David Mitchell on teaching kids historiography

Okay, first the obvious apology – sorry I have lost any concept of updating regularly.   I do really want to keep this blog updated regularly, but I have an internship that’s currently eating up 10-11 hours a day, and that’s probably not going to change until round about the first week of November.

So now my question: would it be better that I keep updating really sporadically or that I put the blog on hiatus until December?  Let me know.

In the meantime . . . so, David Mitchell, a British writer, comedian and generally awesome person[1], wrote a column a few weeks ago about the role of politics and politicking in the teaching of history.  The article is obviously meant humorously, but it touches on an important and frustrating aspect of teaching history – it’s deeply political.  This is particularly true of the teaching of Middle Eastern and Islamic history in the West – our perception and political intentions bleed through the material when we venture beyond the dry repetition of facts and dates.

It’s not surprising, then, that teaching history, particularly to kids, often never ventures beyond that point, and why, in turn, history as taught to kids is both boring and uninformative.  Although there are people in the world who can memorize a list of caliphs and the dates of their rule with ease, I would doubt that even these people find that list terribly interesting, and, perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t really tell them anything about the history of early Islam.

Indeed, this kind of teaching of history, despite its intention of presenting ‘pure’ information, free of bias, can be itself incredibly biased and misleading.  For example, there is a list of rulers, written in Syriac from the early eighth century, which lists Muhammad (peace be upon him) as succeeded the Byzantine emperor Heraclius.  Not only is this inaccurate – Heraclius and Muhammad (sl’m) ruled two separate territories at the same time – by listing the names in this way, it implies that Muhammad (sl’m) inherited rule from Heraclius, and overlooks the Muslim conquest of the previously-Byzantine Middle East.

Personally, I’ve always been a big proponent of dropping the facts and dates teaching of history and actually making a go at teaching historiography to kids, to help them understand how and why people write history.  For example, in the case of the Syriac list of kings, the misdirection of succession from Heraclius to the Muslim was actually probably intentional – the author, a Middle Eastern Christian living under Muslim rule, wanted to downplay the Muslim conquests so as to avoid the uncomfortable topic of his current, Muslim rulers’ conquest of his forefathers, and his own complacency in their current, continued rule.

The problem, of course, is exactly the one David Mitchell points out – telling kids ‘we just don’t really know’ is dissatisfying.  But the fact is, reality is dissatisfying, and kids are fairly aware of that fact.  And by opening the broader conversation about how and why history is written, the essential biased of all people is balanced, by offering the full range of potential interpretations on what the ‘pure’ version of the story is.

[1] David Mitchell may or may not also be my fantasy boyfriend – he’s funny, smart and likes history.  He’s also engaged, but whatever, in some cases, reality is clearly overrated.


About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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4 Responses to David Mitchell on teaching kids historiography

  1. Brin says:

    would it be better that I keep updating really sporadically or that I put the blog on hiatus until December? Let me know.

    All things on your end being equal, I prefer sporadic posts to none at all. I’m certainly not going to object if you’d rather spend what free time you have on other things, though.

  2. Dave says:

    The first semester of my freshmen year in high school I was fortunate enough to have a first year history teacher by the name of Bob Lear. Mr. Lear not only changed the way I looked at history but the way I studied and approached all of my subjects from the end of that first semester until I graduated from college. The first day of his History of the American Revolution class he passed out our text books, (beat up 10 or 12 year old things) and told us to put them at the bottom of our lockers and leave them there, he didn’t want to see them again until we turned them in at the end of the term. I never had a teacher that did something like that before, (or after, though I did see something similar in a movie years later) his first history lesson started off: “Can anyone tell me how George Washington made a living? No? He grew Cannabis sativa…” That got our attention and he managed to keep our attention level high, (sorry, couldn’t resist) from that day on. I think you could be a teacher like Bob Lear, thinking outside the box and getting to the bottom of things instead of just accepting what’s shoved down our throats.

    No offense Jessica, but Mitchell’s a nerd.

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