Tag: history

How teaching World History will change my classes on the ancient world

This semester, I have had the pleasure of team-teaching modern World History with a Middle Eastern historian. The experience emphasized for me that there are likely certain differences between the ancient world and the modern world, and I want to learn more about these issues. I also think these differences are often overlooked by our students in Latin and Classics courses. We ought to be a little more upfront about and deliberate about highlighting these potential differences (even if it is just highlighting the differences in the degree to which these phenomena presented themselves), so that students have a better understanding of the ancient world. Here are the most important ones:

  • Nationalism – the idea that a nation (a people with a shared culture, language, history, etc.) ought to be united in and masters of their own state. Ancient Greeks certainly identified as Hellenes, but did they ever then desire to have one Hellenic state? I’m not positive but books by Jonathan Hall and Irad Malkin should help clarify that question. What about the Romans? There were certainly legal distinctions between Roman citizens (Romani) and non-Roman citizens (peregrini), but the question of empire and the spread of Roman culture gets mixed up with the possibility of nationalism. Relevant readings my be Timothy H. Parsons’s chapter on the myth of a civilizing empire and Greg Woolf’s Becoming Roman.
  • Slavery and racism became interconnected in the modern world as a result of the Transatlantic slave trade, and this has fed into rubbish racial thinking involving concepts of superiority and Social Darwinism. Slavery and race were not so interconnected in the ancient world. I did a cool, successful activity that addressed this a little bit more head on this semester, and I plan to share it soon.
  • During the Enlightenment, the idea of the Social Contract emerged and it argued that the state should work for the common good of all people. My gut reaction is that this view of the state was not as commonly accepted in the ancient world as it is in 21st Century America, but I want to read Cicero’s De Republica and other treatises on ancient political thought to learn more.
  • The Industrial Revolution completely transformed the world. Even though there were certainly some technological advancements in the ancient world, they were not as widespread or as transformative as the printing press, steam engine, the harnessing of electricity, or the telegraph. In these ways, I think it’s always helpful to remind students that a courier system was necessary when text messages did not exist, that salt was necessary before refrigeration, and that these technological limitations affected the way states acted.

timeline-major-inventionsThere are various ways to highlight each of these items for our students, including through repeated reminders about the importance of salt, the reliance on messengers, and the speed of sea travel. Another helpful way is through timelines (like this one), to help locate students thought processes in the right century and think about the right technological levels. Additionally, the differences regarding racial thinking and political thought, may be the “take-away” points to lessons about ancient slavery or ancient political institutions.

Teaching history through primary sources

Most of my recent posts have been about teaching Latin, so I wanted to share a thought about teaching about ancient history and cultures: it can be done very well through primary sources rather than secondary sources.

Instead of passively receiving information from a textbook, a lecture, or an article, students read actual ancient evidence, are introduced to that evidence (and maybe to the discipline’s conventions for transcribing inscriptions, for example), and engage with that evidence so that they develop their own understanding of the ancient world through a bit of analytical thinking. Now, we can (and should), of course, guide the students’ interpretation and synthesis of ancient sources through questions on assignments, class or group discussions, and contextualizing introductions. I do think it is important to provide a brief introduction saying at least who the author is, when s/he wrote, what genre s/he wrote, and where s/he lived, so the passage is not presented in a vacuum. My students have also appreciated when I provide not only this biographical context, but also a brief explanation of the historical background to a passage or an explanation of what happened in the larger text from which I took the passage they are to read.

Additionally, we are able to shape our students’ perception and interpretation of the ancient world through our choice of passages to read.  It may take a little bit of extra work to find the perfect representative passage, but you can also assign a passage or text that scholars often cite. When talking about the reign of Augustus, scholars usually refer to the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, so why not assign this?

There’s an added benefit to this: often when we assign a textbook reading alongside a lecture, students are getting the same information in two different ways and they opt out of doing at least one of those.  If you reinforce the value of doing the homework (i.e. it is the basis for in-class discussion or it provides the background for the primary source you read in class), then students have more motivations to actually do the homework.