Keeping up with History

Much has been happening while I’ve been incommunicado on this blog. In fact, I’ve been incommunicado because much has been happening! Last Saturday I met with four of the five teacher leaders who will be designing lessons for the History Blueprint Sites of Encounter in the Medieval World unit. It was a delight to meet such interesting and inventive teachers! They were very excited to hear about the lessons they would be designing and about the program of online lectures from professors who study the different regions of the Afro-Eurasian world. I’ll tell you more about our meeting and the teachers’ work in a later blog.

Another absorbing recent event was the American Historical Association conference in New Orleans, which was held the first weekend of the year. CHSSP had a booth in the Exhibit Hall, and I spent some time talking there talking to folks about the History Blueprint. I also got to attend several fascinating presentations. The most eye-opening talk was about “Science and the Human Past,” at which I learned that 1) Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens did indeed mate together, 2) the bacillus Yersinia Pestis did cause the Black Death circa 1348-50 (this had been an issue debated by medievalists), and 3) the transition to farming in Europe 5000 years ago was the result of migration, not cultural adoption. Wow! What research revealed this? Genetics. As the scientist (Nick Patterson of the Broad Institute) told us, “Now we know the truth. The debates are over.”

Although I and other historians in the audience were quietly skeptical about the absolute certainty of these “truths,” we were fascinated to learn about this evidence. It simultaneously tells us more about the human past and sparks new questions. I was struck – once again – by how exciting it is to learn “what’s new” in the historical field, and how hard that was to do when I was a high school teacher. How long will it take for this information, and the rethinking of history which it implies, to drift down into the K-12 classroom?

K-12 history teachers don’t often have the opportunity to learn about the changes in historical understandings, evidence, and arguments. Because History Project events link professors and history teachers, the academy and the classroom, history teachers are more likely to hear about the changes in historiography, the way historical events are interpreted.

Shennan Dave at AHA 1-13 1For world history teachers, the problem is particularly acute. First, world history encompasses a vast extent of time and geographical space. In addition, many of us were taught the western civilization model of history rather than an extensive world history. The field of world history has grown exponentially in the last thirty years. Many generalizations once firmly believed have fallen by the wayside as further research revealed new evidence. For example, I learned (and taught students) that China was always isolated from the rest of the world. Evidence of Chinese voyagers, travelers, and trade networks has overturned that notion completely.

European_Late_NeolithicThe Sites of Encounter in the Medieval World unit will be based on the most up-to-date historical research and thinking. It examines a topic that is a tremendously exciting new field among medieval historians (the Medieval Mediterranean), as well as looking at a system of trade and exchange which operated across Afro-Eurasia long before the voyages of Christopher Columbus.

So…

Did you know that the Black Death killed thousands in Cairo and Damascus?

Did you know that European Christian galley captains (from Venice, Genoa, France, etc.) used captive Muslims as slave rowers?

Stay tuned for this and more!

Citations:
Dave Neumann, Site Director of the History Project at CSU Long Beach, and I, at the CHSSP AHA booth,
Map of the European late Neolithic (c.3500 BCE), showing the main cultures, Wikimedia Commons {{PD-self}} –Sugaar 22:11, 30 October 2005, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:European_Late_Neolithic.gif.

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