Recently, several books focused on a neglected period of history have received review attention. Together these volumes suggest new ways that we might think about, and present, history to young people. As you can see in this review of G.W. Bowersock’s The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam (Oxford Univ. Press, 2013) and Empires in Collision in Late Antiquity (Brandeis Univ. Pr. 2012), and Patricia Crone’s The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran: Rural Revolt and Local Zoroastrianism (Cambridge Univ. Pr. , 2012), the authors of these books reclaim an era of dynamic philosophical and theological debate when Zoroastrians, Christians, and Jews, and later Muslims, challenged one another. When was that? From the end of the Roman Empire into the period that’s commonly referred to as the Dark Ages.
From any conventional point of view, these are the centuries you can skip on the way to the Crusades, the High Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. But this new scholarship points to an era of lively intellectual exchange. Indeed, from my research on Sugar Changed the World (Clarion, 2010), it’s clear that Hindus, as well as the last of Athenian scholars (whose intellectual lineage leads back to Plato and Aristotle), were also part of this world.
I realize, of course, that however fascinating the recovery the academic reviewer calls “submerged worlds” may be to scholars and interested adults, this period will never make its way into K-12 curricula. Or could it? Just yesterday I read Jonathan Israel’s review of Anthony Pagden’s new book, The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters titled “How the Light Came In” (June 21 2013, Times Literary Supplement), which outlines a very different age of intellectual ferment, the Enlightenment. The reviewer is deeply versed in that era and in his essay he lists writers across Europe and North America and two centuries, who, in various camps, were part of that period. Then I came across a third review—that of Sarah Churchwell’s Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of ‘The Great Gatsby.” Now Gatsby is a novel high school students do read, and Churchwell’s book seems to capture the wide intellectual world that fed F. Scott Fitzgerald as he wrote it—especially the work of the modernist writers T.S. Eliot and James Joyce.
The themes of these essays and the books they examine—ancient theological debate, centuries of humanist and Enlightenment ferment, and the cluster of early 20th-century experimental artists—are that the individuals, inventors, and ideas we offer to students as a sequence of greatest hits were really the expression of much larger moments of upheaval and exchange. What if we shifted our educational focus from “Key People and 5 Things You Need to Know” to an exploration of how such a hub of exchange forms, flourishes, and fades away? What if we said it doesn’t matter if you are teaching about the invention of bronze, the Renaissance, the birth of atomic and quantum theory, or digital innovation today, we want your students to examine and understand how a group of thinkers and creators comes together, argues, debates, steals, shares, competes, builds, and yields exponential leaps in thinking, creativity, and invention?
If growth was our theme, we could get past the “Plato to NATO” goal of passing on names and dates and explore patterns of innovation. We might end a unit of study by asking students to look around and discover where nodes of creativity are taking shape today. How might they best train to be part of those lively places and spaces? Would that not be a useful approach to education? I’d love to think about how to make this kind of curriculum real.