Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Greeks and Romans on The(ir) Brain

It’s that time of year, when a new batch of students strolls into my class eager to learn about the wonders of the ancient world. Before I get started, though, I have to disabuse them of previously held notions of what archeology is all about. Every semester, I have students who didn’t get what they bargained for in a class called, “Archaeology and Prehistory.” I can see it in their eyes, hear it in their questions and finally in their course evaluations at the end of the semester. They expect the course to all about Greek and Roman archaeology with a bit of other European societies (what I think they hope to be the “real” Middle Earth) thrown in. That seems to be the only archaeology they think exists. They’re disappointed that I don’t really address such societies in my course. I have had several end of semester student evaluations lament my lack of coverage of Classical societies. While those ancient cultures are completely legitimate topics, I don’t cover them. Like many anthropological archaeology courses, I focus on non-Western history. And more than that, students that are ignorant of non-Western histories are just the ones that should be learning about them.

Why Do My Students Love Greece and Rome?
I’ll get to my own rationale for course structure in a future post, but for now I will offer my thoughts on why so many students think the course will focus on ancient Western societies, particularly Greece and Rome. In a number of ways, it boils down to what they’re already familiar with. In high school, these kids almost all have some rudimentary exposure to ancient classical civilizations, and I’ve found most students use familiarity to guide what electives they take. Unfortunately, it seems that many students register for elective classes from a sense of vague recognition rather than curiosity and interest. In the departments I’ve been in, History and Psychology classes always fill first--I think because students have had classes like them in high school. The classes that fill first are those that look the most like high school classes. And anthropological archaeology doesn’t.

Popular media further contributes to this emphasis. Films and television about the Ancient Western world resonate and make money, while those about the non-Western past are rare and when they are made, aren’t nearly as popular. Moves like Gladiator, 300, The Immortals, Troy, Clash of the Titans present a glorious, violent and action-packed Western past that still resonates, otherwise these movies would no longer be produced. Of these films, those already released all landed in the top 20 for the year in box office receipts.

“Popular” media that focus on non-Western ancient societies are pretty rare, and those that do come along tend not to do all that well. While Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto did focus on the ancient history of a non-Western society, it is almost unique (I’m not getting into the many valid criticisms of this particular film in this post). Despite the violence and action of the film, it ended up being the 63rd highest grossing film of 2006. Maybe it’s good that that film didn’t do too well, but it also shows an up-front lack of interest by the movie-going public. I guess last year’s Prince of Persia might qualify as featuring the non-Western past, but that one is a classic example of Hollywood’s casting of “ethnic” roles to white actors. A tan Jake Gyllenhaal does not a Persian make. Additionally, it flopped. The Disney animated film, The Emperor’s New Groove, which focused on a precontact New World royal family, only ranked 26th for the year 2000’s highest grossing films and ranks below Beverly Hills Chihuahua on the all time money-making list (though the poor performance of this film may be David Spade related). Disney movies usually rake it in, but this one doesn’t seem in made it into those leagues. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any others.

Another obvious source for their familiarity are the many Discovery Channel-type documentaries and specials that focus on Greece and Rome. Many are legitimate, many are silly, but they all reinforce the omnipresence of Western culture in folks’ appreciation of ancient history.

The popular culture’s emphasis on Western history primes students to think that that is the only history worth studying.

Another element that I think you can’t ignore is plain old ethnocentrism and thinking that the non-Western past is an unexciting past. Most of my students are of European descent, live in a world still dominated by Western culture, which they at least unconsciously favor, and are ignorant of other peoples and their histories. While none have explicitly said this to me, I have a feeling that many feel that the only reason to learn about other people’s pasts is simply out of annoying political correctness. From my own recollections as an 18 year old, I had no interest in “Indian” history. Wasn’t it all just teepees and moccasins? The image below of the truckstop, Bowlin’s Running Indian, is typical along interstates in the American West. This particular truckstop was on the outskirts of the town I grew up in and was one of my first unfortunate exposures to “Indian Culture.” Items like those pictured below didn't engage the imagination of my 10 year old self.

Additionally, all elementary and secondary school coverage of New World peoples seemed only there because someone else thought I should learn it, not that anyone would ever want to study it. It wasn’t until I’d taken a few classes in North American archaeology that I began to appreciate the truly engaging story that the pasts of non-Western peoples had to tell (in a future post, I’ll discuss successful and not-so-successful attempts at transferring my enthusiasm for New World prehistory).

Such an intellectual context for the appreciation of history means that I’ve got a bit of a sales job to do in my class. I want students engaged, not just attending for the grade (I know many of them still are). So, every semester, I let them in on the fact that I know they want to hear about Greece and Rome, but that I’ve got a different story to tell. In the first lecture of the semester, I have to let them down by informing them that Western socieities are not what my class is about. But, I argue enthusiastically (and I hope I convince some), my class will be just as interesting and engaging as one that did focus on Greece and Rome. And an extra bonus is that I’m telling the truth. I see it as a personal challenge and ethical responsibility to make students aware of and hopefully, interested in, the non-Western past...because, after all, it is part of their past too.

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