During Parent-Teacher Conferences, I like to provide missing work for parents whose children are struggling. One expressed surprise that we had to learn “so much” about Africa. I was put in the position of having to explain why Africa matters. I don’t just mean globally, either. Africa matters to young, small-town Americans still learning to understand their world. It even matters to readers like you!
I do, passionately, believe that this unit is important. Sure, 6th Grade is not a year when the lessons go much real depth. Even the rest of secondary school will be just a shallow dip in the ocean of history. We can’t possibly teach everything interesting or relevant that happened in history.
There are, to my mind, two main reasons to study Social Studies in school. First, because everyone should have a well-rounded education that gives them a taste of different career possibilities and establishes the skills necessary to pursue varied careers in adulthood. Second, because we live in a democracy. Future voters need a firm basis in the core concepts relevant to making political decisions. How else can we expect American citizens to vote intelligently?
Want to know why Africa matters to the social studies curriculum? Africa has a lot of important lessons to teach about the world — lessons relevant for foreign policy jobs, certainly, but also immigration, religious freedom, environmentalism, taxation, the role of government, and more.
Here’s what we cover in class —
The third marking period starts off with the students learning about the Geography of Africa. Sure, the Sahara is the biggest desert in the world, but it’s important that students understand Africa as more than a monolith. It has mountains, lakes, rainforests, scrubland, savanna, forests… it’s the largest inhabited continent, after all.
Once they have the basics down, we move on to the Bantu Migration. They learn about cultural diffusion as a concept, with a focus on how the Bantu language spread across sub-Saharan Africa. This language group is still spoken by about 5 million people today. We then move onto the West African Kingdoms, with a focus on trans-Saharan trade and the spread of Islam. Then we move onto the Swahili Coast, and continue looking at cultural diffusion along trade routes. That’s the whole focus of the first half — cultural diffusion through trade. The learning objective, every day for about a month, might as well be “I can understand how trade causes cultural diffusion.”
The second half of the unit looks at the slave trade, Imperialism, and human rights issues in the 20th and 21st century. There’s supposed to be a few days for the contemporary Africa and African culture, but they’re not tested for on the county assessments, which means they’re the first to get dropped when pacing gets borked — which is always.
And here’s (just a few reasons) why Africa matters —
Understanding Cultural Diffusion
When 6th graders start this unit, most of them aren’t able to say what “culture” really means — much less define “diffusion.” The Bantu migration gives us a great introduction to the concept, because almost everything we know about it comes from the diffusion of language.
It’s really easy to learn history in chunks. At a certain time in history, this is how the world was. We don’t spend a lot of time on the transitions, because they’re messy and confusing. The Bantu migration is a time of change, and it’s incredibly important for students to understand how and why society changes. As the Bantus spread across sub-Saharan Africa, they likely impacted agriculture as well as language. Migrants brought new food items with them, new farming techniques, and pastoralism. There’s little evidence of violence, simply cultural expansion. It’s one of the few examples of that sort of non-violent expansion, which makes the Bantus an incredibly interesting case study — and modern parallel.
Both the Bantus and the Latinos are responsible for the spread of plantains as a food item. Food reflects culture, along with music, religion, traditions, and social norms.
America is historically considered a melting pot of culture, though some feel it’s become more of a salad bowl. Yet, it’s just as critical to teach the causes of culture change as the effects. We have to equip students to understand the implications of open-border — or closed-border — polices, learning Spanish, bilingual directions, and guacamole. If they ever get a job in a public policy field, they’ll need to understand it. If not, well, it’s my job to equip them with the tools to vote on matters like immigration reform.
Taxing Trade Allows Strong Government
The West African Kingdoms we study are Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. They all had one thing in common: control of the Trans-Saharan Gold and Salt trade. Around this point in the lesson, I usually stop and explain that “trans” means “across” and I see some eyes light up in understanding. Not that I dare get too deep into dictating social norms — controversy is dangerous, and I don’t have tenure.
Taxes aren’t controversial — at least not in concept. ’tis impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes, after all. Beginning with Ghana, the kings collected taxes from the gold and salt traders traveling through the city, which was located on an important trade route through the Sahara. Some money was used to pay guards, who protected the traders from thieves. This added more motivation for the traders to come through Ghana, which was safe. Taxes allowed the government to keep people safe, and the money came from trade.
It’s a very simplified version of modern government and taxation, and serves as an excellent introduction to the purpose of trade tariffs, which aren’t used much anymore but should still be understood — for those moments when they do get trotted out. For Americans, it’s vital to understand how guarding trade routes can lead to economic prosperity. The American military, perhaps more than that of any other nation save China, is responsible for protecting global trade. Potential soldiers should understand the purpose of their duties. It improves morale, which improves their efficacy as a fighting force. Potential businessmen also need to understand the impact government has on trade. And everyone who votes needs to understand the government’s role in the economy.
Inflation: How Supply & Demand Impacts Currency
Sometimes people like to claim that if only America still had the gold standard, we wouldn’t have to worry so much about inflation. With a gold standard, why, the government would be so large! We’d have long-term economic growth and stability, because gold retains its value. “Throughout history,” they like to say, as though history is some kind of proof that the gold standard is an economic panacea.
It’s pure hogwash.
If I have to choose between speculative miners and the government for who should be in charge of the economy, I’m going to pick the government. The gold supply is not static, as the gold rushes proved… over and over and over again. Gold rushes, like this one in 1850s Australia, tend to cause inflation. The discovery of gold can also cause things like, oh, war and enslavement of the local population. To say nothing of genocide. But economists tend to care more about the inflation bit.
Egypt learned this lesson the hard way when Mansa Musa of Mali went on his hajj to Mecca, giving away gold along the way. He gave away so much gold that he debased the currency in Cairo. His charity caused so much inflation that, he deliberately borrowed gold at a high interest rate in order to help the local economies. Pretty much the same way that the Fed jiggles the interest rate to manage inflation, actually. Though Egypt’s economy still took 20 years to recover — the impact of inflation is a useful lesson in and of itself, I think.
Because gold, fundamentally, is just as arbitrary a form currency as fancy ink on fancy cloth.
How Population Impacts A Society
There are two ways that population can change substantially. The population of a society can drop dramatically, or it can rise into overpopulation. Africa gives us examples of both.
The Trans-Atlantic slave trade resulted in Africa losing about 20 million people, with most slaves being sent to South America and the West Indies. The Indian Ocean slave trade resulted in the loss of even more. Additionally, most slaves sold overseas were male, resulting in skewed gender ratios. Almost 2% of the total population of Africa was forced into this diaspora.
Aside from the cultural and social changes wrought by the slave trade, just losing that many able-bodied workers caused economic stagnation, interfering with the people’s ability to farm effectively. Without agricultural surpluses, it was impossible to devote part of the workforce to industrialization.
Of course that’s not the only reason they should learn about the slave trade
The last thing comfortable white, middle-class men and women want to think about is how the slave trade impacted Africa, most of the time. No one likes feeling guilty — but usually, even my black students are resistant to learning about it. Representation matters, after all, and it’s not comfortable to relate to the experiences of slaves.
Still, it does no one any good to ignore that it happened. The usual arguments apply, of course. We have a moral obligation to understand the beginnings of racial animus in our society. It’s important to understand what happened so we can prevent it from happening again.
Yet from a purely “objective” (if there is such a thing) perspective, there are still important lessons to be learned from the impact of the slave trade on Africa.
When I’m wearing my avoid-controversy hat, those are what I like to focus on.
For example, under-population is particularly relevant to small-town America. Young people leaving to bigger towns and urban centers is particularly damaging to the local culture. This lesson is an introduction into changing demographics and why they matter. Demographics will continue to be important throughout a student’s educational career and beyond as they learn more about voting patterns, political influence, etc.
Over-population can be a big problem too. Thanks to a high fertility rate and the modernization of health care, Africa has the fastest-growing population in the world. Just another reason why Africa matters. There’s an environmental impact to population growth, as agricultural abuses cause desertification. Deforestation from timber sales has contributed to changes in the climate, as well.
The Socio-Political Impact of Climate Change
Students spend a lot of time learning about the environmental impact of pollution, the science behind greenhouse gases, and other important elements of environmental consciousness. They don’t spend a lot of time learning about the political impact of climate change. That’s a shame, because it’s the type of impact most likely to matter directly to them.
When scientists study climate change, they’re trying to predict the impact on the environment. How many animals will go extinct… and yeah, that matters. But they do it not just for the intellectual curiosity — the Environmental Protection Agency gets funding so we know how climate change is going to impact our food supply. The Department of Defense wants to know how climate change is going to impact security concerns. All consumers and all voters need to understand these ramifications — and that’s every single one of my students. They need context to grasp these complex problems on a smaller scale, and that’s another reason why Africa matters. Africa is a microcosm of the world, after all, and these problems have the potential to spread world-wide.
By studying geography and human rights issues, students learn about how human disregard for the environment can damage a society. Those lessons couldn’t be happening at a more vital time in American history. I can only hope that my students go home and talk to their parents about what they’re learning in school — and that’s one more reason why Africa matters. Humans never stop learning, it just gets harder as we age.
The Good News —
The good news is, once I explained this, the parent seemed to understand why Africa matters. The lessons I teach students are important, because the topics of history are the same topics that matter today. Sure, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Even aside from that, though, it’s also hard to write curriculum for current events. When you get down to it, my most important teaching tool is metaphor… and that, this parent could understand.
Oh, also? When the parent spoke with his son about his behavior, and why Africa matters — he brought his grade up to an A. He’s even been making a real effort to improve his behavior. Happy endings all around!