A St. Olaf class that Johnny Depp would love

You've gotta love liberal arts colleges for some of the quirky classes they offer.

The title of this St. Olaf course sounds like it'll make history sexy: History 140 / Pirates of the Caribbean.

Yesterday during my visit to the college, I dropped in on the class, taught by Steve Hahn, a professor specializing in colonial American history.

I was intrigued by the discussion and my chat with Hahn afterward.

Pirates is a freshman history seminar that's different from the stuff I took in school. Although a lot of university freshman tend to take a broad survey of, say, American or European history (as I did), Hahn said St. Olaf likes to plunge freshmen into a narrow period so they can get into more depth.

And Pirates is not just a class on the exploits of Blackbeard or Sir Francis Drake. It goes beyond the escapades to look at the economic development of the British empire, imperial relations, class relations and so forth.

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The group spent the first 11 weeks or so on straightforward history, but yesterday it talked about Treasure Island, the classic by Robert Louis Stevenson. Hahn said he had the class read the literature to compare our modern perceptions of pirates and actual historical fact.

Students also might also learn history better by reading literature, he said, because it can make the periods more accessible to readers.

He told the class:

"Literature can sometimes capture the truth better than some works of history -- and it pains me to say that, because I'm a historian. ... Historians have had a hard time capturing individual motivations. (With literature) you can try to step inside the mind of a character."

Drawing the connection between history and both literature and popular culture also serves a purpose, Hahn told me later:

"One of my goals is to take an 18-year-old kid who's never been really interested in history and get them hooked."

The students indeed seem engaged. About half the group was active in the discussion during my time there, and freshman history and English major Michael Koehler said to me after class:

"A class on pirates? You can't get much better than that."