Lincoln Journal Star

March 24, 2014

Turmoil in Venezuela, Ukraine offers Wesleyan students real-time lesson

Forget extra reading assignments or long hours in the library digging up the name of some obscure historical figure.

Nebraska Wesleyan University history majors have found a more interesting study companion.

With turmoil in Ukraine and Venezuela capturing headlines around the world, students in Professor Sandra Mathews-Benham’s “Revolutions in Latin America” class are taking advantage of the opportunity to study the causes and effects of the conflicts in real time.

Using Crane Brinton’s 1938 book, “The Anatomy of Revolution,” students have learned to pinpoint each step of the conflict, from the build-up of protests to government backlash to evaluating a revolution’s success or failure.

The process, NWU students say, is best described as lighting a stick of dynamite.

“The book uses a lot of explosive language to describe revolutions, so that’s the way I’ve thought of it from the beginning — an explosion that starts with a spark,” said senior history and global studies major Anna Kroos.

In comparing and contrasting the English Revolution of 1640, American Revolution, French Revolution and the Russian Revolution of 1917, Brinton’s text explains that revolutions start when an already oppressed people face additional oppressive forces.

Students note that lack of basic goods and food shortages in Venezuela, for example, were just the beginning of discontent among its middle class.

When the homicide rate soared above that of cities generally considered more dangerous — namely Baghdad — people took to the streets of the capital city Caracas to protest the socialist government they feel can’t protect them.

“That was the spark,” said Sabina Wiekhorst, who has chosen Venezuela’s conflict as her semester project.

While the protests have been quashed by the government — the next step in Brinton’s study — the violence has not yet reached the “explosion” phase, Wiekhorst added.

But the students, who have discussed and studied the situation at length in and outside of class, expect it could happen.

“There are so many things happening that we have been able to pinpoint into a specific timeline in leading up to the revolution,” senior history major Lacey Adams said.

Having a real-world companion to study alongside the histories of other revolutions makes the themes and ideas resonate.

Junior history major Kramer Andersen called it connecting the dots in real life.

“Before this class, you looked at the headlines but you never really understood the reasons why,” he said. “We’ve been studying Ukraine and Venezuela and you look at the headlines and they are checking every single box we have studied.”

Although each revolution is unique and not all revolutions follow the exact same steps, freshman Ian Beschaler said the class is gaining a better perspective on what revolution means and how it happens.

“There are differences in every revolution — people are different around the world and throughout time — but people are the same too,” he said.

Offered for the first time at the liberal arts college in northeast Lincoln, Mathews-Benham said the class has replaced other niche history courses that centered on individual countries’ revolutions.

“The class filled up right away to the point where I had a waiting list of students,” she said.

With more conflicts popping up across the world, the interest in revolutions isn’t likely to fall off.

Kroos said comparing the past against today’s headlines is the best indicator for what’s to come.

“A lot of people say, ‘What’s the point of studying history,’” Kroos said. “Well, it informs the future as well.”

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