Sorry for the lack of recent activity, but it is somewhat predictable that things with the blog would slow down a bit as the semester starts.
In my view, one of the most valuable skills that we are especially well situated to focus on in history of modern classes is that of charitable or sympathetic interpretation.
Given the magnitude of differences between our contemporary perspectives and dogmas, and those of the modern period, there are constant opportunities to get students to try and occupy perspectives far removed from their own.
What I thought might be nice is a discussion of what sorts of assignments or exercises we could use to try and encourage/assist students to develop this skill.
Of the exercises I’ve developed along those lines, the one that I am most happy with came from a course on the British Empiricists.
That exercise (available here) concerns Locke and Leibniz on Molyneux’s Problem. The exercise asks the students to do the following:
1) State and explain Locke’s view that ideas of sensation are altered by judgment.
2) State Molyneux’s question (as presented by Locke), and the answer Locke ascribes to Molyneux
3) State and explain Leibniz’s answer to the Molyneux question.
4) Say which answer is more compelling.
5) For the less compelling answer, explain what might lead someone to take that side.
6) For the less compelling answer, identify something you dislike about it, and see if that can be fixed, while keeping the basic idea intact.
Obviously, tasks (5) and (6) are the ones that bear most directly on charitable interpretation. And when I grade the assignment, I usually have higher hopes/standards for answers to (5) than (6), since (6) is a much more difficult task to do well.
Of course, I’ve only been able to use this exercise a small number of times, and my own experiences are somewhat limited. I’d love to hear what other people do in their exercises/assignments/teaching to try and emphasize the skill of charitable interpretation.