A few years ago, a student asked me where she could find the office of the head of the history department. I directed her to my office. When I returned later, I saw the same student waiting for me with a look of astonishment on her face.
“Are you the head of the history department?” she asked.
I assured her that I was.
In a tone of disbelief, she said that she had expected the head of the history department to be a poorly dressed, very old man.
The encounter exemplifies the attitude of today’s Arab students to history as an academic discipline. They see history as a narrative of the dead, a body with one foot in the grave, a sorry bundle of fantastic stories that have no part in a lifelong learning process.
I sense this attitude whenever, in an Arab setting, the discussion turns to history and its relevance to the world as it is experienced in the present. I trace it back to the way history is taught in schools and universities in Arab countries. I believe that the teaching of history has not been handled seriously in departments of history in Arab universities.
I present here a brief account of the way history has been taught in the Arab world in recent decades. I hope that publishing these observations may lead to discussion and new thinking about how history and the social sciences are taught.
As I see it, the teaching of history in Arab countries has gone through two main phases, which must be seen in the context of the growth of systems of public education in modern Arab states.
The first phase began in the 1950s. In this phase, the history of Arab societies was taught in the light of the ideals of pan-Arab nationalism represented by Nasser’s Egypt.
This view of history placed great emphasis on the Arab Revolt of 1916, when the Hashemite ruler of Mecca, Sharif Hussein, led an armed campaign against the ruling Ottoman empire with the goal of establishing an independent Arab kingdom from Aleppo to Yemen. This account was prominent in the teaching of history in public schools in Egypt, Syria and north Africa.
The history teaching in this phase was acutely sensitive to contemporary economic and political developments. In the age of the Cold War and the birth of the non-aligned movement, Arab history was taught in parallel with the history of surrounding civilizations and cultures.
The second phase is characterized by an emphasis on the history of the individual nation-state. This approach pays special attention to the development of political systems (for example, the Ba’ath republics in Syria and Iraq) and the history of ruling families (in the case of Morocco, Jordan and the Arabian monarchies).
In this phase we see a kind of retreat into the simple recitation of facts, with the scope for analysis or interpretation all but eliminated. This is where history starts to be seen negatively. As a result, young people have little interest in the importance of their own history, and are not aware of the contribution their civilization has made to the world as a whole.
At this time, institutions of higher education began to accept students with low grade point averages into history courses. (The same policy was applied to courses in other social science subjects, and humanities subjects such as Arabic and Islamic studies.) Degrees in these subjects came to be seen as useless in the job market. This is despite the fact that the study of subjects such as history, literature and religion enable a person to acquire understanding of the world and their place in it. These subjects contribute to a person’s identity in a way that is independent of allegiance to sect or social group.
The present emphasis of Arab higher education on producing suitable candidates for the job market has undermined the status of history as a discipline. Time, money and professional expertise are not devoted adequately to developing the skills of learning history, teaching history or conducting historical research.
In public schools (primary and secondary), history has become a mere component of social science. This demotion of history as an academic subject in schools has naturally resulted in a decline in interest in history as a subject to study at university.
Arab history in modern times has mostly been written by non-Arabs, and until the situation I have described above changes, it will continue to be written by non-Arabs. The history that is written this way will not necessarily reflect an Arab point of view.
It is no coincidence that one of the rare Arab intellectuals who has pushed against this trend (in the Anglophone world at least), the late Edward Said, was based in the west.
For this situation to change, societies and their governments must focus on genuine improvements in the quality of education and train students in the skills of independent study and thought. As things stand now, success in the study of history is the result of individual initiative, not institutional support. Without serious reform in the way the subject is taught, students will continue to see history as a subject of last resort.
Mahjoob Zweiri is associate professor and head of the Department of Humanities and Graduate Faculty in the Gulf Studies Program at Qatar University.