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Can (Role-) Playing the French Revolution En Français Also Teach the Eighteenth Century?

Peggy Schaller

Introduction | Changing the Game with a Game | Roles | Readings | Rules | Results | Post-Mortem

Game Preparation: The Readings

Effective game execution was clearly dependent on the incorporation of the historical documents fundamental to the game. Since the Carnes and Kates game book and the primary texts it includes are in English, I decided that students should read a majority of the external primary texts in the original French whenever possible. Before playing the game, the class covered the socio-political events that dominated the centuries prior to the Enlightenment and the ensuing Revolution, thus obtaining some familiarity with French Enlightenment attitudes. Their French-language textbook is complemented with lectures, on-line materials, in-class readings, and discussions exploring each period, its socio-political impact, historical figures, and cultural movements.5 We had already completed our survey of the Classical period, which included debates on the changes implemented by Louis XIV and his famous ministers, recent film interpretations of those historical times and events,6 and an in-class roundtable discussion on excerpts from the first four sections of Descartes’s Discours de la méthode. This provided students with various and varied formats from which to glean background for class discussions and debates on those periods of French culture and thought.

The “introduction to the Revolution” classes were scheduled during weeks 9 and 10 of the 16-week semester (the class met for two weekly sessions of 75 minutes each). The actual game sessions occurred in weeks 11 through 14, (see Addendum 2 for the course schedule). The first pre-game class reviewed principle concepts of the Enlightenment, a discussion of the Encyclopédie and its significance, and some debate on the areas of growing turmoil in France: religion, economics, philosophy, and above all political authority. For the second session, each student was assigned a specific topic (Jansenism or the salons, for example), an intellectual (such as Pierre Bayle or Emilie du Châtelet), or a primary source excerpt (chapters from Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques or Montesquieu’s De l’esprit des lois). They were encouraged to become the expert on their assigned topic through primary source readings but also contemporary historical critiques, so that they could highlight its importance in their class summaries. For example, the student researching the salon was given chapters of Dena Goodman’s The Republic of Letters and Carolyn Lougee’s Le Paradis des femmes to read as a reference. The presenters then fielded questions and engaged in much discussion of the social and political implications of the readings, which allowed students to begin grasping the inter-connected and overlapping nature of discourse during the time period, something most students had rarely if ever considered. Up to this point in their general language studies, the students had experienced French as the language of travel, art, literature, food, and fashion. Never had they viewed it as the source of theory or debate, nor had they considered the authors of such discourse as political figures or leaders of dissent.

With this new application of ideas available to them, students were more prepared for the final pre-game sessions. The first one, dedicated entirely to Du contrat social, included roundtable discussions and group work on Rousseau’s political treatise. Although Rousseau’s First Discourse was reprinted in English in their game book, the students were required to purchase and read the later and seminal Du contrat social in French. This experience—albeit an ambitious one—also proved invaluable to the students in their understanding of the philosophical turmoil preceding the Revolutionary period, in their grasp of the difficult debates taking place with the establishment of a new national government, and—of particular significance here—in their understanding and application of the political terms that would become so important to their debates. Reading comprehension was the primary language element in these sessions, and students quickly commented on the simple nature of the vocabulary in contrast to the highly complex nature of the content. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Rousseau’s famous opening phrase, “L’homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers” [“Man is born free, but everywhere is in chains”] (Rousseau I.1).

The sessions on Rousseau reviewed the major points in Books I and II, then Books III and IV of Du contrat social.7 In each class, students were asked to pull specific concepts from the texts and write a summary phrase or descriptive sentence on the board. All of the students struggled with this exercise, although they eventually culled out the essential ideas of “volonté générale,” “volonté individuelle,” and “souveraineté” [“general will,” “individual will,” “sovereignty”]. Just as one would find in an English-language class, the concepts were often confusing even when the terms became recognizable. Integrating Rousseau’s words and phrases into a classroom discussion allowed the students to manipulate them, reformulate them, and gain at least an elementary comfort level with the social sense of this vocabulary that would later be essential to their debating skills.8 After this initial general discussion, the class was divided into four smaller groups and each was assigned a Book of Du contrat social. Their task was to identify and summarize in one sentence a theme in their Book and then to outline the main tenets of that theme according to Rousseau. This exercise was designed to meet several course objectives. First, as discussed above, it would help students familiarize themselves with key French phrases that they would be able to call upon during the course of the game for speeches, debates, or journal articles. In addition, it gave students a chance to discuss concepts and interpretations that they then presented in a clear summarized form. Finally, students worked in a small group environment, getting them used to being part of teams or factions. All of these techniques are integral to the course objective of improving language skills while mastering complex cultural and historical concepts. Once their summaries were workable, each team wrote points on the board to be reinforced through their explanations of those points to the rest of the class. The final manipulation of the concepts and associated vocabulary involved each team emailing their outline to me so that I could create a four-book study guide to redistribute to the students. Now, in addition to having the essential points of Rousseau’s text in an easily accessible format of their own creation, all four dimensions of language learning were completed with a final visual tool.

The fourth and final pre-game session reviewed the concepts from Rousseau but focused primarily on Edmund Burke, whose letters gave students a valuable tool for arguing the positions of France’s upper echelon of nobles, clergy, and politicians (and a much needed respite from reading political discourse in a second language). Their reading of a work in such direct opposition (and clearly in response) to Rousseau and Du contrat social opened another doorway of understanding for many students, allowing them to more clearly comprehend the extremes that the period represented and the diversity of thought that explained the heated debates they were about to undertake.

This introduction was probably the most important preparation work that we did for the game. Those who successfully argued for the principles of Rousseau during the game had a recognizable familiarity with the concepts of Du contrat social and the vocabulary that allowed them to contextualize it to their specific arguments. Jacobins lamenting slavery in the colonies called up Rousseau to reinforce their positions with phrases that exhorted their audiences to renounce personal will for the good of the people, the general will (Addendum 3). Comments from the student surveys completed after the game also noted the benefits they had received from time spent in close contact with Rousseau, his principles and his text. Burke was not overlooked, however, as one of Louis XVI’s speeches affirms: “Si vous ne me croyez pas, lisez-le vous-même en l’œuvre d’Edmund Burke” [“If you do not believe me, read it yourself in the work of Edmund Burke”] (Addendum 4). Students playing Feuillant representatives supporting a constitutional monarchy were proud to cite Montesquieu, and Jacobins arguing against the church’s power quickly inserted Voltaire’s lines into their speeches. Such familiarity with both the primary texts and the arguments of their opponents allowed students to more thoroughly fulfill essential socio-cultural course goals as constitutional issues were being debated and the game progressed.

With documents in hand, language skills honed, and roles scrutinized and allocated, it was time to cross my fingers and begin the game.

Next Section: The Game: Rules, Ruses, and Rhetoric . . .

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