Humanities Time Capsule: Columbian Exposition of 1893

Humanities Time Capsules©

The Humanities Time Capsule is a device for teaching the humanities to school children. The capsules are thematically organized collections of primary texts and artifacts enclosed in a metal can, simulating the steps taken to preserve documents in real time capsules. Each capsule is an invitation to believe the educative illusion that people from the past are passing notes about their lives directly to students in our time. The idea of creating humanities time capsules emerged withn the Minnesota team of the American Council of Learned Societies curriculum development project during the 1992-1993 school year.

Time Capsules as Metaphor

The collected, enclosed, somewhat anonymous texts and artifacts in each time capsule are a metaphor for learning in the humanities. Opening a time capsule awakens us to the past and makes us wonder about how people and society have changed and not changed. Opening a time capsule, like many every-day experiences, transports us back into lives we have partially forgotten but never really left behind. Opening a time capsule is like opening a box in an archive, discovering a set of letters in an attic, flipping through an old picture album or yearbook, re-reading the marginalia in a schoolbook, finding a treasured note from a friend in last year's jacket. Like any of these encounters with the past, time capsules awaken a series of questions about their contents: Why did someone save this? How valuable was it back then? How valuable is it now? What does it tell us about how things have changed? How they have remained the same? How will the future be different because of what I have found here? When they work, time capsules will not elicit glib reactions and conclusions but instead "deepen the mystery" (to borrow a phrase of Flannery O'Connor's) about the past and the present, others and ourselves, the distant and the near at hand.

Time Capsules as Curriculum Design

Several core assumptions about curriculum design informed our approach to the time capsules:

Time Capsules and Teaching Strategies

Time capsules are not teacher-proof curricular materials. In fact, the effective use of time capsules rests entirely on the professional planning, decisions, and instructional skill of teachers. Time capsules can be used effectively with a variety of teaching styles: social interactive, cognitive, humanistic, and behavioral. And they are flexible enough to work with a wide range of instructional strategies such as cooperative learning, simulations, student presentations, individualized instruction, exhibitions, portfolios, and free writing, to name a few. But they do presume that teachers will use an inquiry approach. In other words, when students open time capsules they initially find questions, not answers. Studying the humanities, in the words of Lola Szladits, " the quest for a potentially unexpected answer to a possibly ill-defined question." Teachers with a didactic tell-them-what-I-want-them-to-know style will not be comfortable with the puzzles, ambiguities, and generative issues they will find in time capsule materials. On the other hand, time capsules are not designed to provide purely evocative experiences for students. We believe that the enabling literacy skills of active listening, critical viewing, deliberate speech, thoughtful reading and persuasive writing can and must be developed through the use of humanities time capsules.

How to Get Students to Build Their Own Time Capsules

The Mythical Student Time Capsule is a prototype of a first step teachers can use in getting students to build their own time capsules. Building one's own time capsule can be somewhat daunting, so the mythical student capsule provides two sample artifacts and a sample assessment worksheet. A complete set of instructions is provided and teachers have the option of making the time capsule either an individual or a group assignment. For further information contact: John Ramsay,, 507/646-4008

Sample time capsule
Student time capsule