Applied History

This past Friday morning (Feb. 4), a total of 19 high school students came to my classroom at 7 a.m. to learn more about Egypt:

Careful counters will note only 18 students in the picture above (go ahead: count — it’s fun).  One of the students had to leave before I took the group’s picture because she had to prepare to anchor our school’s morning TV broadcast at 8 a.m.  She’s also one of the leads in the school play.  These are busy students who attend debate tournaments, play musical instruments, practice for dance recitals and participate in varsity sports (among other things).  It’s inspiring that they sacrificed much-needed sleep to learn more about Egypt at 7 a.m. on a Friday.  Students really do want to learn — we’re naturally curious beings.  We’re just not necessarily naturally curious about the curriculum that’s been handed to us…

As a way to get folks who had not been following the situation in Egypt up to speed on a basic level, one of the first things we did, after using Google Earth and this blog to get oriented,

was to watch a fun and informative 4-minute video (brought to my attention, actually, by Lauren, the student who had to leave early and who is not in the picture).

Because it’s a four-minute introduction, it necessarily simplifies things.  Let me show you a few screen captures from the video so you get the flavor:

To really start to understand what’s going on, though, we can’t just skip thousands of years of history and start in 1979 — we have to go back a little further — ideally to early Muslim times to understand the significance of Cairo, and at least back to World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire.  Let’s start there.  Below is a Map of the Ottoman Empire in 1914, just before World War I:

The reason Egypt is a pink Nominal Ottoman Territory is that Egypt and Sudan were really controlled by Great Britain, because Africa was carved up at the 1884 Berlin Conference by European powers such as Great Britain, France, Germany and Belgium.

In 1952, Egypt overthrew King Farouk I, even though he was supported by the British.  The second president of a free modern Egypt was Gamal Abdel Nasser.  Now don’t lose me here — there are only FOUR presidents in all of Egypt’s modern history, and Nasser is #2 — you can do this — here’s a picture of the first three (Nasser is in the middle):

In 1956, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal (nationalized is a fancy word for took over and made it part of Egypt), which prompted an international crisis and an invasion of Egypt by Great Britain, Israel and France.  There’s more to this story, but for our purposes right now, the Cold War background is that both the USSR and the US wanted to have influence over Egypt, and Egypt has not had a ton of military success of its own.

For example, in 1967, Israel defeated Egypt in the Six-Day War, and took over the Sinai Peninsula (and also the West Bank and Golan Heights, as shown in the map below).

This is significant to understanding our simplified video, because the video started in 1979 when Israel gave Egypt back the Sinai peninsula as part of a “land for peace” deal, negotiated by U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

There’s more to this history, or course, including the 1973 war when Egypt and Syria led a coalition of Arab states in an invasion of Israel.  Depending on who’s telling the story, this war has three names — Ramadan War, Yom Kippur War, or the more neutral October War.

According to Wikipedia,

The war began when the coalition launched a joint surprise attack on Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism, which coincided with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Okay, so here’s my point: because we’re trying very hard to make sense of Egypt NOW… we have an incentive to learn about Egypt’s modern history.  It’s not some abstract “you should know Egypt’s history because it’s good for you” — it’s a real live problem that we’re trying to figure out.

The difficulty with most history classes is that there’s not a burning desire to understand the material being presented.  My students are not particularly “grabbed” by the idea of ancient Greece, though they do play along when I get excited about some aspects of the subject.  But they’re certainly not coming at 7 a.m. to learn about how the Parthenon was created using ancient technology.

And that’s fine.  But what if we could leverage students’ innate desire to make sense of their world and do something I’ll call “applied history,” meaning that there’s a meaningful goal that motivates our historical inquiry — in this case the goal is to understand what’s going on with the protests in Egypt today.

To get to that goal, you’d need some background history (not too much depth for the ancient history — just broad strokes — Egypt was a thriving kingdom for thousands of years, and was then ruled by such folks as Alexander the Great, then the Romans, then a few other empires, then the British, and now we get to modern Egypt with Nasser and the material we just explored in this blog post).

And then, armed with that incomplete background (but hey, you have to start somewhere), you could focus on understanding what’s going on today, filling in holes as you go.

And along the way, you could read poignant stories about reporters who were captured and held by the Egyptian secret police for 24 hours.

And then you could get into comparisons like the one Nick Kristof makes in his recent column — will the revolution going on in Egypt today be more like the 1989 revolution when the Berlin Wall came down, or more like the 1979 revolution in Iran, when the Shah (king) was replaced by an Islamic republic, led at the time by Ayatollah Khomeini?

Here’s the start of Nick Kristof’s column from Saturday:

If you want to follow his argument, you will need to do some applied history: learn about the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and learn about the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and think about whether Egypt will be more like one than the other.

So that’s the weekend update.  As of Monday morning, protests are still going strong in Egypt, and seem relatively peaceful.  The night-time atmosphere is even one that now includes night-time poetry readings and performances.

We’ll keep trying to figure out what it all means.  But something big is happening in Egypt, and it’s fun to learn about what’s going on.  Maybe fun isn’t entirely the right word — as one of my students pointed out (thanks, Rachel!), this is a harrowing time for folks with ties to Egypt.  Her recent email to me is a good place to end this blog post, so that we are reminded of the human dimension of a revolution:

I had an interesting, and somewhat surprising, conversation with my mom the other day. She’s a doctor and she treats the students at NC State, many of which are from places around the world. One of her patients was from Egypt and was experiencing terrible insomnia because of the rebellion going on right now. He’s so afraid that his friends and family are getting injured, and the fact that he isn’t able to reach them by phone, Email, internet, Facebook, etc, worries him.

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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2 Responses to Applied History

  1. emf says:

    Applied history! Hear hear!
    Three cheers for you, sir. It’s great to hear of a history teacher who’s interested in connecting the stuff we’re “supposed to be learning” with real-world relevance, in an academic world where exactly the opposite is encouraged. Teaching things of relevance to the current world is a politically and academically taboo, because such topics “create conflict”. Such teaching could lead students to realize they can interfere with the everyday business of world, threatening the security of “the way things are done”. Modern education is about distraction and disengagement, not enlightenment and empowerment to create real change. Students are locked into a classroom being bored stiff learning about dead nations, and meanwhile, outside, the world is on fire. Not an accident, nor an oversight.

  2. Pingback: Connecting current events to ancient times | What I Learned Today

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