What Might Have Been

March 08, 1995|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

What if Martin H. McKibbin had not decided to teach history at McDonogh School?

More than 300 students would not have delved into the past, looking for the quirks that could have changed the course of history.

And their new book, "What If? Exploring the Paths Not Taken in American History," would not have been published. The book features 54 student essays that ask, for example:

* What if Robert E. Lee had accepted command of the Union Army when it was offered?

* What if the Senate had not learned that President Richard M. Nixon had bugged the Oval Office?

* What if the bomb that landed in Fort McHenry's powder magazine during the British bombardment in 1814 had detonated?

Each question offers infinite opportunities for speculation, but the students suggested these answers:

* If General Lee had taken command of the Union Army, with its greater resources, he would have defeated the Confederacy in a few months.

* If the Nixon bugging had not been disclosed, the legal battle for the tapes would not have occurred and his administration might have survived the Watergate controversy.

*If the bomb had exploded at Fort McHenry, the British attack on Baltimore might have succeeded. That could have given the British a foothold to re-establish some control over the former colonies, opening the way to British dominance over still more of North America.

As editor, Mr. McKibbin, 67, said that selecting the contents from among 70 essays written over the past six years was difficult. "We didn't know for whom we were writing, schools or the general public, although we had in mind the general public," he said.

After Mr. McKibbin sent several copies of the 301-page volume to Patterson High School, Jon Jacobson, head of Patterson's social studies department, inquired about a possible partnership a similar project at the city school.

The book is rooted in a basic human trait that Mr. McKibbin, who has been at McDonogh for 38 years -- transformed into a distinctive teaching tool: People commonly ask "What if?" about their own lives and about contemporary and historic events.

"History is made up of the same randomness that often complicates or graces our lives" he says.

He turned "what-iffing" into a project for his U.S. history advanced placement course to encourage students to go beyond memorizing facts and understand how even a small commission or omission can have had a significant effect on history.

"The project took hold and grew because we, the students, found a new way to identify with the past. We learned that the past was just as tentative at one point in time as the future is for all of us today," Rebecca A. del Carmen, a former McDonough student now at Harvard University, wrote in the book's foreword.

Mr. McKibbin got the idea for the project after seeing students in an English class master the structure and character of the Gothic novel by writing one themselves. A significant difference is that a novel is the product of the author's imagination and history is based on fact.

"Everything had to be perfect," Mr. McKibbin said.

This meant original research, such as an interview with former Washington Post Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee for the four-part essay on Watergate.

"I found it to be very effective -- it encouraged us to read," said senior Katherine Tyson, a budding electrical engineer from Gettysburg whose organizational talent helped bring the book to fruition.

"Our class did the last-minute cleanup, rewriting and fact-checking," said Patchen Mortimer of Columbia. He said the deeper he went in his research, the more interested he became. "I did the one on Brown vs. Board of Education, and after checking all the facts I knew the incident inside out."

The book offers ample opportunity for those who would rewrite the past. "What if Hitler had succeeded in his childhood quest to become a famous artist or architect?" it asks. "What if England and France had called Hitler's bluff at Munich?"

What if Rosa Parks had not refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus in 1955, and what if the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had not been there to launch the bus boycott? Would Dr. King have become a national figure, and would the civil rights movement have taken a different direction?

What if Richard Nixon had demanded a recount and defeated John F. Kennedy in 1960? U.S. foreign policy could have taken other paths. Would the United States have avoided the quagmire of Vietnam? Who would have followed Mr. Nixon in office?

"It would have taken so little to alter the outcome of the election of 1960 -- and the course of history," the book concludes.

The path to publication was not always smooth. Among the problems was a 1992 theft from McDonogh's computer center. "They took all the disks, not just ours," Mr. McKibbin said. "Maybe it was someone who wanted to avoid a test or something."

David Raksin, now a student at Cornell majoring in government and politics, and linguistics, became a hero at McDonogh because he had made some backup disks.

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