Week 10 – History Becomes Politics: Don’t Be an Idiot


Quite a few of my students wanted to discuss the current election in class.  A desire I absolutely, 100%, shut down immediately.  There are many reasons for this.  1) I do not know what I’m talking about.  I’m not qualified to do more than spew my personal beliefs at them.  2) This is a class on Ancient Western Civilizations, not American History.  3) Students will argue instead of debate.  4) And most importantly for me, what I think or feel about the election is (and I’m going to use bold here) none of their business.  I say this because, going back to number one in the above list, it will be what I will default to, being, as I said, unqualified to talk about it.  It would take me a few good weeks to get up to speed enough to lead a class discussion that might be worth something.  (By contrast, I feel no qualms whatsoever about spewing ad nauseam about Shakespeare.)

This does not mean I am not a political animal.  I am.  It’s why I teach ancient history.  Because, of all the lessons that history teaches us, the most important is that the wealthy (and in ancient times this was synonymous with powerful) will make decisions for the middle and lower classes.  We see this pattern over and over.  It is up to the less-powerful to work together to make sure that the absolutely powerful are not corrupting absolutely.

Last year in class we studied Ancient China.  The students were in love with the idea of the Mandate of Heaven.  They thought it was awesome that a god would send a message to the people by way of a drought or an earthquake, telling them that their ruler was corrupt and should be deposed.  Of course, we talked about whether or not it was a god sending the message, but, theology or no, if your leader is not responding appropriately to a natural disaster, then he or she is the wrong person for the job.  The concept of the Mandate of Heaven showed how one culture dealt with the idea of the government’s responsibility for its people.  As in, how a government takes care of its people when, oh, let’s say, a humongous, deadly, über-hurricane is bearing down on its eastern shores.

We spend a lot of time in class talking about the traits of a civilization.  According to the Penguin Historical Atlases, a civilization only begins to emerge once you have enough people — once you have enough human bodies to fulfill certain traits.  These are cities, full-time specialization of labor, surplus production of food, class structure, government, long-distance trade, public works, standardized artwork, writing, and maths such as arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.  As we move through the curriculum, students start to realize that, once achieving this status, no civilization is guaranteed to maintain it.  Numbers alone do not guarantee that a culture has these traits — the culture has to work to organize themselves.  Otherwise, it’s just a group of people, often beating each other up.

Take Alexander the Great.  Amazing man.  Totally nuts.  He was probably the world’s best conqueror.  He was not a ruler.  He broke more civilizations than he created.  And the fact that we westerners cling to (and use to absolve him of his greed and ego), that he “brought Greek concepts to the rest of the world,” is insulting.  It only hides the fact that many of the civilizations that were in play before he stomped all over Asia were irretrievably broken by him, and some have never recovered to this day.  (Although, in all fairness, many of them were struggling when he was born.)  If he had been interested in the welfare of the people he conquered and had reestablished the traits of the civilizations he controlled, then (and only then) would he have been great.

Take the Harappan Empire.  Take the Romans.  Take the Minoans.  Take the Gauls.  Take the… well, you get the idea: these are all civilizations that are now extinct.  I hope that students start to see that you have to work to keep these traits.  You have to think about the rulers you have.  You have to have caring leaders who create a solid government which will protect the civilization and its various classes.

I hope they remember this when they get to an age when they choose between being, as the Greeks in ancient Athens said of one who doesn’t vote, an idiot, or a true citizen.


3 responses »

  1. I actually get not sharing opinions, bias, op-eds with students. I had no opinion as a teacher both in and out of the classroom. I would remind students (and their parents) that who I vote for is private business because it is a secret ballot. Great to hear class to deconstruct power and civilisation in this school’s curricula. Hindsight is a safe place for analysis.

    • Thanks! There is such a fad right now about teachers needing to share themselves with their students, as if we don’t already. But boundaries are healthy. If I didn’t have very clear ones, I don’t think I could go into school every day.

  2. I agree with your view as well. As educators our job isn’t to tell our students what to do but to help them find out on their own what it is they want to do. We need to show them how to enrich themselves and make their own choices based on knowledge. I think ( I know!) teachers hold a lot of power over students and I just don’t think its right to sway a young mind one way or the other politically. I’m sure they get enough of that at home!

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