Five German Families
A Historical Simulation of Life in a Saxon Community, 1790-1912
Click Below for sample turns from the simulation
Alfred Geldmacher, Upper Middle Class, 1790
Adolf Grobschmied, Lower Middle Class, 1790
In the late 1970s my colleague Professor Jim Diehl and I were involved with an extensive rethinking of our survey of European history since 1815. We were generally pleased with the changes that we had made, and the students' response was very positive. But many students continued to have difficulty with some of the central concepts of social history, particularly the notion of social class. Like a great many American students, they thought of societies entirely as a collection of individuals, and they found it very difficult to see how a particular group of people could act in terms of shared experiences, interests and values. They were also having difficulty mastering one of the most important deep learning goals for the course the ability to view historical phenomena from the perspective of different groups.
Therefore, working with three dedicated history graduate students, we created an extensive simulation of social life in Saxony from 1789 to 1914. At the beginning of the semester the students are randomly assigned the roles of a character from one of five different social classes. They receive a packet of information, including a description of the situation of each of the characters in 1790 and a set of possible responses that their character might have made to the problems he or she faced. Students chose which alternative they think would be most appropriate for their character, given his or her situation and values, and they turn in a justification of their choice in their discussion section. They then receive a result sheet, indicating the consequences of each decision and its impact on the economic and social position of their character. For each of the following six weeks of the course the students receive new situations for their character or their character's descendants, as the families pass through the nineteenth century. In some cases particular choices cause students to enter the working class. The aggregate effect of the students' choices reproduces European social and political history, as their characters experience industrialization, urbanization, the rise of the working class, political revolutions, and other historical transformations.