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?