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January-February 2013

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The Next Act: Revitalizing the Past and the Future

Here we introduce a new feature for Change: accounts of what academics have chosen to do after retirement. If you have found revitalization in retirement, please send me a brief account of what activities have done that for you, as well as how they link (or don't) to your former work.

Margaret Miller

I'm milling around with other members of the Paris street mob. Lafayette is speaking. I'm angry, and know I'll soon demand to know why he's fired on the crowd—he, who is supposed to be a fellow citizen, a man of the people.

To my right is the provost. We're both wearing red, as instructed.

“Citizen Lafayette,” I yell, “how could you fire on the people? How can you betray us, your fellow revolutionaries?”

Lafayette, a first-year student, looks at me with some surprise. She has no idea who I am, since I've been on sabbatical for her first months at Barnard. I see her pass a note to the instructor—clearly it says, “Who is that? And the instructor's note, as I surmise and as he later confirms, says, “That's the president of the college.”

Turning to me with great presence and dignity, she says, “Ah, a new voice from the crowd.”

And I say to myself: “Yes! This smart, impressive young woman—who seems to have mastered complex material from the time of the French Revolution, including Rousseau's Social Contract—has the confidence and sang-froid (as we say here in France) to roll with the sudden presence of the college president as an adversary.”

The class was Reacting to the Past, developed by Mark Carnes, a professor of history at Barnard. Based on complex games situated at key turning points in history, Reacting puts students in intimate and powerful contact with great classics of Western and other civilizations. As students inhabit other times and places, they learn that significant ideas emerge in particular historical circumstances and have transformative historical consequences.

Reacting to the Past is the most compelling pedagogical initiative I've seen in all my years in academia. It brings together many of my own goals for undergraduate education—complex and consequential content, intellectual challenge combined with emotional engagement, education for citizenship and leadership—in a classroom filled with energy and joy.

I took pride in Barnard's being the birthplace of this program, but I certainly didn't want it to be our monopoly. We gained support for Reacting from a variety of sources and have watched it spread to hundreds of colleges and universities in the United States, as well as to places abroad. I've seen its effects not only on students but on the faculty members who teach in the program; for them, it's been what we anthropologists call a “revitalization movement.”

It's also been a revitalization experience for someone who spent two and a half decades of her working life as an administrator, first as a provost and then as a college president. As rewarding, fulfilling, and happy (yes, happy) as my own years in academic administration were, returning to the classroom was high on my list of post-retirement activities.

And what I truly wanted to teach was Reacting to the Past. It's something I now recommend to all my retiring colleagues, whether or not your original vocation was that of teacher-scholar. It immerses you in what your job has truly been in the service of: an education that is not only effective but transformative.

I've taught Reacting to the Past for the three years since I retired as president. I've accompanied my students to fifth-century Athens as they rebuilt their government and society after the Peloponnesian War. I've gone with them to China and watched them grapple with their responsibilities as senior Confucian officials during a succession crisis in the declining years of the Ming Empire. We were together in the Massachusetts Bay Colony; there, they argued over whether Anne Hutchinson was guilty of sedition and worried about how to be assured of salvation. Now, we were in 1791 France, creating a new constitution for the country in a time of historical upheaval.

When I run into my former students on campus, I see them in the light of their other, assumed selves: an Athenian carpenter and playwright, ambitious to follow in the footsteps of Aristophanes and unsure of which political faction to support; the First Grand Secretary of the Hanlin Academy in the Forbidden City, who argued that Confucianism, when properly interpreted, provided a basis for the apparently unorthodox choices of the Emperor; Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts, who felt all eyes to be on his City on a Hill and who carried the weight of holding it together; the tax lawyer delegate to the National Assembly from La Rochelle who presented well-researched and compelling plans to put the new French Republic on a firm financial footing.

Reacting to the Past has also been a return to my own roots as a student, to the superb liberal arts education I myself received at Brandeis between 1959 and 1963. This is my gift to pass on to the current generation of students, something I look forward to doing for a number of years to come.


Change comes from the young, who see the future better because their eyes have not grown accustomed to the past.

Once I took this for granted; I no longer believe it to be true.

For my first two decades as a college instructor, I thought I knew how to teach. My reviews were good and my enrollments were the largest in the department. But only after I had gained tenure, chaired my department, and witnessed the expiration of my 15 minutes of celebrity (twice on the Jim Lehrer News Hour!) did I admit a truth that had long been gnawing at me: My classes were often boring—even to me.

That was why I, with the support of President Judith Shapiro, initiated an experiment that has evolved into Reacting to the Past, where students play elaborate games set in key moments in history, their roles informed by classic texts.

Its first phase culminated in a workshop in August 2001, when some forty faculty and administrators played a mini-version of a Reacting game set in ancient Athens. Toward the end of the workshop, four participants said they wanted to bring Reacting to their colleges.

None were young academics, eager to sail boldly on uncharted waters. They were mature scholars and senior administrators with tenure; most had chaired their departments and won teaching awards. And during the subsequent decade, they all became central figures in the development and spread of Reacting, which is now taught at over 300 colleges and universities.

Frank Kirkpatrick, who retired several years ago as an endowed professor of religion at Trinity College, continues to improve his Reacting game, Constantine and the Council of Nicaea. Pat Coby, former chair of the political science department at Smith College, has written two Reacting games comprising over 1,200 pages of rules, roles, and advisories (America's Founding: The Constitutional Convention and Henry VIII and the Reformation Parliament). John Burney, dean of the faculty at Doane College, is now chair of the Reacting consortium. Martin Braun, former chair of mathematics at Queens College and director of its first-year initiative for nearly two decades, has pioneered many Reacting initiatives; his most recent has taken him to Niger. I'm hoping that they will continue their involvement with Reacting well into their retirement years.

Young faculty often seek to display their erudition or, after listening to others for so many years, to speak their minds to a captive audience. But such satisfactions fade. Mature teachers often want merely to leave an imprint on students.

Perhaps that's why change is not the exclusive province of the young. Eyes may need to age a bit before they can see differently.

Judith Shapiro ( is president emerita of Barnard College, where she served as president from 1994 to 2008. Before that, she was a member of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago and then professor of anthropology and provost at Bryn Mawr College. She is currently a member of the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and serves on the boards of ITHAKA Harbors, the Teagle Foundation, Scholars at Risk, and the European Humanities University.

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