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Teaching Ancient History to High School Students

Ancient History

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Jan 31, 2011, 11:30am Top

I'd like to get some reaction to this. I had a high school history teacher friend over to my house recently. He teaches at a prestigious suburban school. He says that history teachers in general do not like to teach ancient history. He gives the following reasons, in order from least to greatest priority:

1. The primary texts are in languages neither teacher nor student speak.
2. There are fewer visual images to show kids whose attention is better maintained with a lot of visual material.
3. History teachers are steeped in a Marxist economic understanding of history, and the pre-industrial period is less amenable to this kind of interpretation, so teachers are less comfortable finding a way to understand and convey understanding of that time.

I am not sure whether he is right or not. I pointed out the essential place of ancient history in understanding how our world came to look this way, and the importance of understanding our origins. I offered my doubt that teachers would be so unable to go beyond one theory of history.

He said yes, yes, but the other points carry more weight. Any thoughts?

Edited: Feb 1, 2011, 4:11am Top

1.) In a way (s)he's right of course. BUT, I doubt if most of those teachers (and students) are actually able to read all relevant primarcy sources concerning modern history - English, French, German, Russian, Chinese, etc. (So, that sounds as just another excuse).

2.) That's true to some extent. All in all there's a lot of pictorial material for ancient (and medieval, and early modern) history too. But the range certainly isn't as wide as for modern and contemporary history.

3.) That's just lame. If "Marxist economic understanding" of history can't cope with history then it's really really time to throw it over the side.

Jan 31, 2011, 7:30pm Top

Stellar, no disrespect to your friend but ... I am aghast ...

1) How many people in the US speak anything other than English? So we don't teach anything except American and English history? And we can't go back to 1066 because Old English is basically unintelligible ...

2) Pyramids? Parthenon? Colliseum? These are boring images that don't motivate students?

3) History teachers should be aware of various economic theories. The Marxist theory is useful in some areas, but it is certainly not a comprehensive one, nor do I know anyone who would argue that.

Sorry, but your friends' reasons are not at all compelling. If he wasn't your friend, I would use the phrase "lame excuses," but then maybe he had a few good ales in him before he began tossing around hypotheses ...

Jan 31, 2011, 9:29pm Top

>3 Garp83: Actually, if he had a few more ales in him more often, maybe he wouldn't be so full of lame ideas. I too was aghast. I am glad you two have confirmed my aghasty. :)

I was so aggrieved that I almost spat my wine over the table. Can I still be friends with him, one wonders?

Feb 1, 2011, 12:28am Top

yikes! I remember studying "World Civilizations" in 6th or 7th grade and then ancient history was touched upon again as a freshman in secondary school i think. I always thought it was fascinating personally.

1) lame excuse, i agree with the the above posters. if anything dead languages becomes a teachable moment, a history teacher can spend part of class talking about word origins, history of languages, signifigance of written or oral traditions. it's a high school class not a graduate seminar. He can then of course mention the use of primary and secondary sources.

2) I loved looking at all the artifacts in old issues of Nat Geo, the maps, the masks, the sculptures. Relating it to today's world, seeing the continuity of human mores is interesting. I remember in the Sindney Poitier movie "To Sir with Love" discussing how the kids of the 60's basically had old roman haircuts. combined with all the "documentaries" that do re - creations on the Discovery channel, etc. it's easy to make ancient history come alive or relevant. lack of teacher's imagination/skill

3) History can be understood in many ways. I always thought about it as the movement of peoples which makes ancient history interesting. through an economic lens, the development of trading infrastrucutre, routes, etc is fascinating

Feb 1, 2011, 12:32am Top

One more thought, I remember reading an article on the views of college and university professors of history and how they felt they had to undo the damage of HS teachers. insulting sure, but interesting that the discipline of studying history changes tremendously over the course of schooling

Feb 1, 2011, 2:48am Top

it's easy to make ancient history come alive or relevant.

In addition to the stuff brianjungwi already cited, what about video games? A lot of students (and adults!) probably already play, or have played, games like Age of Empires, Civilization, and God of War. Or they have seen comic books and movies like 300, Troy, O Brother! Where Art Thou?, and so on.

No, I'm not saying that those things are actually historical or should be used as examples of historical fact! But they illustrate that students have already been introduced to ancient history in various forms, even if they haven't been given good history. In fact, it might be kind of fun to use one or more of these items as a jump-off point to study actual history, and/or to analyze and deconstruct the game/movie to find out what's true and what isn't. A lot more fun than memorizing some boring list of names and dates of dead people, at any rate. :D

Edited: Feb 1, 2011, 4:58am Top

Presumably, his comments reflect what he has found keeps his classes' attention. It doesn't seem to have occurred him that his enthusiasms and prejudices might have some bearing on how interestingly - or boringly - he presents particular elements to them.

Feb 1, 2011, 10:35am Top

This was the situation when I was in high school 30+ years ago. I was excited to look at my text book to see all the classical history, but we skipped right over it and went straight to the Reformation. What a disappointment.

Feb 1, 2011, 10:37am Top

I am interested in his claim -- which I hope is wrong, but he has reason to know -- that HS history teachers prefer to teach more recent history. Post-industrial revolution, he says. I find his whole presentation of this aggravating, but I do wonder whether this claim is correct.

Feb 1, 2011, 1:47pm Top

actually, most HS teachers have very little control over their curriculum. Maybe he just smokes a lot of pot and broods at home over this stuff. And let me be perfectly clear that I strongly object to the brooding.

Feb 1, 2011, 1:52pm Top

I don't really relate to any of his points. Our ancient history classes were taught by a much-beloved teacher whose animated retellings of Roman battles (complete with vocalised sound effects) were legendary.

Me, I'd walk the length of your prostrate body (and yours) to teach ancient history. I'm sure I'll be doing years of civics and 20th Century Canada & whatnot before I get anywhere near it.

Edited: Feb 3, 2011, 1:42am Top

> 11 Yeah, he does brood over the lack of control. And he's the head of the department. I suspect he more underconsumes than the reverse though.

>12 Cynara: He would argue that that teacher is of a dying breed. It's those trained in the last 20 years he feels he is describing. Mind you, I think what he says cannot be true. But it would be nice to hear from other HS history teachers. I only know this one.

Feb 2, 2011, 10:31pm Top

My apologies about entering the conversation so late. In Ontario the teaching of Ancient civilizations is delegated to grade five (age 11), where Egypt, Greece and Rome are taught as well as some material on the Aztecs and Incas with a passing glance of China and the Indus valley. This is to say I love teching grade five. In schools where I in which I didn't teach that grade I traded away subects in order to teach ancient history. These students loved the subject and I never, well maybe neve,r had a student weho didn't love the great big History. For the most part their imaginations have not been been put into neutral. I have had great classes where I bring in a dripping Kings heart (actually a Beef heart) when I talk about the early concepts of kingship.
They also like it when I come in dressed as a Roman "classical" legionaire not so much a Roman Senator with his toga.

Feb 3, 2011, 2:38pm Top

I'm a HS teacher, of a kind (still supplying and applying for full-time work), so my answer at #12 above may count!

Feb 3, 2011, 10:24pm Top

>15 Cynara:, 12 "Me, I'd walk the length of your prostrate body (and yours) to teach ancient history."

I would too, were I a teacher. I happily tell stories to anyone who will listen though.

Feb 3, 2011, 11:17pm Top

>12 Cynara: Do Secondary schools in Ontario still teach ancient history? I just had an exercise in futility trying to find course discription for history on the ministry of the dsark arts website.

Edited: Feb 15, 2011, 12:25pm Top

The major one is CHW3M, "World History to the Sixteenth Century."

From the ministry curriculum document: "describe the roles of selected individuals and groups in the process of change (e.g., Akhenaton, Nebuchadnezzar II, Socrates, Augustus, Peter the Apostle, Alexander the Great, Constantine I, Charlemagne, Jeanne d’Arc; the Aryans, the Babylonians, the Vikings, the Mongols)."

If you're interested (and I can't imagine why you would be) the curriculum starts on p. 144 of this document:

Feb 16, 2011, 12:51am Top

Maybe I can beg my school board to offer the course and to let me teach it. Just a few obstacles but never mind! Thanks for the reference and allowing me to daydream.

Feb 16, 2011, 1:51am Top

1. The primary texts are in languages neither teacher nor student speak.

Seems like that would be true for most of history.

3. History teachers are steeped in a Marxist economic understanding of history, and the pre-industrial period is less amenable to this kind of interpretation, so teachers are less comfortable finding a way to understand and convey understanding of that time.

The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World would be a hard slog in HS, but certainly an explicitly "Marxist Ancient History" could be done. (Until the school board found out, anyway....)

But even so, at the high school level, wouldn't Ancient History be mostly a "Great Men/places and dates" survey course? They couldn't really get into how Rome was supplied with food, or how labor was organized on the latifundia, would they? So yeah, maybe the real objection is simply that Ancient History at the HS level is likely to be a bit boring for both teachers and students.

Feb 16, 2011, 4:12am Top

The guy, whose credibility is questionable despite his objective credentials, seems to have dismissed such an economic account of ancient history, and teachers' ability to teach it within their competencies. As a history teacher himself he seems to think little of teachers. Though he would argue that he is merely reporting the facts on the ground -- this is his view of the state of the feelings of HS history teachers. I don't believe him.

Feb 16, 2011, 11:37am Top

I should note that my quote above is only one of several dozen expectations around information & skills the students are supposed to pick up. I included it mostly because it gives an overview of the cultures studied.

Feb 16, 2011, 12:04pm Top

18 > "Akhenaton"

This guy would be no more than a footnote in any proper Egyptian history but for the fact he is associated with a form of monotheism (probably more properly henotheism, but be that as it may). We've got this Western cultural prejudice that mono- = modern and progressive. Monothesisism, monotheism, monogamy, monotony ...

Feb 16, 2011, 12:08pm Top

> 23: Indeed. Of course he's interesting though.

Edited: Feb 16, 2011, 12:21pm Top

Phaedra you forgot the two hallmarks of the western world's mono-ways: the "monocle" and "mononucleosis"

Feb 16, 2011, 12:35pm Top

I always liked "monomaniacal."

Feb 16, 2011, 12:39pm Top

Makes you wonder why they ever developed stereos.

Feb 16, 2011, 12:40pm Top

>23 PhaedraB:
Mostly I agree, though I think it's interesting to study the contrast between his religion and the more traditional forms. What did the ancient Egyptian take for granted, and why didn't Aten catch on?

Feb 16, 2011, 3:40pm Top

#23 Phaedra -- Thanks for making the henotheism point, often overlooked. Even Jewish monotheism (which some misguided sould try to link to Akhenaten) is very, very late to the game (maybe 2nd century BCE) and what was practiced before by the Hebrews was also henotheism, which is what makes the "I am a jealous god" commandment comprehensible under the circumstances.

Feb 17, 2011, 12:17am Top

Yeah very true; this is something modern Christians who just take monotheism as a given can't really get their heads around at times.

Feb 20, 2011, 5:48pm Top

Back to the first three points--I really don't think that history teachers generally are "steeped in a Marxist interpretation of history." They've probably all read some Marx and Engels along the way (as I did in historiography for a history minor), but reading Marx doesn't make you a Marxist any more than reading The City of God makes you an Augustinian Christian. Studying theories of history and how they work (or don't) is a vital component of historical education (and should be for education in general). By the way, it was the consensus in my class that overarching theories--whether Marx's or St. Augustine's--are bound to lead one into error because of the temptation to fit the evidence to the theory.

Ancient history provides plenty of visuals, although in high school one would want to omit some of them--a colleague who was teaching at an Ivy League university actually had a student complain to the administration because his lecture on ancient religions included a slide of an unmistakable (ahem) fertility god and she claimed it made her feel "threatened." But just think of the images you could use in a slide or powerpoint lecture--the clay soldiers of China, the Parthenon, the remains of Pompeii or Ostia, Khufu's funeral barque, the pyramids of Meroe.

In high school, isn't enough that students learn the distinction between primary and secondary sources? They can read primary sources in translation, and there are plenty of those available these days.

Feb 20, 2011, 5:56pm Top

I suspect the points say more about him than history teachers. The only thing that gives me pause is that he is one, and supervises a lot of others. But I recoil from his seemingly absurd points.

Feb 20, 2011, 7:19pm Top

Well Stellar I'm pleased to see that you think your friend is as much a dolt as he comes across as with his absurd contentions

Feb 20, 2011, 8:32pm Top

He has his weaker moments.

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