High School History: Lars Brownworth and the Mystery of the Missing Empire

Easter Break over with!

I originally posted this entry on my other blog, but seeing as I’m discussing the subject of high school, I decided to post it here as well.

“In the Middle Ages, everyone was Catholic.  If you weren’t a Catholic, you were burnt at the stake as a heretic.”

“That’s not true.  Not everyone was Catholic.  What about the Orthodox?”

“Oh, right, yeah, there were the Orthodox.  But we’re not going to talk about them.  We’re ignoring them, so they’re irrelevant.”

The exchange above is a paraphrase from my high school days.  It sums up how we sometimes teach history to our next generation very well.

As a result, I’d like to offer links to the following blogs by Lars Brownworth:

Finding History

12 Byzantine Rulers

Norman Centuries

His book, Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization, is also a great read.

Lars Brownworth is a former high school history teacher.  His podcasts reflect this in that he conveys a love of the story.  He seems like the kind of teacher who would have been fun to have, but maybe his lectures bored his students.  High school history always tends to be that way, anyhow — either the students love it or hate it.  It is also hard for teachers, because history is such a fun subject that gets treated badly by teenagers.  It’s bad enough that the teenagers don’t like it, but most of their parents don’t really care about it either.  It’s not going to win their kids a scholarship.  It’s not obviously powerful like the maths or sciences.  History is seen as a bit of a joke course that needs to be survived, like English, in order to graduate.  As a result, history teachers need to be creative.  They need to have multiple tricks up their sleeves: multimedia projects, family history essays, films, conspiracy documentaries, pantomimes, and getting students involved in local civics.  No more memorizing names and dates for a multiple choice test!

Unfortunately, the content in high school history courses is fairly limited.  In North America, we have a very straightforward narrative taught: Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Dark Ages, Renaissance, Columbus, American Revolution, French Revolution & Napoleon, American Civil War, [Canadian Confederation],  First World War, Great Depression, Second World War, Cold War, post-Cold War, and current events.

Most adults only learn this limited narrative.  Even the most creative of high school teachers have to stick with this limited curriculum, and very few are able to introduce other concepts to their students.  I remember being shut down by my teacher for bringing up historical points that did not fit within the narrative.

The Byzantine Empire is exactly such a historical point that does not fit within the high school narrative.

Why?  Good question. 

It lasted over 1000 years, longer than the classical [western] Roman Empire by far.  It spanned two continents, its capital was the premiere city in the world for much of its history, and it was largely responsible for Europe being the way it is today.  Often, the only way it is remembered is that the Middle Ages are measured from years 476 to 1453.  Basically, the attitude toward the Byzantine Empire is “Oh, yeah, them.  Whatever.”

They wreck an otherwise perfect story of the Big Bad Catholic Church running a medieval dictatorship over Europe and being overthrown by brave Protestants, spawning the Enlightenment and fueling the Modern Age.  So we ignore them.

The fact is, the Byzantine Empire has been cast aside like a wayward sister.  Scholarly tomes are written about it, but they make the story cold and unfeeling.  Constantinople is more than a bunch of mosaics and stonework.

Brownworth’s book, blogs, and podcasts are well-researched, but they are far from scholarly tomes.  In his writing and words, the Empire comes alive.  His narrative covers most of late classical and medieval history, from Diocletian to Constantine XI.  The people are well-rounded characters and he integrates the facts into his story.

Perhaps the reason that the Byzantine Empire (and also the Italian Normans, who feature in over half of Brownworth’s blog Norman Centuries) is largely ignored is because North America has been heavily influenced by northwestern Europe.  This is often the excuse given me.  However, I don’t think this excuse is sufficient.  Yes, history lessons don’t have time to go into great detail, but outright ignored?  Not if the subject is the Middle Ages, religion, the Crusades, Greece/Rome, or Christian-Muslim relations. 

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