic bombs in Hiroshima

My goal in doing this–in making them face each other, and then in disappearing in the background–was to get them to talk to each other, rather than to me. This has been one of my pedagogical goals all semester, but with 55 students, it’s a difficult task to accomplish. Today, however, it seemed to work.

The result was a lively debate, one in which my students actively engaged with the historiography, questioned the legitimacy and perspectives of the primary sources cited in the literature, and, thankfully, were respectful of each other’s opinions. They also brought up the ethical problems inherent in this debate, unprompted (and almost wholly absent from the readings I gave them).

I have been continually impressed with this group of students all semester. I’ve found it thoroughly rewarding to be teaching them, and I hope my experiment in compelling 55 students in a lecture course to also engage deeply with primary sources on a weekly basis is working.

For today at least, my gamble paid off.

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