Teaching world civilization to ninth graders is an experience akin to running a marathon, especially if the curriculum begins with the paleolithic and neolithic periods and concludes with the Renaissance. As with any survey course, the temptation is to walk through the Old and New Stone Ages; skip through the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, Greece and Rome; jog through the Middle Ages; and “pour on the steam” to get through the Renaissance. The result is an exhausted teacher and a somewhat overwhelmed and confused class. As my students and I recently reviewed the year’s notes, we looked back through a mountain range of material to discover that in our efforts to reach the finish line, we had only scratched the surface or hit the peaks and that there were wide, appealing valleys between those peaks that we never noticed in our race to reach modernity.
To remedy this problem of superficial coverage of early world cultures, I am planning to identify a natural area of emphasis within each unit. One way to draw students into these cultures is to make them active participants in, rather than passive recipients of, their own learning. To illustrate this approach, I have chosen Egypt as my case study because it has become clear to me over the past five years that any attempt to present the history of Egypt must place its emphasis on art.
Through analysis of Egyptian tomb art, students will find a different and, I believe, more effective way into Egyptian culture. While Egypt lends itself to an interdisciplinary blending of history, practices, and expressions, the real change in this unit is the methodology and study techniques. Once used for the study of Egypt, this approach can be applied to other cultures as well.
Because the ancient Egyptian nobility buried so many of their everyday belongings with them in their tombs, teachers and students are afforded the opportunity to analyze a vast array of material objects in our efforts to piece together not only the history but also the beliefs, the “values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions”
of this ancient society. New Haven teachers and students are fortunate to have the Peabody Museum’s Egyptian Collection and the Yale Art Gallery’s Egyptian exhibit at our disposal. For several years, visits to these displays have been high points in our study of Egypt, as wellinformed docents pointed out curious facts about the objects behind glass.
From now on, viewing Egyptian tomb art will take on new dimensions. Rather than being led around the outside of Egyptian culture, students will learn how to experience the culture on an artifact level. Though they may not be able to handle most museum objects, students will be able to view objects and learn from them in a way they never can from simply reading about art or reading about culture. In his article entitled “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method,” Jules Prown, Professor of The History of Art at Yale University, proposed a method of object analysis which helps students experience the art rather than just look at it. I intend to engage my students actively in the process of “encounter(ing) the past at first hand” by giving them “direct sensory experience of surviving historical events.”
As Prown points out, “artifacts are historical events. They are like things that happened in the past, but unlike other historical events, they continue to exist in the present.
They can be reexperienced. Through them, history can be relived.” Undoubtedly, any student who can handle an artifact made three to four thousand years ago will have a personal experience that cannot be recreated with words, numbers, or pictures. As teachers, we all know the joy of working with students whose interest has been aroused.