Fostering Historical Thinking with Brecht’s Galileo

Spring is almost here, which means its time to order books for the summer term. Summer in DC gets hot, and the summer terms are short, so I usually try to assign things that are both reasonably entertaining and not too long for the general audience I get in my introductory survey courses that are mandatory requirements for all majors. Besides covering a variety of themes and genres, I often try to pick one book that will jump-start historical thinking. I want a book that will make students more aware of how much “the past is like a foreign country” that we will not understand, if we do not try to fathom the conditions and assumptions of the time without letting our contemporary worldview get in our way.

Last year I tried Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo, which I had first experienced as a TA for Sandra Horvath-Peterson at Georgetown University back in the 1990s. Of course, Brecht adapts Galileo’s story to his own purposes, but it provides a useful point of departure for a discussion about the Scientific Revolution. It also forces students to come to terms with the limits of historical fiction.

It usually goes pretty well, though the first section I did it in was a little rocky, partly because not enough students had done the reading, but also because I was surprised that so few people had any general knowledge of fascism. The paperback edition we used, translated by Eric Bently, contains some excellent material on Brecht’s prejudices, but it spends too much time on material more of interest to specialists in drama. Some students read the first part of it, but most gave up and went straight to the play. So I integrated a mini talk of Brecht’s time into the discussions and got them to reason out how the problems of the nineteen thirties and forties had manifested themselves in a play Brecht had set in the seventeenth century. I also assigned sources from 1615 and 1633, so that they could get a sense of the issues from Galileo’s own time.

One point I tried to make clear was that science was only then beginning to manifest itself as an independent discourse, that it was perfectly natural for the Church to be interested in science at the time and even claim authority on the matter. Of course, I’m no specialist on the matter, but it seems to me that this basic point is worth making. Most students seemed to get it too. Indeed, I felt like cheering when one woman near the end of a class wondered aloud what people would think about our own world in another few hundred years. Sound trivial? Maybe to historians and those for whom historical thinking comes naturally. In our presentist society and with this presentist generation, I think the question was excellent. This student and her classmates were thinking historically.

The success of this discussion was also due in part to another issue. I have begun to “legitimate confusion”1 for my students, that is, I have begun to cultivate an awareness in them of just how hard historical interpretation can be and how important learning how to ask questions can be. With this attitude, students can explore sources and ideas honestly and thoughtfully without fear of getting it wrong and looking bad. With such an awareness, students were willing to attempt the leaps of imagination necessary to navigate among three different time periods, the early twenty-first century, the nineteen thirties and forties, and the first few decades of the seventeenth century.

I might try this book again, though I could also do with a change. Perhaps some of you have some ideas?

Images: Galileo and Brecht

This blog post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.

  1. I can’t remember where I got this phrase, but the link is now dead or hidden behind the AHA paywall (November 26, 2014).