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Investigating the Past: The Teaching of Ancient History in Liberal Arts Colleges

Eric K. Dugdale

This paper examines the place of ancient history in the curriculum of liberal arts colleges. These institutions favor a model of education that is interdisciplinary; as a result, specialized training is rarely seen as a prerequisite for teaching a particular discipline, and most faculty members teach across disciplinary boundaries.

These tendencies are perhaps most acutely seen in the teaching of courses in ancient history, most commonly housed within classics rather than history departments, and frequently taught by faculty members without specialized training in history. The presenter will share illustrations from personal experience, when as a new hire s/he was asked to teach a survey history course (Historical Perspectives I) that began in the third millennium BCE in Mesopotamia and ended in fifteenth century CE Italy. The presenter’s philological background strongly influenced the kind of history that was covered, with literary texts (e.g. The Epic of Gilgamesh) and intellectual history (e.g. the ideas of Pre-Socratics philosophers and Renaissance thinkers) looming especially large. And while the course was a survey course, it lingered disproportionately in ancient Greece and Rome.  

Courses such as this can come under scrutiny from various quarters. History departments may question their content and methodologies and be reluctant to count them towards the history major (while at the same time many history departments are no longer interested in teaching ancient history and readily cede this ground to classics departments). For those students planning to go on to a graduate program in history, we must ask whether they are prepared for the kinds of historical inquiry in which they are likely to engage in the twenty-first century. For example, is the heavy emphasis that many classics departments place on Greek and Latin language skills warranted, or does it displace other skills more important to history in the modern age?

The liberal arts model may, however, have certain advantages. A non-specialist instructor can bring to the study of history the impulse to ask the unexpected questions that students also often bring, the same curiosity that drove Herodotus to engage in inquiry (‘historiē’). Like Herodotus, the modern non-specialist classicist can model to students the heuristic methods of learning from credible sources, and can be more responsive to the interests of students. Two years ago, our department did a major revision of the Historical Perspectives I course to include more global history. This was largely in response to students’ interests in a more globalized curriculum. We have moved away from the survey course to a topics-focused course that introduces students to a wide range of historical sources and methods of inquiry, including archaeology, epigraphy, numismatics, monumental art, and film studies. So, for example, we offer a unit on comparative empire with a focus on Darius, Augustus and Qin Shi Huang-di (the First Emperor of China), as well as units that place Islam, Confucianism and Buddhism in their cultural contexts. As a liberal arts program, our tendencies are interdisciplinary, and we integrate values into our study of history. So, for example, in preparing students to write a research paper comparing the accounts of Darius' rise to power in Herodotus and the Behistun inscription, we also asked them to investigate accounts (newspaper databases, microfilm) of the controversial construction of the presidential sculptures on Mount Rushmore. The Lakota viewpoints make students more aware of the underlying narrative of ethnic conflict between Persians and Medes in the Herodotus and Behistun accounts.

The teaching of ancient history plays a critical role in helping students develop new perspectives, skills, and capacities. As they understand their lives within a broader historical context, see the relation of narrative to power and of perspective to societal position, they are equipped to function as citizens able to think critically, to detect bias, and to engage with fellow humans beyond their native affiliations and work towards the greater good.

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History in Classics / Classics in History

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