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On My Desk: Teaching from the Edge

Tom Laichas
Crossroads School

    When Africa comes to the classroom, it's often packaged as a rebuke to myths of European power. To combat the notion that only Europe boasted powerful monarchs,  world history courses recruit 14th century Malian King Mansa Musa.  Having accumulated enormous wealth and power from Mali's control of trans-Saharan trade, the King embarked on a pilgrimage to Mecca.  While sojourning in Egypt, his largesse sparked an inflation so severe that it disrupted the Cairene economy.  Inverting student expectations, here was an African prince to rival any in the world.1
    Another popular vignette focuses upon correspondence between Portugal's King João III and Kongo's King Alfonso I (Nzinga Mbemba), a recent convert  to Christianity.   In a series of letters, Alfonso implored Joéo to regulate and reduce the slave trade. Here, for some of our students, is a rich irony: an African monarch tutoring a European prince in Christian ethics.2
    Africa is not the only region whose history we ransack for inversion and irony. Korean movable type, Incan masonry, and a ship from Zheng He's fleet (which dwarfs the little caravel of the type Columbus sailed), intentionally provoke comparison to European technology, engineering, and naval architecture.
     Employing non-European history as a foil to conventional wisdom challenges what students know, but not how they think. Monarchs, empires, and exploration: all are familiar concepts.   If  "the past is a foreign country," these stories do not, by themselves,  take us very far beyond our own borders. 4
    To go further, we might use a conceptual framework unfamiliar from European history.  One such framework:  teaching history from the edge.
    Moving the edge to history's center is already common to a lot of scholarship.  Richard Bulliet's Islam: The View from the Edge (to which I owe the title of this column) suggests one approach.  Bulliet critiques the standard narrative of early Islamic history: an arrow from Mecca to Damascus to Baghdad, tracing the advance of Arab armies and Arab dynasties over the first three centuries after the Prophet.  The vast regions whose peoples the early Caliphs ruled but did not convert were, in Bulliet's phrase,  Islam's "edge." However, these very frontiers of faith, language and culture became crucibles for the transformation of Islam, forcing an accommodation between its Arab roots and its universalist aspirations. Bulliet focuses on Persia, but later suggests that fruitful tension between center and edge attended the expansion of Islam into Africa, South Asia, and island Southeast Asia.3 
    The edge is also central to Christopher Ehret's work in African history (see his interview in this issue). Between 1000 BCE and 300 CE, Ehret writes, Africa underwent a dramatic transformation, a "Classical Age."  Ehret's choice of words is provocative.  The word "Classical" conjures cities risen from broad alluvial plains, arts flourishing under the patronage of wealthy aesthetes, monuments rising from wide urban avenues, and shopkeepers selling all manner of exotic goods. 4
    Ehret confounds these expectations.  He does not locate the African Classical Age in the imperial cities of Egypt or Meroe.  Instead, he finds it in 1st millennium BCE villages in the African Great Lakes region.  The four peoples whose frontiers intersected in that region—Nilo-Saharan, Afrasan, Niger-Congo and Khoisan—had already developed distinct strategies for survival and for economic success.  The Great Lake region's diverse environments required intercultural borrowings and adaptations.  It is along the Great Lakes and the eastern edge of the Rift Valley, Ehret argues, that Bantu-speaking peoples developed technological, social, and economic structures which  so influenced later African history.
    Jerry Bentley's Old World Encounters brings attention to Transoxiana, lying between the Amu Darya (formerly the Oxus) and Syr Daya (Jaxartes) rivers southeast of the Aral Sea. Distant from familiar civilizational centers, the region served as a corridor linking Iran, India, Central Asia, and Mongolia.  But it was no mere periphery; like Ehret's Great Lakes and Richard Bulliet's Persia, Jerry Bentley's Transoxiana nurtured religious and cultural innovations which reverberated throughout Central, South, and East Asia.5 
    Of course, the frontier has long been central to United States history.  In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner  famously declared that successive Wests had revitalized American democratic values (and noted, ominously, that the frontier was passing from American experience).  Historians have thoroughly revised Turner's characterization of the West, but still believe in the frontier's importance.  Over the past twenty years, Patricia Limerick and Richard White, among many others, have described a very different sort of West, a zone of intercultural encounter and economic innovation.    "Frontier studies" have long since gone global; such studies have demonstrated that central questions can often best be answered out on the periphery6  
    If it is important to introduce the edge into world history classrooms, just when are we supposed to do it? Where do we get the time?  No one - certainly not Bulliet, Ehret, or Bentley - would suggest that we devote less attention to the world's core civilizations.
    Fortunately it is not difficult to reframe standard courses of study in world history.  The key is to ask questions which provoke students to rethink the history they have studied.  Here is one line of inquiry:  Where is history?  At the center (city, empire, civilization) or on the periphery (hinterland, colony, frontier)?
    World history classes already devote time to the roots of religious traditions.   Turning student attention to the geography of religious innovation can help them think about cores and peripheries.  Throughout much of its history, the Levant stood at the edge of two imperial systems: Egyptian and Mesopotamian; Parthian and Roman.  Mecca was a commercial entrepôt linking Byzantine, Sasanid and Axumite economies.  Buddhism entered China from its Mongolian, Central Asian, and Tibetan peripheries.  Europe's Celtic fringe contributed a disproportionate share of the missionaries who evangelized northern Europe.  Why should so much religious innovation occur on frontiers?  Is this coincidence, or is something else going on?  13
    Dynastic and civilizational replacement can also serve the purpose.  The frontier town of Rome displaced the Etrurian cities.  For centuries, new dynasties descended upon Mesopotamia, Persia, and, later, India from Transoxiana and Afghanistan.  Chinese dynasties long contended with Jürchen, Mongol, and Manchu "conquest dynasties."  We often frame this imperial succession as a conflict between sedentary and pastoral peoples.  While there is much to be said for that idea, the usurpers were often urbanized themselves by the time they attacked the center.  The question to ask here is how the center could have so little control over its own peripheries?  And where was the center?  Was it really in, say, Delhi or Baghdad?  Or can we make an argument that, say, the Ferghana Valley was the center while Delhi and Baghdad were on its periphery?
    Biography can provide a rich source for this work.  The examples are well known.  Napoleon was Corsican, not Parisian.  Stalin was Georgian, not Russian.  Neither Pancho Villa (Durango) nor Emiliano Zapata (Morelos) were born in Mexico City. Hitler grew up in the Austrian village of Branau, not in Berlin.  Gandhi honed his political skills in the Indian communities of Natal, not in Delhi. 
    In addition to Frederick Jackson Turner, a number of writers have promoted their native countries or regions as, in some way, central rather than peripheral.  Like Turner's essay, most of these manifestos are brief ­ less than a week's reading for students.  José Vasconcelos's essay "The Cosmic Race" puts Mexico at the center of human affairs, while Leopold Senghor does the same for 20th century colonial Africa.  All asked, as did Korea's Ham Sokhon, whether societies on the peripheries of power nonetheless have been "given a global mission."7
    When we teach from the edge, it will be Africa, Asia, and the Americas that supply our examples and models.  Once learned, students can apply the concept to the old center—to Europe.  Why was the 18th century British enlightenment particularly vigorous in Edinburgh rather than London or Oxford?  Why did Spanish industrialization become so deeply rooted in Barcelona rather than Madrid?  Why did Protestant reform emerge in Bohemia, Moravia, England, and Germany rather than in Italy and Spain? 
    If our question is truly authentic, then students will find plenty of reasons to argue that the center really is central to history.  All the more reason to teach from the edge:  it will challenge students to not only explain, but justify the importance of urban civilizations.
    If critical thinking is central to our work, what better place to start than from the edge?

Biographical note: Tom Laichas is co-editor of World History Connected and teaches world history at the Crossroads School in Santa Monica, California.



1 For an excellent teaching unit on Mansa Musa and on Mali generally, see Joe Palumbo, Mansa Musa: African King of Gold: A Unit of Study for Grades 7-9 (National Center for History in the Schools, 1991).  The Mansa Musa story is common to most world history textbooks.  

2 Afonso's letters, alluded to in many world history texts, may be found in Alfred J. Andrea and James H. Overfield, The Human Record: Sources of Global History, vol. II (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), 55-57.

3 Richard W. Bulliet, Islam: The View from the Edge (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994). 

4 Christopher Ehret, An African Classical Age: Eastern and Southern Africa in World History, 1000 B.C. to A.D. 400 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998). 

5 Jerry H. Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

6 For a survey of Turner and his critics, see Richard W. Etulain, Does the Frontier Make America Exceptional? (New York: Bedford, 1999).  See also Richard White and Patricia Limerick, The Frontier in American Culture: An Exhibition at the Newberry Library, August 26, 1994-January 7, 1995 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994) and Gerald D. Nash, The Federal Landscape: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century West (Tempe: University of Arizona Press, 1999).  For two recent examples of frontier studies, see Thongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of the Nation (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1994) and James Forsyth, A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia's North Asian Colony, 1581-1990 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994). 

7 José Vasconcelos, "The Cosmic Race," in Gilbert M. Joseph and Timothy J. Henderson (eds.), the Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 15-19; Léopold Senghor, "The Spirit of Civilization, or the Laws of African Negro Culture," in Robert O. Collins, ed., Western African History (Princeton: Marcus Wiener, 1997), 130-142; Ham Sokhon, "The Meaning of Suffering," in Yongcho Ch'oe, Peter H. Lee, and William Theodore de Bary, eds., Sources of Korean Tradition vol. II (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 412-416.



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