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, 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.
 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.