History is not a plant: Some thoughts on high school and undergraduate (ancient) history curricula

History is not a plant: Some thoughts on high school and undergraduate (ancient) history curricula

Last September, a student enrolled in my 1st year undergraduate course “The Ancient Mediterranean World” came to me after the first class because he wanted to tell me that it was the first time he had heard that the ancient world was diverse and characterized by many cultural interactions. “So far, all I was taught in high school was that the Greeks and the Romans were the ancestors of the West. I felt alienated so until today, I’ve never had any interest for ancient history”. The student was a Canadian of Asian origin who grew up in the Toronto area and was enrolled in the History program.

Recent online storms surrounding the whitewashing of ancient Mediterranean history should not entirely come as a surprise given what (little) most western high schools and universities teach students about Antiquity. Despite survey courses on Ancient Mediterranean, or on ancient “world” history, two fundamental, intertwined problems persist: 1. Very little space is allocated to the teaching of ancient history 2. State curricula, publishers, and teachers alike still tend to fetishize the Greek and Roman worlds on the ground that they are the “roots” of “western” civilization.

Anyone who has taught a survey course on ancient Mediterranean history at the undergraduate level has faced the challenge of finding a satisfying textbook. To date, such publications tend to dedicate 20 to 25% of their pages to what precedes the Minoans and follows Justinian. In other words, they remain “Classical” history textbooks, albeit ones endowed with bonus chapters that act as prologue and epilogue to an essentially Graeco-Roman narrative. As a result, whoever seeks to offer students a more balanced initiation to the wide-ranging sets of cultures, States, and historical dynamics that made up the ancient Mediterranean is forced to complement the said textbook with a selection of readings for all the weeks where something else than Greek and Roman history is planned. As the table below shows, Ralph W. Mathisen’s Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations, the most recent of such textbooks available in English, does a better job, dedicating 39% of its pages to non Graeco-Roman cultures. Alas, the book’s many factual inaccuracies and methodological issues seriously undermine this quantitative improvement[1].

Textbook Total pages (introduction to conclusion) % non Graeco-Roman content % Graeco-Roman content Pages on early Islam
2004. Winks, R.W. and S.P. Mattern-Parkes. The Ancient Mediterranean World. Oxford: OUP. 255 25% 75% 1p.
2008. de Blois, L. and R.J. van der Spek. An Introduction to the Ancient World. London; NYC: Routledge. 295 23% 77% 0p.
2010. Nagle, B. D. The Ancient World. A Social and Cultural History. Eighth edition. Boston: Pearson. 302 20% 80% 2p.
2015. Mathisen, R.W. Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations. From Prehistory to 640CE. Second Edition. Oxford: OUP. 535 39% 61% 6p.

Table 1: Recent ancient (Mediterranean) history textbooks available in English

All the above textbooks reproduce – willingly or not – a botanical model of “civilizations”, whereby “early civilizations” such as Mesopotamia and Egypt (other cultures and States tend to get a minimal treatment at best) set the tone for the “rising and blooming” of ancient Greece and Rome, whose trajectory leads to the “fading” or “decline” of Late Antiquity and early Islam (speaking of which, can we just stop with the whole “Fall of the Roman Empire” thing, please?).

Things are not better at the secondary level, on the contrary. Let me provide you with a Canadian example. The 2015 version of Ontario Curriculum, Grades 11 and 12 (thereby OC11-12) articulates the importance of history as a topic to be studied in very Canado- (and Euro-)centric terms:

“The study of history enables students to more fully appreciate heritage and identity, both in Canada and around the globe, the diversity and complexity of different societies, and the challenges and responsibilities associated with participation in the international community. It also enhances students’ understanding of the historical roots of many current issues around the world. In doing so, it helps prepare students to fulfil their role as informed and responsible Canadian and global citizens.” (OC11-12, 15)

Now the province of Ontario’s secondary school program offers four history courses in grades 7, 8, 10 and 11. The three first ones focus exclusively on Canadian history (Grade 7: New France and British North America, 1713–1800, Canada, 1800–1850: Conflict and Challenges; Grade 8: Creating Canada, 1850–1890, Canada, 1890–1914: entitled “Changing Society; Grade 10: Canadian History)[2]. While the heavy focus on Canadian history makes sense from a nation-building perspective, the disproportionate weight allocated to Canadian history in the history curriculum can only lead to a myopic conception of history and, as stated in the quote above, of “heritage and identity”. Only in grade 11 are students offered a course that goes beyond the chronological and geographical realms of Canadian history. The course in question is entitled “World History to the End of the Fifteenth Century”. In other words, let’s cram c.6,000 years of world history in teenagers’ heads in the course of one year!

Beyond the gigantic scope of the course, which makes the 3 Canadian history courses look like super-specialized ones, its very structure is surprisingly outdated. Indeed, according to OC11-12 (p.318-319), it ought to be divided into 4 chronological and civilizational “strands” that seem to come straight out of Edward Gibbon:

  • Early Societies and Rising Civilizations
  • Flourishing Societies and Civilizations
  • Civilizations in Decline
  • The Legacy of Civilizations

If one excludes a grade 4 course entitled “Early Societies, 3,000 BCE – 1500 CE” that belongs to a strand called “Identity and heritage” (p.21), Discovery Channel-style documentaries and, for the curious and nerdy bunch, personal readings, this course represents the only introduction to ancient and medieval history most Ontarians will ever get in their lifetime. No doubt similar conclusions apply to many other Canadian provinces, American States, and other countries worldwide. Students enrolled in History, Classics, Medieval Studies or other related programs, or the many who take ancient/medieval history courses as electives at the university level, will acquire a more thorough knowledge of history. But, as seen above regarding Antiquity, survey courses often remain formatted according to a traditional conception of ancient history, and current textbooks are far from satisfying.

Another issue has to do with the fact that, for all sorts of institutional and systemic reasons, undergraduate curricula also tend to marginalize pre-1500 history (or, in the case of Classics, non Graeco-Roman history) altogether. Indeed, the extremely wide chronological breadth of Ontario’s “World History to the End of the Fifteenth Century” course mirrors many North American undergraduate history programs’ chronological requirements. Depending on the degree they are enrolled in, students need to take a certain (generally reduced) number of pre-1500 credits. In the case of the University of Toronto for example, since all ancient historians are appointed outside the History department, no ancient history course is compulsory for students enrolled in a history degree. Students can – and some do – of course take courses offered in the Classics or Near and Middle Eastern Studies Departments, but they don’t have to. This is not the case at the Scarborough and Mississauga campuses, where ancient historians are also integrated in the History program faculty. Departmental boundaries of the sort should not be taken lightly, as they directly impact not only the students’ breadth and depth of learning, but also, ultimately, on how they view the world. They are also, I suspect, behind the tendency of many historians of later periods to see “novelties” or “innovations” where, in fact, many ancient parallels are known (I’m looking at you, British Empire!).

Compressing most of human history into a very limited and stereotypical narrative whose subtext still reproduces colonial-era identity politics, whether in the name of nation-building or of “identity and heritage” appreciation, has serious, long-term repercussions on the ways in which citizens understand the world. As Pierre Briant has argued in this blog, teachers and academics have a responsibility when it comes to curriculum building, in-class teaching and textbook writing. How we can better meet this challenge is an urgent question, which can have critical repercussions in the way general audiences understand and conceive the past, and its intricate webs of relationships to the present. The time seems ripe to seriously revamp and update the way pre-Renaissance history is taught in high schools and undergraduate survey courses and textbooks.

Katherine Blouin

[1] My review of this textbook is currently beind peer-reviewed by Bryn Mawr Classical Review.

[2] The articulation of the course titles according to French and British Empires on the one hand, and to the history of the Canadian State on the other, would be worth a post in itself. The same goes for the space dedicated to/treatment of native American history.

10 thoughts on “History is not a plant: Some thoughts on high school and undergraduate (ancient) history curricula

  1. It’s disturbing to learn that the schools are almost as bad at teaching history in Canada as they are here. Back when I was in high school (nearly 25 years ago now), the curriculum at my (expensive private) school was 9th grade “World” history to the Middles Ages (1 chapter each on Egypt, Mesopotamia and Islam), 10th grade Renaissance to modern “world” history (still Euro-centric, but necessarily more inclusive by WWII),11th grade American history (colonial through 20th century), and then in the 12th grade we got a pretty nice selection of one semester electives. But when I got to college, I soon realized that it was even worse at other schools. And it seems to be even worse now, with most students at the state college where I’m getting a late post-grad degree seeming to get all their knowledge of history (especially ancient history) from Hollywood. Terrifying.


  2. It seems to me that the main problem with the second and third textbooks listed above is that the titles are inaccurate or even, perhaps, dishonest if they were chosen by the publishers to sell more copies. I wouldn’t expect a “Classics” textbook (what they actually are) to say anything about early Islam.

    The whole idea of “Classics” is problematic, in my view, but even where there is a willingness to diversify and expand course offerings into areas such as Near Eastern or Egyptian History, it can be difficult or impossible to do so because of budgetary limits and, of course, because new positions are unlikely to be created in the current context of declining enrollments in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Small departments, with three or four faculty members, can usually offer little more than the bare minimum of courses for students to complete all their requirements, and sometimes not without offering upper year courses as overloads. What’s more, even if you wished to expand your programme and had resources to do so, other departments may think you’re creeping on their turf. So, the structural nature of the problem shouldn’t be ignored.

    Not mentioned here is perhaps the most important ancient document (or rather collection of ancient documents) in the history of western civilization: the Bible. Most universities have departments of Religious Studies that teach courses on the Bible, but their approaches are not necessarily (and perhaps not often) cultural and historical, as they should be from the Ancient Studies perspective. The “departmentalization” of disciplines makes it somewhat difficult to rethink the boundaries between disciplines ─ especially when money is so short.

    Another problem is that “Classics” is strongly focused on the literary sources and, in my view, is not as interdisciplinary as its defenders often boast. The literary sources are important, of course, but their raising to the level of literary monuments leaves the other sources and approaches as no more than “auxiliary” disciplines. It is often claimed that this term, “auxiliary”, is obsolete, but I’m not so sure it is. Because of the focus on literature the Greeks and Romans, of course, are over-represented in the modern curriculum ─ they wrote most of the texts from the ancient Mediterranean that survived!

    Having said all that, it seems to me that many small departments have been much more innovative than large, old, “Ivy League” style of departments.


  3. It is racist. Western governments want to believe that anything of true worth has roots only in Greece, Rome, and Christianity. Therefore, the context of history, and scientific discoveries by previous civilizations are (in there minds) of no importance.


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