Statement of Purpose+
Recurring narratives in K-12 World History curricula in the United States, mostly told through textbooks, often occlude as much as they reveal. Broad categories used to frame 'World History' (civilizations, nations, religions, and regions) assume monolithic identities rather than heterogeneous, multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies. While the categories enumerated above may serve as organizing tools to describe peoples, places, and phenomena, they also generate and reify fixed notions of identity that may inappropriately 'Other' related communities, masking the ways in which broader societies and wide regions have historically shared practices, cultural concepts, and societal norms. For example, oversimplification of categories often results in the conflation of the history of the Middle East with the history of Islam. Curricula more responsive to that region's diversity of traditions would correct the assumption that Islamic and Middle Eastern history are synonymous (as numerous traditions, from Manichaeism to Zoroastrianism to Christianity and Judaism have a longer history in the Middle East than does Islam, which itself has a varied and multifaceted past, within and beyond Arabia and the Middle East).
Being attentive to both the diversity of cultures within themselves and to the connections across segments of society requires nuanced approaches to the shared material, linguistic, and social worlds of peoples and civilizations. For example, pointing out the complexities of the region in its medieval past further lends itself toward nuanced explications of the contemporary Middle East and North Africa (MENA), on the understanding that modernity and postmodernity offer even more opportunity for new communities and identity formation (aided by technology, social networking, mass and rapid communication, and new media) and more possibilities for transcending traditionally constructed boundaries of region or nation. Undermining inherited assumptions about civilizational difference and cultural uniformity (too often mistakenly depicted as determinative and static over time) serves to train students and teachers alike to question the authority of given categories and to understand how the formation of those categories themselves reflects specific and contingent cultural traditions. This may be thought of as 'thinking with' categories of analysis, as opposed to taking categories or broad civilizational divisions for granted, as somehow being built-into historical development.
Our research-based curricular project analyzed the common categories used to describe and teach the Modern Middle East and North Africa in existing U.S. World History textbooks. Based on this research, we offer robust alternatives for Grade 9-12 social studies teachers and multicultural educators that integrate new scholarship and curricula on the region. To this end, we examined the ways in which the region is framed and described historically, and analyzed categories like the 'rise and spread of Islam,' the Crusades, and the Ottoman Empire. Narratives surrounding these events and regions tend to depict discrete and isolated civilizations at odds with one another. To remedy this oversimplification, our work illuminates the manners in which peoples and societies interacted with each other in collaborative and fluid ways at different political and historical junctures.
This critical analysis of oversimplified categories is particularly important now, when popular Western and/or mainstream media often functions to exacerbate difference, essentialize specific gendered and racialized identities, and construct a static 'Other' when describing and referencing the Middle East/North Africa. Given these misconceptions found in textbooks, popular media, and other sources, it is critical to shed light on the multiple realities, truths, and experiences of the region throughout space and time and share culturally relevant and anti-racist practices and curricula that can interrupt mainstream discourses. Ultimately, our curricular interventions seek to support high school teachers, so that they can a) teach more deeply about specific categories, ideas, and topics in history, b) consider topics and perspectives that are often excluded from textbooks, and c) integrate alternate methodologies and approaches into their teaching.
Methodology and Expertise+
With this in mind, the research team of scholars based at six U.S. research universities, engaged in a multi-layered research and curricular project over the course of 15 months. Our team comprises scholars and educators from several fields and disciplines, including social studies education, comparative and international education, history, religion, anthropology, political science, and area studies. As a group, the team has conducted research in a variety of capacities in and about MENA and collectively provides a multidisciplinary lens to approach the region, as well as lengthy experience in curriculum development, teaching, and writing that can realistically help render more powerful curricular interventions in the study and teaching of the Modern Middle East. Furthermore, the inter-disciplinarity of the team offers a much-needed corrective to the limited and occasionally hegemonic discourses within any one traditional discipline. Taking a broad approach to the history of the region, we provide historical and theoretical context, while avoiding the pitfalls of 'long duree' approaches that often posit medieval answers to modern questions. Our project team is attentive to the subtleties of change over time, and the dynamics of continuity and transition, as well as to the impact of politics and materiality on historical development.
Funded by the collaborative British Council and Social Science Research Council "Our Shared Past" Grant, the research team convened several times during 2012-13 to (1) review and analyze the most commonly used high school World History textbooks in the U.S.; (2) share analyses with each other and other researchers and experts in the fields of Middle East/North Africa studies, history, and religion; and (3) synthesize and discuss how to integrate innovative scholarship on the region into curricular guides and lesson plans for grades 9-12; and (4) generate robust curricula for broad dissemination. Overall, this multi-faceted research and curricular project exemplifies the ways in which empirically grounded research can influence practice.
Process of Textbook Analysis+
For the analysis, we examined the ways in which the region is framed and described historically in the texts, and analyzed categories like the 'rise and spread of Islam,' the Crusades, and the Ottoman Empire. We chose the four most widely adopted world history textbooks in the U.S. for high school (grades 9-12) world and global history classrooms based on criteria developed by the American Textbook Council. Since some textbooks organize their content chronologically, and others thematically, we took the various formats into consideration to broadly answer the following questions, some of which have been adapted from the review guidelines of the American Textbook Council:
How accurate is the content historically?
What dominant narratives and themes emerge from the texts and what narratives are left out?
Are pictorial and sidebar materials relevant to the subject matter and do they add or detract nuance to the material presented?
How do these tools or resources in textbooks refer/provide for the teacher to facilitate a deeper engagement with the content?
How do these texts convey social identities and cultural practices?
Using these questions as a guide, we reviewed the texts for historical accuracy, dominant and subjugated narratives, tone and normative language, relevance and context of pictorial and sidebar materials, obfuscation of agency, and omission of multiple perspectives. In doing so, we created an interpretive rubric from which to analyze the data, including categories that emerged from analysis. These were: Gender, Sexuality, Tradition/Modernity, Faith, Empire, Political System, East/West, Violence, Rationality, Identity, Culture, and Geography. Each researcher analyzed a different textbook and the principal investigator analyzed and reviewed all of them.
Results of Textbook Analysis+
Upon completion of the analysis, the team met to discuss the recurring themes and issues that emerged. Below is a selection of themes/findings that emerged from this analysis.
Conflation of Islam with the Middle East
Islam is described in a totalizing and over-simplistic way, masking its diversity
A historical and normative language to describe histories. For instance, empires/states are either gaining power ("rising")?especially European powers?or in "decline"/"decay"/"crumbling"?especially non-Western powers
Eurocentric perspectives?events are generally described from a European, and then eventually American, vantage point
Text is written as a history of states, not peoples (across all geographies and cultures)
Women are discussed in terms of being oppressed or being "given freedom" (by men or empires), but rarely as agents in history
Visual textboxes, particularly with respect to gender, are often stereotypical
Monolithic constructions of the region minimize linguistic, cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity or minorities in the region (for instance, Arab Christians, Bah?ais, Arab Jews, Kurds, etc.)
European colonization and imperialism is not fully treated in texts, thus ignoring root causes of many contemporary conflicts
Texts do not adequately reflect contestation, struggle and (rational) debates of region?s peoples throughout history (for instance, texts ignore people?s movements in the creation of modern nation-states)
After consolidating our findings, we then shared them with six other MENA specialists in the U.S., Lebanon, and Egypt. In turn, these scholars suggested further resources and media for us to synthesize and integrate into curricula and web-based materials for 9-12 grade teachers.
After re-reviewing our findings, and reviewing the materials from the historical consultants, we framed our curriculum around the following themes: Women & Gender; Plural Identities; Empire & Nation; Political & Social Movements; and Arts & Technologies. We chose these themes because they are often framed in reductive and incomplete ways in the textbooks and we thus wanted to generate lessons and curricula that integrate the multiplicity and diversity of experiences and realities. These were generated in specific response to the findings.
We spent the spring and summer of 2013 creating cohesive curricula and lesson plans that specifically responded to the results of the analysis and the resources and sources given to us by the consulting scholars. In approaching our curricula, we wanted to illuminate the ways in which peoples and societies not only interacted in collaborative and fluid ways but also how ordinary people were agents in shaping their own trajectories in ways that are often obscured in popular discourse. This critical analysis is particularly important in the current political milieu, when mainstream media (ordinarily, though not exclusively Western) often simplifies complex histories and identities of this region, exacerbating difference and 'Otherness' in ways that do not accurately reflect the MENA region in all its complexity (as proven in our textbook analysis).
The Importance of Connecting Curriculum to Research+
In sum, this project is an exemplar of how rigorous academic research can inform practice. Too often, research remains in the esoteric realm of academia, and this project exemplifies how empirical study can generate practical interventions like dynamic and responsive curricula. Moreover, related to this, this project also reflects how scholars across different fields (education, history, area studies, development) and across different regions (scholars in the U.S. and in the Middle East) can collaborate to both understand phenomena more deeply and develop targeted and responsive interventions based on their data and analyses. In this case, the research team worked collaboratively with other scholars across the globe to integrate new cutting-edge resources and scholarship into the curriculum. It is specifically this level of collaboration that has yielded rich data analyses and interpretation, as well as a vibrant and timely approach to curricular development that embodies creativity and cultural relevance.
Further, given the present political context in which the region and its peoples are demonized and misrepresented, this research and curriculum is necessary and urgent. At present, there is a dearth of nuanced and complex curricula and guides for K-12 teachers on MENA. While we have found that there has been a proliferation of resources on this region, we have also encountered that often one grand simplistic narrative is simply replaced by another one. In our curriculum, we have endeavored to avoid reductive approaches to the region and highlight multiplicity and plurality.