Waking up to the news of the world can at times feel like a dizzying whirlwind. Today, amid the escalating turmoil in Israel and Gaza, I listened to a news interview in which the reporter was asking a former Israeli hostage negotiator their opinion on what the coming days and months would hold for Israelis and Palestinians. I was struck by the honesty in his voice as he expressed that his greatest fear was that no one, Israeli or Palestinian, would come out of this conflict in a good place. He talked equally about the innocent victims, Palestinian and Israeli; the mistakes and atrocities by Hamas; and the mistakes and struggles of the Israeli military. His interview was riveting. Gone were the political quips about who was in the right and who was in the wrong. Here was a person on the ground, who had seen and spoken with real humans. He knew the terrain, the costs, and the consequences.
Writer Malcolm Gladwell* refers to the above situation as the process of “descending into the particular.” This space is a place between two poles of moral positionality where certainty becomes blurrier and blurrier as a person is exposed to ever more complex situations. It is in this space that smaller and harder decisions are made as a person attempts to navigate the minefields of moral and social dilemma.
This space can be daunting. And yet, this is precisely the space we want our students to be in. Inquiry represents its own “descent into the particular.” The social world is complex, overlapping in ways that do not fit neatly into categories or answers. It should follow that our students should, at the very least, be exposed to this overlapping complexity. Inquiry allows an exploration of the particulars and an assessment of a fuller count of a person, event, or social context. Embracing uncertainty will necessarily leave the teacher in uncertain places. Students will be in different places both in what they are learning and where they are emotionally. This usually runs counter to the way our classes are usually structured. This is ok. In fact, the study of history (or any social studies) is an attempt to move from what is certain to what is uncertain. In a world of uncertainty, inquiry provides a trusted process (Questions, Tasks, and Sources) by which students can learn to empower themselves to to untangle even some of the most particular problems humanity faces.
* Revisionist History Podcast, Malcolm Gladwell, “Descend into the Particular,” Season 4, 8/01/2019 (Accessed at: https://www.pushkin.fm/podcasts/revisionist-history/descend-into-the-particular)