x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Panel links the ancient world and modern education

The recent Teaching the Ancient World conference looked at how the study of ancient history plays an important part of a modern, liberal arts education.

Earlier this week, the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute looked at how the study of ancient world history is an important part of a modern, liberal arts education. The Teaching the Ancient World conference on Sunday and Monday included four panel discussions. The aim, the institute said, was to show how studying the ancient world is a foundation to education that "may even help us gain a long-term, historical perspective on our own rapidly changing society".

Coming from a wide range of specialisations under the ancient history umbrella, the panellists had much to debate over teaching methods and how to define ancient history as an academic department. But panellists agreed that the study of ancient history presents problems for undergraduate students as well as teachers - and that the obstacles are universal and ongoing. They also agreed on the relevance of ancient history to modern students anywhere, including in the UAE.

Marc Van de Mieroop, the chairman of the history department at Columbia University in New York, stressed the importance of building a narrative in order to attract and maintain students' attention. "When we deconstruct [established historical narratives] - we end up with very little that's of any excitement to an undergraduate student," he said. "It's much more enjoyable to read a story than a sales contract."

The NYU professor Kostis Smyrlis said that most of his Byzantine history students in New York had no prior awareness of the subject. "Too much [of Byzantium] is unknown and strange; names, geography, historical context, periodisation - these are complications that tend to discourage students." To make coursework more accessible to students, Smyrlis said museum visits and class discussion of Byzantine art are helpful but he insisted that the teacher should relate the subject to overlapping or connected historical events. "One cannot understand issues such as the history of the Crusades or why Russia has a different type of Christianity than Western Europe without passing through Byzantium," he said.

These strategies of emphasising narrative and linking regional histories may provide the keys to igniting interest in history departments in the UAE. The Zayed University professor Jeffrey Szuchman said that in response to student demand, the university expects to begin an Emirati studies major - "consisting of courses in Emirati history and culture, anthropology, archaeology, museum studies and tourism" - by next autumn.

Zayed University introduces ancient history to its students through two modules, one covering Greco-Roman history, and the other covering ancient China and India. At the end of these modules, students spend a week studying the Silk Road trading routes, which stretched from China to Europe via India, Persia and Arabia. At this point in the syllabus, the importance of ancient local history becomes clear.

The aim, Szuchman said, is to "offer a way to discuss the experience of the ancient past in the context of the present UAE, which itself is undergoing a transformation as radical as that of the earliest cities". Panellists noted some initial challenges for history students and teachers in the Emirates. Most entering undergraduates learnt history through rote memorisation of dates. In many of the area's secondary schools, it is not the student's role to question teachers or to critique texts, but rather to be instructed. Breaking these habits of mind is a distinct challenge for professors, who must navigate cultural, religious and traditional sensitivities while encouraging students to analyse historical sources and engage in cross-cultural comparison.

Professor Shireen Atreis, who teaches archaeology and art history at UAE University, said that professors planning courses for students in the UAE did not need to "narrow [their] approach - Capable planning and wise interpretation should be observed - in the selection of schooling, resources and media". Another challenge Szuchman cited is the growing concern over the loss of national identity. He pointed to the "projected capacity of three to five million residents in Abu Dhabi by 2030".

In this current national discussion, ancient historical scholarship may provide some perspective. Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at The American University in Cairo, suggested that tourism and immigration confer status. Regarding Egypt's cultural treasures, she noted a perception "that if it's at home, it's not that great or interesting, but when you have a sense that someone from abroad has an interest in it, sometimes that makes it worthwhile".