Creating an Arab Lens to Learning World History

Abstract:
Jordanian teachers in private schools are in most cases teaching historical content seen as significant by the writers of these international curricula. As a result of this unusual situation, generations of private school students in Jordan will graduate from high school with little to no understanding of their own History from an Arab perspective. Despite the social and political transformations in the Arab region over the past half century, the national History curricula in Jordan continues to focus on presenting single story narratives, content is prescribed and there is little emphasis on student inquiry and critical thinking skills. Hence, I embarked on an attempt to engage learners in critical pedagogies to examine modern world history, but through a decolonized, Arab interpretation of events and accounts. As an IB teacher teaching a conceptual inquiry-based curriculum, with limited prescribed content, I had the freedom and flexibility to be able to do this.
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2021-18256
Languages: English

I designed a world history course for 11th-12th grade International Baccalaureate students in a school in Jordan. Together with the students, we examined significant world history events, such as the results of World War I, decolonization and independence movements, and authoritarian states, but this time through an Arab lens. Instead of units on Hitler or Stalin, my students would be investigating authoritarianism by exploring Ata Turk, Shah Reza Pahlavi, and Nasser. Student inquiry would not be limited to English language sources and textbooks but would be supplemented by sources written from an Arab perspective and in Arabic. Students exploring Nasser’s persona and his policies for example would not be limited to their western textbooks but could actively engage with his speeches as primary sources, and maybe even challenge some of the interpretations in their textbooks. In designing this course my challenge was to design an engaging and relevant course that would incorporate an Arab perspective.

The Innovation: A Course on Modern Arab History

A few years ago, my school was revising its curriculum based on developments in the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma program. My much-loved Islamic History course was to either be replaced by or merged with a newly developed World History course. I had the choice of either adapting my course to the IB World History program but continuing with a focus on Islamic History or completely dropping it in favour of a modern world history curriculum with a focus on the history of the modern Arab world. The change seemed like an opportunity for a major shift of focus for my Diploma Programme (DP) History course. The DP is a rigorous university entrance qualification. HL classes are given freshman credit at many US colleges.

I chose to redevelop my IB DP History course with a focus on the modern Arab world. The IB subject guide says I can teach independence movements but does not specify what topics I must teach. I could still teach a favourite among students, like the Indian Independence Movement; but now I would compare and contrast it by looking at the Egyptian independence movement. Using Egypt as a case study would allow me to explore modernity in the Arab World, the emergence of Arab Nationalism and the impact of both world wars on this highly influential, Pan-Arab form of Nationalism. This is not a popular topic for IB teachers around the world who are more likely to teach topics that are well resourced. Also, there are no IB-published resources on this topic and very few teachers choose to investigate it. However, in the Arab world, Egypt is probably the richest example of Arab independence movements in late 19th and early 20th centuries. How could I teach independence movements but not explore a regional example?

Moving away from the safety and security of the IB-published Oxford textbook was innovative but not without an element of risk. I needed to prepare my own resources; primary and secondary sources would need to be collected and units re-planned. The challenge was to identify primary and secondary sources that were reliable enough for students to critically examine and use to write claims about the past.  This was going to be a time-consuming experience. Integrating modern Arab history into a world history program was also an attempt at decolonizing my History curriculum by decolonizing my perspective and resources when examining the post-world War I period and the roots of European imperialism in the Arab world. This felt like a risk worth taking. My students and myself would be applying the methods used in historical research and would have an opportunity to reflect on the challenges faced by Historians.

The Drive: In Search of an Arab Perspective

Almost a decade since the Arab revolutions and the outbreak of war in Syria, my students’ present reality was probably at its most confusing. I re-planned my History curriculum with my students in mind. I think the most compelling reason I had as a History teacher to transform my course to focus on the region was the need to help my students, and to a certain extent myself, understand the realities of our complex present. What is the purpose of History education in the secondary classroom if not to help student make better sense of their present realities? Students in the Arab world should have the opportunity to explore big overarching world history themes but with their region at the centre, rather than its usual place on the periphery of world events.

Dropping my favourite course, Islamic History, to design a new course that studies world history through an under-represented, Arab perspective was driven by two primary concerns. Firstly, I observed very limited narratives from or even about the Arab region on world histories. Secondly, students, teachers and other public actors in Jordan and even across the Arab region, are sometimes hampered by lack of resources and or are limited by the content heavy prescribed national curriculums, limiting a teacher’s ability to develop units of historical inquiry exploring Arab perspectives or positions in world historical events.

I have taught for the bulk of my career in the Arab world, at schools that teach an international curriculum to Arab students. Years of teaching international programs, such as the IGCSE History and IB Modern History syllabi has made me acutely aware of a problem of the representation of the contemporary Arab world and the History of the region in international/western textbook. Reliance on western world history textbooks has meant that for the most part, my Arab students studied World History programs with a strong Eurocentric focus, designed with British, American or European students in mind. When learning about both world wars, my Jordanian students used texts that present the past from a European or North American perspective, as wars fought by other nations, rarely stopping to pause or consider their own regions role or contributions in these conflicts, the millions of soldiers from their region who died in both world wars, and even less time spent looking at the impact of these conflicts on the modern Arab world. They certainly were not using resources or textbooks written with their region in mind or using sources from the region. The programs are taught to students in the Arab World, yet they are designed for the most part by British and European teachers with British or European students in mind. Teachers in the Arab region also use resources published by western textbook publishers, which again tend to focus on popular subjects and are generally produced by their authors with European audiences in mind.

This problem of representation can be addressed by teachers in the Arab region building educational content and resources on the history of the region. Such an initiative benefits the teachers’ students and a wider global audience because it brings to the classroom a richer diversity of content and perspectives. It seemed to be my students in Jordan would also benefit from learning in more detail about their own past, particularly significant modern developments. This is very difficult to do with a traditional content-focused, assessment approach. I was preparing my students for external standardised assessments but at this stage was lucky enough to be teaching a world history course based on a comparative, multi-perspective approach to history rooted in conceptual understanding. The IB curriculum gave me the autonomy to choose my own content. I had to teach the IB history course concepts, such as change, causation and significance, but through any case study of my or my student’s choice! In class I cover two case studies on independence movement from different regions, other than the Arab world. I give my student a choice on one of the options. They choose between the Indian independence movement or the Cuban independence movement. Either of these case studies make good comparisons with the Egyptian independence movement in terms of reasons for the emergence of these independence movements, methods used, reasons for success and challenges post-independence, all themes required by the IB. Students are also required to carry out independent inquiry into e third case study of their choice.

In secondary education, students in many countries across the Arab region take very little History in favour of other more practical subjects when they have the choice. If History is mandatory, it usually presents one nationalistic narrative, with very little focus on historical concepts or multiple perspectives. I do not want my students to memorize a particular historical narrative of the past, I want them to develop the critical thinking skills used to analyse various sources or narratives. At the very least a better approach to the teaching of this past is needed, the one-dimensional state or nationalistic narratives are clearly no longer capable of explaining the complex nature of events. Teaching History in Jordan and its Arab region over the last decade, especially since the events of the so-called Arab Spring or Arab Revolts, has made it very clear that a better understanding of our past in the region is essential. In the large number of schools in the region that adopt international curricula, it seems no longer possible to simply rely on western publishers and textbook authors to successfully and objectively narrate and evaluate the History of the region. If students have a better understanding of the events the led to the emergence and development of the modern Arab world, then they surely have a much better chance of making sense of their present.

The Outcomes

The most successful aspect has really been student engagement. In many cases, students have used their interest in topics we have studied in class to build on further research for their internal assessment work or extended essays. IB students carry out internal assessments for all their IB subjects, for History they carry out a small-scale historical investigation. Students are expected to develop an appropriate research question, answer their question using a range of source and exploring different perspectives, select two relevant sources used for in depth evaluation of their value and limitations as sources for their historical investigation, and finally students write a reflection on the methods used and challenges faced as a historian in reference to their own investigation.

Many students chose to explore topics related to the Arab world, one of my students who was very interested in the role of women in the Egyptian nationalist independence movement and chose to explore the role of Huda Ashrawi in the Egyptian independence movement. The student’s investigation chose to focus on the significance of Huda Sharawai’s contributions and presented sources both praising and critiquing Sharawi’s actions. The student was able to explore the perspective of scholars from the region writing in both English and Arabic. Students are given guidance and support in this historical investigation process.

The curriculum is still a work in progress, I was able to explore the downfall of the Ottoman empire, the 1919 Egyptian Revolution, the 1952 Coup, and the Nasser era, all with the aim of helping them understand why Mubarak was deposed in 2011, but also why Sisi is still around today. approach engages students with the historical concept of change and continuity. I think the most challenging aspect has been identifying bias in the resources available to us, but also identifying my own bias as a teacher and also having my students be able to situate their bias in the study of their own past. Teaching Jamal Abdul Nasser as a case study for the theme of authoritarian states was an eye opening investigation. I’ve always seen Jamal Abdul Nasser as this brave Arab nationalist that defied European imperialism and won, he is still that to me in certain respects, but examining his internal policies, evaluating his authoritarian measures allowed me to see him in a more balanced, more realistic light. He’s still my Arab nationalist hero, but now I and my students see him more clearly in light of his authoritarian legacy. We hold him up to account in classroom debates, we examine his legacy and critique it.

In other cases, exploring controversial topics related to allied diplomacy at the end of world War I, tend to lead to quite lively classroom debates. The overwhelming majority of students expressing disappointment in allied diplomacy in this period. In particular the infamous Sykes-Picot secret agreement in which British and French politicians secretly divided the Ottoman Arab territories between them, with complete disregard to the wishes of the local communities.  In class it was important for me that the story of this treaty not stop there. Decolonizing my curriculum came with examining[1] ignored communities. Exploring the King-Crane Commission collection, students examined petitions presented by the local communities in the Arab territories of the Ottoman empire, requesting independence.[2] Decolonizing the curriculum involves acknowledging these voices.

One of the most fruitful outcomes of this endeavour has been the creation of an excellent list of resources on teaching a diverse range of topics related to the region. There is a wealth of resources online and tremendous interest in teaching about the Arab world but not all of it so well geared to students who are from the region. In particular I encourage them to read through Hazine.info, a repository of archive reviews, interviews, long-form essays, and resource guides for researching the region with a focus on scholarship from and about the region.

Reflecting on Agency

In international schools across the region, teachers opt to teach safe and well-resourced topics rather than teach local or regional history that might be considered controversial or political in nature. However, continuing to avoid teaching this History in the classroom, where student can be taught the critical and analytical skills needed to decipher emotive or controversial topics, seems a wasted opportunity.

I think we should keep asking ourselves, “What is the purpose of teaching History in the Secondary classroom?” Yes, I want my students to write a great essay, pass their external IB exams and get good grades. I also want them to be able to compare different and even conflicting sources, develop arguments, use evidence to support their arguments and retain a good understanding of the content we have covered in class. In terms of the grander purpose of History education in the secondary classroom, mostly I want them to see how the past relates to the present, and how complex factors in the past sometimes interweave to create an even more complex present.

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Further Reading

Web Resources

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[1] King-Crane Commission Digital Collection, www2.oberlin.edu/library/digital/king-crane/intro.html (last accessed 4 Mai 2021).
[2] Between June and August 1919, the members of the King-Crane Commission traveled from Constantinople to Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and the southern reaches of Turkey.  They traveled as far south as Beersheba and as far east as Amman and Aleppo to determine wishes of the region’s inhabitants concerning a post-war settlement.

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Image Credits

1919 Revolution © 1919 Unknown, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recommended Citation

Mango, Kariman: Creating an Arab Lens to Learning World History. In: Public History Weekly 9 (2021) 4, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2021-18256.

Editorial Responsibility

Bassel Akar / Maria K. Georgiou

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Categories: 9 (2021) 4
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2021-18256

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