Connecting current events to ancient times

In a few days, Cary Academy’s middle school is putting on a production of Antigone, the Greek play written by Sophocles about 2400 years ago.

For readers unfamiliar with the play, one of the crucial questions it presents is how/whether to bury Antigone’s brother, a traitor to the state in a recent civil war. The new king, Creon, decides that because he fought against the state, Antigone’s brother’s body “will lie unburied on the battlefield, prey for carrion animals like worms and vultures, the harshest punishment at the time.” (summary quote from the Wikipedia article about the play)

Antigone won’t stand to see her brother’s body treated that way, so she defies the king (who happens to be her future father-in-law — she’s engaged to his son) and buries the body and says, essentially, “I think your laws are unjust and I defy you — do what you will with me.”

Antigone has been on my mind for a few reasons — and not just because the middle school where I used to work is putting on a performance in a few days.

The play has also been on my mind since this summer, when a good friend of mine told me that her son read Antigone for English class at his high school in the Washington, DC, area. She asked him what he was reading, and he pronounced the title of the play “Aunty Gone.”

“Aunty Gone?” she asked incredulously. Surely at some point when her son read the play, she figured that his teacher would have pronounced it correctly. [Below is the correct pronunciation from…]

My friend was less concerned about her son’s pronunciation (though she was appalled by that) and more concerned that the incorrect pronunciation was a symptom that her son’s class had breezed through the play in a day or two, and did not take time to reflect on its meaning.

Particularly because it’s a play about war that has stood the test of time, and because the US has been at war for the past decade in Afghanistan and Iraq, Antigone seems like one that it makes sense to slow down and digest.

I worry that many students at Cary Academy are so rushed with their busy schedules that they have not been keeping up with the news, and may therefore miss the opportunity to connect their classmates’ upcoming performance of Antigone with recent headline events in Libya. Here’s one of the lead stories from the Washington Post:

As I started to read about Gaddafi, I came across this article in the Washington Post about where the former Libyan leader (or dictator, depending on who’s writing the history) should be buried.

Here’s a pertinent quote from that article:

Senior officials met into the night to consider the demands for an investigation and figure out how to bury Gaddafi secretly so that the grave would not become a pilgrimage site. His body was stored Friday in a refrigerated room normally used as a meat locker in Misurata, the home of the fighters who captured him, and local citizens were allowed to file by. Scores of people lined up for a glimpse of Gaddafi, whose troops partially destroyed the city in fierce fighting this past spring.

Snatches of cellphone video posted to YouTube and played on Arab-language television showed the revolutionaries trying to raise Gaddafi from the ground after his capture Thursday. His face was dripping with blood, his shirt splotched with crimson. But he was clearly alive.

“You dog! This is Misurata. Misurata captured you,” they taunted him. One spat in his face.

“Have pity! Don’t hit me!” Gaddafi cried.

Now you know pity!” one man responded.

There are clear connections to Antigone here — how do you treat the dead during war-time? (Gaddafi’s death also raises additional questions about what constitutes a “war crime” — see below)

There were also connections to Antigone when Osama Bin Laden was killed in May 2011 and his ashes were scattered at sea, in part to prevent his body from becoming a pilgrimage site for Al Qaeda members.

When I was teaching in May, the end of the school year was approaching, and I did not have time to fully explore with my ninth grade students the connections I saw between Bin Laden’s sea burial and Antigone (which we’d read — but only in summary form; who has time to read a whole play? — earlier in my world history class when we studied Ancient Greece).

I mentioned the connection, but I felt bad that the pace of the curriculum demanded that we press on with the Renaissance and Reformation. I wasn’t able to give students space to reflect more about Antigone and its applicability to events today.

One of the (many) things I think we need to change about our current education system is to address current events, discuss them thoughtfully, and put them in historical perspective.

Here’s how we might deal with Gaddafi’s death at Triangle Learning Community, the middle school I plan to open in August 2013:

First, because it’s all over the news, we’d read a few articles about Gaddafi and what just happened so we’d have some basic information. Then we’d discuss that and students would blog about their questions and reactions. For homework, each student would be tasked with getting some historical perspective on Gaddafi and Libya — a fine starting place might be some basic internet research, such as the red link circled below:

Once we had a sense of the basic history — where did the modern state of Libya come from? what powers were fighting for control of Libya during World War II? how did Gaddafi come to power? — we’d step back and point out that humans have been dealing with these sorts of issues ever since wars began. We would then take the time to read and act out key scenes from Antigone (it’s a play, after all — it should be staged, not just read) — and we’d do it thoughtfully enough so that we could pronounce the protagonist’s name…

We’d then explore whatever dimensions of Gaddafi’s fall in Libya seemed most compelling to the students. For instance, was it a war crime for the rebels to kill Gaddafi? Does it matter if Gaddafi himself was surely guilty of war crimes?

One of the big questions in Antigone is whether every person has certain rights — in this case, the right to a proper burial. If so, can a person forfeit those rights by being a traitor to the state? The king in Antigone thinks he can do what he wants with Antigone’s brother’s body, just as the rebels in Libya apparently decided to do what they wanted with Gaddafi once they captured him.

These are big questions worthy of thoughtful discussion. There are no “right” answers, but isn’t this the sort of thing students should be thinking about and reflecting upon?

At my school, as we proceeded with this impromptu unit — which might take four or five morning sessions (morning sessions are two hours long) — students would blog each morning about what they learned and what questions they had about events in Libya and events from ancient Greece.

As we looked at the topic of war, some students might get interested in various aspects of the topic. Some students might want, for example, to investigate Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and if we do this right, they would make the connection between Sophocles –the playwright from 2400 years ago who wrote Antigone — and US Marines who are still reading his plays today to understand what battle does to people.  A teacher’s (or learning facilitator’s) job is to help students construct the right sort of searches to make the connections:

By the way, are our schools teaching students how to construct thoughtful and fruitful web searches?  If not, why not??

This sort of exploration — using present day events to connect to historical events — is what I have previously called applied history, and IMHO it’s far more engaging and meaningful to young people who want to make sense of the world in which they live.

One of my former students recently sent me this email (thanks, Samantha!):

Hi Mr. Goldberg,

I was watching the news last night and I remember you being interested in this and I did a little research on it myself! I just wanted to check in and I thought you would appreciate this article!

If you follow the link, the ABC video is pretty powerful — it shows Gaddafi bloodied and beaten.

Our students live in a world where they are bombarded with this sort of information. They are innately curious and are struggling to make sense of it.

We need to do a better job of helping them make sense of their world. They want to explore such questions as whether it is okay to treat a former brutal dictator this way. That’s a question that matters. And it matters right now…

Let’s return to that quote from the Washington Post article:

“You dog! This is Misurata. Misurata captured you,” they taunted him. One spat in his face.

“Have pity! Don’t hit me!” Gaddafi cried.

Now you know pity!” one man responded.

And let’s give our students time to slow down and discuss this in more than mere sound bites — does Gaddafi deserve pity because he’s a human being (the same way Antigone’s brother deserved a proper burial even though he fought against the king)? Or do some human beings — such as Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, etc. — forfeit their human rights when they commit heinous crimes against their own people?

Based on your reading of Antigone, what would Sophocles say? And what do you think? Take some time to reflect… then we’ll discuss.

POSTSCRIPT — Gaddafi’s body was buried in secret, according to this article in the LA Times from October 25, 2011:

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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One Response to Connecting current events to ancient times

  1. zackwhitesides says:

    Good job on connection Antigone and the third world counntries the American peopledont know what’s its like to have actual say so or to have want to overthrow goverment

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