class and culture, and curriculum

What does it mean to be cultured? I’m thinking about this because I’m reading The Marriage Plot– Eugenides’ first novel since Middlesex (which I adored). I didn’t know who Arvo Part was, but I knew the names of the death metal bands it referenced. As my friend back home know, I am seriously interested in questions of class and culture: its ability to facilitate or forbid access to social worlds; to connect to people or to complexify interactions. So interesting to be thinking about it here, in a country far removed from my own. Oh sure, American culture influences Jordan- most especially in the entertainment field- but influence is not imitation. Jordanians have a much different interaction template, carry very different assumptions, and really, have quite different values than what I am used to from the liberal, funky Northeast.

But this is not another post about identity (except, aren’t they all?). Instead I want to puzzle through a discussion from the history office the other day. What is of more value to my school’s students: knowing (recognizing, understanding) the history of the West (Renaissance, Reformation, exploration, imperialism, industrialization, etc.) or deeply knowing the history of their own region? No, we don’t quite have to pick and choose to result in exclusion, but as a department, we should have priorities. Students here are required to take just two years of history, in 9th and 10th grade. Many also take an AP or other elective for a third year. In their first year, the freshman history course aims to reorient them (most are coming from schools with lecture-based, memorization-driven history classes) to the process of doing history, spending several months on historiography and historical thinking skills before moving on to a foundation in early world history and classical empires. The 10th grade class is the question. Right now it is basically modern world history, starting around the Crusades and getting as far as we can into the 20th century. We are attempting to seed it with content from the history of the Middle East. Sometimes, though, this can seem forced- the connections are there, but require more conceptualizing than our 10th grade students are perhaps ready for. And really, in order to talk about Middle Eastern history well, it would need to be a much bigger (time-wise) part of the course. Two weeks for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not enough when you live right next door.

Should kids learn their own history or that of the wider world? Most of us would say both, I think. How does it impact the situation that many of our students will continue their education at universities in the US and UK? Should they be ‘outfitted’ with an understanding of D-Day, Otto von Bismarck, Margaret Thatcher? What if a student arrives at a university and is the only Middle Easterner? Won’t they be called upon to represent and recall their region’s history and culture?

The Benningtonian in me cringes at the mention of ‘cultural literacy’- I think we spent a week castigating E. D. Hirsch in one of my ed classes- but I really do think you (anyone) should know who Gandhi is, what it says in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the ideas and practice of communism.

John Dewey, and the formidable educators in the Expeditionary Learning network, would respond by saying the value of teaching skills is far greater than the value of teaching information. I agree. My aim is to teach kids how to think, not what to think.

Still, education is access, especially in the US. I can tell you plenty of tales from Dorchester illustrating the dark side of that statement.

In Dorchester, I was happy to center my curriculum around questions of power and to teach the Civil Rights Movement, the antiwar movement, income inequality (subtext: the work isn’t done yet, guys). I felt like I could choose important themes and stories from history to use as case studies to have my students learn to critique, to compare, to question. The content spoke to them, I know, and it also spoke to me.

I wish I felt better about the curriculum I’m teaching this year. We do have an excellent essential question: How does identity create conflict? How does conflict shape identity? –which I think is a very good fit for Middle East studies. I guess I’m bemoaning the rushed, survey-like, breadth over depth feel of the course. I think it would be stronger if we chose a few eras from both ‘Western history’ and the Middle East to examine.

In a few years, would my students resent not being familiar with the causes and consequences of the Reformation? Or is it more important for them to be able to respond thoughtfully and carefully when one of their fellow university students asks them why there is so much religious conservatism in the Middle East?

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3 thoughts on “class and culture, and curriculum

  1. Today, I think that learning about the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation is only essential to students whose home country is in Europe. However, learning about Christian European imperialism and empire building is essential to anyone living on planet Earth because it’s a cautionary tale of cultural collision. Actually, a strong case could be made for studying modern India as a prototype of the stages of development of the modern nation-state. If a global, or at least more inclusive, history is desirable, why not the snapshot approach ? — selecting certain time periods when cultures are colliding, or selecting critical topics and looking for evidence of how something plays out in a variety of contexts.

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    1. yes, Athena, i love your suggestion for the latter approach- cultural encounters are fascinating to teach and to examine. also, the case-study method of one topic with several examples for comparison and deepening understanding. EL has this built into their pedagogical philosophy. Re: teaching the Renaissance and Reformation- i think it is helpful to understanding the historical rise of Europe and domination of most of the globe for the 15th through 20th centuries. we’re in Jordan- and there is incredibly rich history here, especially from the classical era- but the fact that nations in Europe were the ones responsible for basically creating Jordan as a nation and delineating its borders begs the questions of why and how. the course will get there in a few months, explicitly, but before then, i want to set up how European nations even got to that place of power.

      … i wouldn’t want to spend weeks on the Ren & Ref, but it was compelling to teach the Safavids (Persia> modern-day Iran) right afterwards and discuss the question of theocracy and religious authority. the opinions i heard were quite different than what i was used to hearing in Dorchester.

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  2. about open access in the info age: a shocking number of my friends and colleagues fear it, feel threatened by it and forbid students to use Wikipedia and the open web for research, limiting them to databases of peer reviewed academic articles. This control of info mindset is ludicrously outdated and reductionist, except perhaps in the sciences and medicine where there is so much oversimplification and mis-information on the open web and in popular journals. However, I just finished teaching two courses in which I require students to use the open web as a research tool to find primary source evidence of aspects of social, intellectual and cultural history of 20th c. USA. And when I teach World Religion, much of the primary source material I’ve integrated into the course, I’ve found on the open web — art, music, translations of parables and myths that are not otherwise available!
    Oh, and I totally agree with you that the role of constructing learning experiences is much more fun. Also, this shift almost necessarily means that we focus more on analytic and synthetic thinking skills: on helping students learn how to evaluate info, understand its relevance, see parallels, archetypes and connections: in short, how to manipulate info. Rather than the role of the teacher becoming obsolete, it is morphing into a higher order; however, the “teacher centered vs. student centered” description seems misleading — it’s more “product centered vs. process centered.” Still, not everyone who is in the teaching profession has the natural penchant or training to do other than convey information.
    about doing what you are asking students to do: (-:
    I think all of us should at least occasionally engage in that experiment 1) as a check on how reasonable our assignment is 2) as role-modeling of engagement and the experience that learning is fun 3) beyond a rubric, to serve as a concrete example of the process as well as the product.

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