What if history were about different types of wealth and poverty

Emily had difficulty getting her class to see beyond the material poverty of early periods of history. The Tudors was the next topic, and she wanted the students to see the riches the Tudors had in terms of values, faith, and culture.

“I decided to make recognizing different types of riches a fundamental part of the unit, so I included it in my planning as one of the objectives and I shared the objectives with the students as usual.

“We started by using two paper characters and a series of words and phrases on sticky notes scattered on the floor relating to material riches and poverty. (I decided to create these myself to avoid student suggestions that might result in another child being labeled as poor.) On character A, we drew a speech balloon that said, ‘I am rich if I have …’. On character B, we drew a speech balloon that said, ‘I am poor if I don’t have …’. I asked students to select from the sticky notes to place on each character.

“I then asked whether there were different types of riches and poverty, and I gave them some examples to get them started, such as riches in terms of community life or in terms of skill. We put the results up on the wall as a reminder to use this when looking at Tudor times. We added to the list as the unit developed. New aspects of riches and poverty were suggested as we discovered more about the period—for example, poverty of choice but riches of faith.

“This way of approaching the subject enabled the students to learn from the past, since we had consciously expanded our ideas of riches and poverty before we started. At the end of the unit we quietly drew together what we thought were the riches and poverty of the period, and it made us think about what riches and poverty we had today that we had not noticed.”

What's going on here?

Emily’s students saw history as something we can learn from if we approach it with humility.

She engaged students in rethinking wealth and poverty, reflecting on larger questions framing their study, and applying the learning to their own life context.

She reshaped her practice by changing her introduction to raise awareness, by creating resources that guided student discussion, by planning space in the lesson for students to reflectively explore the key concept, and by creating a learning-from situation with questions that related to the students’ own experience.

What does this have to do with faith, hope, and love?

Within Western culture there often is an assumption of superiority: now is superior to the past, material poverty counts more than other types of poverty, and technological and material wealth are what matter. The Bible, in contrast, recognizes a variety of wealth: wealth in terms of relationships, wisdom, faithlove, good deeds, and relationship with God. Stopping to consider other types of wealth and poverty involves humility, which is an aspect of love. This opens us up to consider other possibilities to the ones we assume without thinking.

What difference does it make?

Emily raised her students’ awareness of different types of poverty and riches, and this enabled them to more realistically critique and appreciate a range of cultures, including their own. This resisted a materialistic emphasis and opened space for learning from others.

Where do we go from here?

Different types of wealth and poverty could be highlighted in other parts of the curriculum, such as in information technology or geography.

Digging deeper

Superior attitudes to the past can make it difficult for us to learn from historical cultures and leaves us unable to critique our own. Humility is essential if we are to learn from others. Humility doesn’t mean groveling self–abasement or being untruthful about our abilities; it is the opposite of pride and arrogance. True humility is a generous attitude of mind that values others and their culture and sees oneself and one’s own time and culture realistically. Jesus modeled humility throughout his life (Philippians 2:5).

Humility makes us teachable (James 1:21). For this reason, St. Augustine, when asked what he thought were the three greatest virtues, replied: “Humility, humility, humility.”

The Bible does not decry material wealth as bad in itself. It can be a blessing to enjoy, but it carries responsibility with it and must be justly gained. Wealth that is not justly gained or shared creates another form of poverty: spiritual poverty (Luke 12:16-21).

In the West you have another kind of poverty, spiritual poverty. This is far worse. People do not believe in God, do not pray. People do not care for each other. You have the poverty of people who are dissatisfied with what they have, who do not know how to suffer, who give in to despair. This poverty of heart is often more difficult to relieve and to defeat. Mother Teresa, from Messenger of God’s Loveby E. Le Joly

The Bible goes beyond concern for the materially poor to a concern for those who are spiritually poor, for all are in need of God. Too often, wealth can create the illusion of power and security, but it is only an illusion (Revelation 3:17). Sometimes wealth and power can blind people to their need of God, which makes it extremely hard for them to enter a relationship with him.