Lying About the Past course aims to teach students method and scepticism. Jon Marcus reports
It was while watching his 10-year-old son in class one day that T. Mills Kelly thought of a new way to teach history to undergraduates at George Mason University in Virginia.
Asked to answer questions about the American Civil War, the children “threw themselves down on the floor, got out their coloured pencils and formed themselves into groups”, Professor Kelly said.
He lamented that none of his students were so engaged with the subject. “They enjoy being history majors, but they’re not having fun being history majors,” he thought.
He had to find a way to make the subject more fun.
Although Professor Kelly, a former fellow at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and associate director of George Mason’s Center for History and New Media, had long looked for “disruptive” ways to teach history, few ideas were as disruptive as the one he had that day: get his students to make things up.
In a course titled Lying About the Past, Professor Kelly encourages students to create elaborate hoaxes based on fact. He said it was an ideal way to teach historical method – and to instil the kind of scepticism historians need but undergraduates increasingly lack.