Tunisian Fruit or Caesar Salad?

In my world history class yesterday, we were discussing rebellions and revolutions.  When do people get fed up and decide to change or overthrow a government?  One of my students was presenting about Julius Caesar.  His presentation told us that three years after Caesar had defeated Pompey (his rival in the Roman Civil War), some areas of Rome were still loyal to Pompey.  So Caesar had to put those rebellions down.  One famous site of rebellion was a place called Munda in modern-day Spain:

(I know the letters are too small to read, but the city that the red arrow is pointing to is Munda — trust me)

While I was taking notes on the presentation, I made this observation — “link to Rebellions in Libya.”

When the presentation was done, I made the connection between Caesar’s rebellions and what’s going on now with pockets of Libya that are rebelling against the leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.  It’s not exactly the same — Caesar was still in the process of establishing control whereas Gaddafi has had control for 40 years and is trying to prevent any rebellion — but it’s a connection worth making.

Students also connected the idea of rebellion to the Ionian revolt against Persia back around 500 BCE, where the Athenians helped the Ionians.  The Persians put down the Ionian revolt and then learned that one of the upstart Greek city-states, Athens, had aided the Ionians.  The Persians wanted to teach the lesson that “it’s not cool to help rebels,” and so they came after Athens at the Battle of Marathon.  Unfortunately for Persia, the Athenians pulled off an upset victory and that victory helped make possible the later Golden Age of Athens.  Not to mention the modern 26-mile race, which represents the distance from the plains of Marathon on the coast back to Athens.

So that was a nice connection.  And we’re learning about rebellions at the same time as we learn about Caesar.  But why is this entry titled “Tunisian Fruit or Caesar Salad”?

Well, at some point in the discussion I made a reference to how the rebellions in Egypt and Libya and Syria all took their cue from a fruit vendor in Tunisia.  One of my students had made a reference to that event earlier in the year, and I thought most students would know about the fruit vendor in Tunisia.

I saw a bunch of blank faces. 

You know — the fruit vendor — the one who lit himself on fire to dramatize the unjust conditions in Tunisia?

With maybe three exceptions, the rest of my students had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.

So I typed this into Google (which looked all chemistry-ish because it was the 100th anniversary of Robert Bunsen’s birth):

Now what’s sad — at least I think it’s sad — is that because there is certain “material that we have to cover,” we don’t have the flexibility to decide that for homework tonight, instead of doing whatever we were scheduled to do, we will instead watch that 60 Minutes  documentary called “How a slap sparked Tunisia’s revolution” and talk about it in class the next time we meet.

If you just mention current events, but don’t devote substantial time to unpacking them and putting them in context, then what’s the point?

And here’s a deeper issue: is it more important for students to know about Julius Caesar or about the revolution going on right now in Libya (and Egypt and Syria and Yemen)?

I know — I know — both matter.  But if you could only understand ONE of those things, what would you go with?  Better yet, ask students what they would rather learn about. 

I had 19 students earlier this year come to school at 7 a.m. to learn more about the revolution in Egypt.  I don’t see them showing up that early to learn more about Caesar.  He’s just not as compelling.

There are books about Caesar, and he’s incredibly complex, and he’s worth studying at some point.  I have been teaching world history for more than a decade, and I never before heard of Munda.  I love that I learned about that rebellion from a student. 

But the revolutions happening right now in Libya and Syria and Yemen that are on the front page of today’s Washington Post are just as complex, and just as deserving of concentrated study.

One difference is that students are — generally speaking — more interested in learning about their world today than in the world from 2000 years ago.  If they were to read the article above about how the war is blurring the humanitarian focus in Libya, they might also be able to interact with real people who have fled from Libya — or at least see video of those people leaving.  It feels more real to students, because it’s happening now.

So at the school for global citizenship that I’m planning to open, we would not be marching on to learn about the next topic in the syllabus while history is being made around us.  We’d slow down and spend several weeks learning about the modern history of the Middle East since World War One.  And that might lead us to a unit on Islam, because it would be useful to know where the Ottoman Empire came from. 

But the key is that our motivating factor would be student interest in understanding what’s going on NOW.  And we might find that we’d spend an hour every Friday summarizing the latest news in the Middle East.  Or we might choose to understand the tragedy that is unfolding in Japan. 

It makes little sense to me to study something that is both ancient and really complex — such as the Roman Republic AND Empire — in only a few weeks.

I was chatting online about a year ago with a former student who attends a local high school, and he was describing his sophomore world history class.  Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

Me: I know you did world history on the block schedule, and that was so “last semester” :), but what do you remember about Islam? I’m prepping a 2-week unit on it.

Former Student: That unit was only a day or two =)

What in the world are we doing by “teaching” Islam in a day or two???  And why don’t we teach about things students need to understand their world today? 

For instance, later in the same period where we had the discussion about Rebellion and about Tunisian Fruit, I talked about how the father of a student I teach is going on a two-week business trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  He’s going to email us his impressions from his trip so we can get a glimpse at a modern Islamic state.  That should be very cool.

I showed students this picture of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia:

and noted that he’s referred to as “The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.”

I mentioned that one of the reasons Osama Bin Laden gave for the 9/11 attacks was that he was upset that the US had troops stationed in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, home of the two holiest sites in Islam — Mecca and Medina.

This statement resulted in blank stares from my students. 

One student asked whether Bin Laden made it known that he was unhappy with the US troops in Saudi Arabia before 9/11.  I explained that yes, he and the group he leads — Al Qaeda — had been responsible for bombings at US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, as well as the attack on the USS Cole in October of 2000.  In both instances, Bin Laden made it clear he wanted U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia (the US troops came into Saudi Arabia as part of the first Gulf War back in 1991).

I looked for a report described how Bin Laden wanted US troops out of Saudi Arabia —

And when I pulled up the CNN timeline of Bin Laden’s life, something interesting happened… I asked students if they had ever studied or learned about Osama Bin Laden.


So why don’t students at top high schools know anything about Osama Bin Laden?  One reason, I think, is that current events are not part of the curriculum and students increasingly do not read a daily paper. 

So, getting back to the title of this posting… which seems more crucial for a citizen to know about today?  Given a choice, I’d go with the Tunisian Fruit over the Caesar Salad.

But before I ordered either one of those things from the menu, I’d make sure students knew a thing or two about 9/11.  Today’s ninth graders were in Kindergarten when that happened, and nobody has ever taught them about it — as I learned back around 9/11 of last year, when we spent most of a class on 9/11.  During that discussion, I learned that it was the first time many of them had ever seen footage of the planes crashing into the towers.  I also learned that most of them thought Iraq was responsible for 9/11.

How about this for a meaningful project: 

Explain what happened on 9/11 and how that attack changed the United States and the world. 

Imagine a school where students could spend several weeks doing that.  They would produce a web page and make a video that interviews at least five adults about how their life is different after 9/11.  Do history.  But make it applied and relevant.  Let student questions guide the details of the inquiry. 

Forget about “covering the material”.  Make sure students EMPATHIZE with people in other places around the world.  For me, that’s the more important goal of studying history.  Because hey, in today’s world, I can look up Julius Caesar any time I need to on my phone:

The question is — why would I ever need to do that?  Maybe some day later, when I have sufficient time and energy to devote to Caesar, I can read a biography about him and get into his life.  But spending a day on Caesar makes about as much sense as spending two days on Islam.  Choose a few areas of interest, go in-depth, have students MAKE SOMETHING, and make a lasting impression on students.

And make sure they know something about how the world has changed after 9/11.  I’d do that before you learn about the Pyramids or the French Revolution. 

Do not misunderstand — I am not saying educated people don’t need to know about the Pyramids or about the French Revolution, or that they are not interesting topics.  Indeed, the French Revolution seems like a particularly good thing to study these days (too bad we won’t get to it in my course, which ends in 1500). 

The thing is, the Pyramids and Julius Caesar are not interesting to my students right now.  When I open my school, it may be that on a slow news day, we might devote a morning to learning a bit about the Pyramids.  We could connect it to math quite easily.  But adhering to a pre-set curriculum when there are things like Japan and Libya going on does not seem to serve students particularly well.

Furthermore, before most students can really get into ancient history (a few are really into it on their own, and that’s cool), it’s helpful if students have a sense of what’s going on NOW.  Until they have that sense, Julius Caesar is somewhat interesting, but is largely disconnected from their lives.

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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