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Why Southeast Asia?

Why did I choose to come to Southeast Asia for my sabbatical? Some of the reasons are purely personal. My interest in the region began when I joined a Balinese gamelan music group in the San Francisco Bay area. I became fascinated by Balinese culture, and my passion was fanned by two amazing visits I made with the group to play music in Bali. During those and two other visits, I was able to travel also to Java and even for a short time to Vietnam, further intensifying my desire to travel even farther into the region. With friends relating stories of great adventures into the other countries I hadn't yet visited, it was only a matter of time before I would travel more extensively throughout the area. This sabbatical, so graciously granted to me from the San Francisco Unified School District, gave me the opportunity to do so -- and here I am!

The other major reasons have to do with my ideology and philosophy of teaching. I am frankly appalled by the lack of attention given to Southeast Asia in the teaching of world history, certainly in California but also elsewhere. Having worked extensively for years on the development and implementation of the California History-Social Science Frameworks, I am keenly aware that, in three years of mandated world history instruction for California students, nary a mention is made of Southeast Asia -- unless you count Java Man, from prehistoric times! It is as if Southeast Asia does not exist and never has -- or, if it does, as if perhaps it is still inhabited by a more primitive species than is the rest of the planet. I find this unconscionable, if for no other reason than that we have a large and increasing number of students of Southeast Asian ancestry in our schools. They, and their peers, need to know about the history of their people!

But there are more reasons than this to include Southeast Asian studies in a world history course, and as an integral part of the curriculum rather than an "add-on". (These reasons also form the rationale for the content I've focused on including in the web site, and underlie the way the site is structured; to read more about this, please read How to include S.E. Asia in the World History class.) For one, Southeast Asia's history is one of "syncretism" (to borrow a term I learned from Jerry Bentley at the University of Hawaii): that is, of peoples synthesizing different cultural forms and values into new, unique and enduring patterns of life. Situated at crossroads positions between the world of China and India and on major trade routes taken by Muslim merchants, Southeast Asian peoples have responded historically by integrating new religious ideas and values, foods, arts, industries and other cultural practices into their own to create some of the most fascinating lifestyles to be found anywhere in the world. Our students, by way of comparison, live in a multicultural society still dominated economically (and in many ways culturally, for better or worse) by a majority of European heritage. For these students, whether they be of European ancestry or from another part of the world, the example of peoples working through a system based less on assimilation into the majority and more on incorporating new and valuable ideas while maintaining people's core identities, is a valuable one to consider -- and one that resonates with them!!

The history of Southeast Asia is also full of important events that reflect important long-term historical trends. The region often has acted as a stage where those world-wide trends played themselves out. It is here, for example, that Buddhism and Hinduism took on new and profound forms of expression beyond the boundaries of their original territories. Colonialism by European powers came to its zenith (?) here, dramatically affecting the lives of people on both continents and beyond. (And, after all, wasn't Christopher Columbus sailing for the riches to be found in the Spice Islands of the East Indies, today's Indonesia?) Southeast Asian societies reached heights of their own that are worth investigating, in such fantastic worlds as those at Angkor Wat and in the courts of Siam and Bagan; these merit study in their own right and would fascinate students, yet are rarely included in world history classes.

And, Southeast Asia's importance is not isolated to the distant past. A glimpse at a daily newspaper's headlines reveals how key a role the region plays in contemporary world events. The Asian economic crisis has global impact; events in Jakarta and around Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous country (the U.S. is third), transfix us because they AFFECT us. To omit the study of Southeast Asian peoples and history from the curriculum means losing perspective on why things are as they are in that part of the world, and thus why indeed the WORLD is as it is today.

Perhaps, Southeast Asia is commonly "left out" of frameworks for teaching world history because it doesn't satisfy the demands made on a culture, nation or region for inclusion in such frameworks. From my own reading, I would guess that some of the criteria for inclusion would be: that the culture, nation or region would...

-be a point of origin for a development that later had global consequences

-include enough people to be of consequence in and of itself by sheer "force of numbers"

-be the place where an important person lived who had an impact globally on thought, belief, lifestyle, etc.

-be a place where an important historical event occurred that had widespread ramifications, either directly or symbolically, to other places

-be a point of strategic importance in contemporary world affairs

I'm sure one could identify others, as well, but these seem to me fairly universal in the development of statewide frameworks. It is crucial to have such criteria, because without them it would be impossible for teachers to cover the entirety of world history in any sequence of courses, over three years or even more.

Using such criteria, one can see why Southeast Asia is often left out, for a very strong case for its inclusion could likely be made only on the basis of the second criterion (and the fifth, for those with any global perspective). By comparison to other regions, it is hard to argue for its being included when the other criteria are left relatively "unsatisfied", especially given the pressures of coverage that teachers face in addressing a history of the entire world.

Yet, I would argue this does not adequately explain the express OMISSION of this entire region from world history curricula! Especially when one adds another criterion -- that the study be of cultures, nations and regions important to the students we teach -- it becomes in fact unconscionable that it is omitted, given the large number of Southeast Asian students in our classrooms. And what if we add yet another criterion: that the THEMES addressed in study of a culture, nation or region be universal in scope and relevant to the lives of our students? Then, the syncretic nature of Southeast Asian societies makes it evident that their study is of great importance, and argues further for their inclusion in our curricula.

The question then becomes: with so much to teach already, how can we add even more to what's on our plates? OF COURSE this is a valid question -- IF it is not asked rhetorically, so that the "answer" is "well, obviously, we can't." I respond: we MUST -- so let's instead ask, HOW? There MUST be answers

A COMMENT ON MY PERSPECTIVE

Before leaving on my trip, my friend and colleague Pete Hammer turned me on to a book titled Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, a professor at UCLA. Diamond works to explain why the European powers that colonized much of the world starting in the late 15th century had achieved the level of technological prowess that they had at that time vis-a-vis those they colonized. He shows that the differences in technological advancement that preceded and precipitated the European conquests were a consequence themselves NOT of racial differences, as some would argue, but of particular geographic conditions and constraints different peoples faced, in conjunction with their peculiar histories (or, my term, "historical happenstance").

In discussing the book with another colleague, I came to hear what I think is a common response: whatever the reason for the differences, the fact is that European societies did indeed advance farther not only technologically, but also subsequently in terms of their levels of cultural sophistication.

I found it ironic to face this bias immediately before leaving to explore the "Third World" and "Newly Developing" countries I will be visiting. I suspect that many people, even those suspicious of the idea that "technology" equates with "progress" to make things "better", harbor the notion (even if they won't admit it) that European-derived cultures, in terms of their politics, their arts, and their daily practices, are indeed superior. And such views are by no means isolated to people with European blood.

I will say bluntly that this is a particular bias I intend to attack full on in this web site. I will use Southeast Asia as the example only because I am here; the bias could as easily be attacked elsewhere. I will explore the music and dance, the industry, the forces of community and shared endeavor, and the way different people respond to the needs of everyday life to portray the intensely rich tapestry of cultures in this particular region of the world. I'll investigate people's values and beliefs as well, to see how they reflect the underlying realities of human life. And, I'll ask what we in the West can learn from these experiences and perhaps even incorporate into our own world to make our lives and those of our fellow citizens better.

To illustrate my OWN bias, an example of one value I'll look at in particular is that of "freedom". While the U.S. portrays itself as the world's bastion, protector and promulgator of freedom, I always find it interesting while traveling to observe the freedoms OTHER people have that aren't so readily accessible in a country like ours. I'll look for expressions of this while in Southeast Asia.

I'll also focus on different forms of social organization and COMMUNITY in different places, also because of my own agenda. Here's why. It's easy to see high levels of social organization, for example, in the building of Western cities. I have to say that when a city in the U.S. decides to build a community center, it does so pretty darned efficiently. By comparison, in a place like Bali, it takes the whole community to come together to build their "balebanjar". That may not be so "efficient" in a Western sense, but it IS efficient in a Balinese way -- it meets many other social and community needs. The same people who built it are the ones who use it! This has broad implications for the sense of ownership and community that thereby arises.

What does that have to do with my "agenda"? It's by exploring examples like these that I hope to engage students in thinking about how to make their own world a better one. THAT is the ultimate aim of this site. I feel that we, as "citizens of the world", can all learn from the perspectives of our fellow world citizens. If, by exploring alternative ways of living, one community can be inspired to supports its youth to, say, help build their OWN community center through seeing the Balinese way, my dream will have been realized and my work worthwhile.


Part 1 Why Southeast Asia?
Part 2 How to include S.E. Asia in the World History class.
Part 3 How this web site is organized: Content/Themes
Part 4 How this web site is organized: Structure
Part 5 A Word On My Choice of Prints
Part 6 Thematic check-list
Part 7 A Request for Critiques and Support

Copyright 1999 by Avi Black
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Last update
4/12/99