History, Education, and the Warrior Princess

Princess Yennega

Passed this statue this morning, down by the airport road. It’s intriguing to have a woman depicted in a traditionally male activity, as a hunter or warrior. So I looked into it. Turns out I already heard the story. Princess Yennenga was the daughter of a king down in Ghana back in the Middle Ages, so they say. She was a great warrior and saved her father in battle. But the men of the kingdom mocked her father and forced him to confine her to the women’s quarters. Or maybe she wanted to fulfill a traditional gender role and insisted on leaving the army to live in the women’s quarters and seek a husband, but her father refused. Anyway, in the end she took a horse and rode away to the north, into the unknown lands. There, she met a hunter named Riaale. They had many adventures together and in the end they married. Their son was Ouédraogo, the first father of the Mossi people who inhabit the region around Ouagadougou and are the largest ethnic group in Burkina. Burkinabè are still enthusiastic horsemen; in fact, you regularly see people riding through the city. I saw two this morning on my way to church, normal folks like you’d see on a motorcycle except they were clip-clopping along in the bike lane on beautiful Arabian horses. And they have statues of their warrior princess and her horse all over town. The national soccer team is named the Etalons after Yennenga’s horse.

I’m thinking about this also in light of a Facebook post I saw yesterday. One of my Facebook friends, an old college buddy and fellow Democratic Party activist from those days (hi Joyce Reynolds-Ward!) posted an article about how over-emphasis on math and reading has screwed up the teaching of art and social studies in elementary school. One of her friends chimed in that civics and history have also been thrown out, and in the midst of a definitional argument about whether Social Studies includes civics and history, I mentioned as a historian that history teaching in the lower grades is often pressed into service as a way to inculcate a reflexive patriotism and teach national legends rather than (as I think it should be) as a way to caution against the mistakes of the past. Thus, patriotic history teaches stuff like the charming legend of Yennenga as fact and overlooks discreditable and embarrassing episodes. In the US, some states have rebelled against the College Board’s AP US History test, claiming that it gives too much prominence to unpleasant things like slavery and wars of conquest against Indian tribes and doesn’t talk enough about national heroes. (In the interests of full disclosure, I am an employee of the College Board for two weeks every year, grading the AP World History exam, which the same folks dislike for similar reasons.) Thirty years or so ago, there was a huge outburst of this sort of argument in the US as the Education Department published national standards for the teaching of history (and social studies, two different books, you’ll note). Once again, there was too much in the standards about slaves at Mount Vernon and not enough about George Washington throwing a dollar across the Potomac River. For some folks, anyway. Lynn Cheney wanted to have some professors shot, or at least barred from ever working for the government.

And last week the History and Archaeology Department at Joseph Ki-Zerbo University, the 15 most respected historians and archaeologists in the country, plus me, sat down and tried to come up with a revised curriculum for undergraduate and master’s degree students in history and archaeology at the university. No mention of Princess Yennenga, but a good deal of discussion of what students need to know and what use is a history degree in Burkina Faso. A fine question, to which the answer seems to be that it permits one to be a secondary-school teacher, to take civil service exams for administrative posts in the public sector, and to go on to study law and government. There was considerable sentiment for teaching pedagogy, that is, education classes, for the secondary-school teachers. There was also considerable sentiment for teaching political science, for the future government officials. I wondered to myself why these weren’t the province of the Education Department and the Political Science Department, respectively, but it turns out that the university has neither of those things. There is a department of law, and you can get an undergraduate degree in law here, but it focuses mostly on criminal law, courtroom procedure and investigative technique rather than administrative law or the structure of political institutions. Graduates go on to be cops, judges, attorneys, and the like. There is no such thing as a political science department; my colleagues had of course heard of the concept but nobody really thought of it as a legitimate separate discipline. And there is no such thing as a separate field of Education, and you can get a certificate to teach in public schools here (up through tenth grade) with two years of university education in most any field. Apparently, this is what a lot of my phantom students are doing instead of listening to my scintillating lectures: they are off somewhere in the country teaching sixth-graders. Hopefully not so much about the princess and her horse and a lot more about cautionary tales of the recent past and how the lessons of history will make them better able to be good citizens. But there’s no guaranteeing it since they aren’t here to hear what I or any of my colleagues have to teach them. (I am reliably informed they will show up, 800 strong, to take my exam on April 14th. God help them. And God help me when I have to grade 800 exams. )

My contribution to this conversation was the suggestion that, if students are mostly going to be teachers, maybe we could kill two birds with one stone and give them some practice teaching before they leave by assigning them to lead discussion sections of our classes – at least Master’s students though perhaps 3rd year undergraduates could teach sections in first-year classes. I taught at Hopkins as a graduate student, and this is how it worked: students were enrolled, several hundred at a time, in giant Occidental Civilization classes, led by a distinguished professor (my year, it was Bob Forster first term, for the period 1500-1848, and Jeremy Brooks the second semester, for 1848-1991). In addition, every student was enrolled in a “section”, 15 or so strong, led by a grad student. Sections met once or twice a week, and students wrote their term papers, discussed the readings, and asked foolish questions of their grad students (who might sometimes know more than the students about any given subject) in section. Grad students also graded exams for the students in their sections, though we didn’t tell the students that. My colleagues advised me that, while undergraduate students are off in faraway secondary schools teaching history to teenagers, graduate students worked in public administration or were teaching at other colleges in the country, making it difficult for them to work for us at the same time. I thought, but did not say, that maybe in both cases their education should come first, or at least they should be asked to decide if they are in school or working. Those who are working should not be taking up a place at the university that could be used by somebody who actually can use the education. After all, the university provides very low-cost housing and food for students. Why can’t they be available for this sort of activity, which will help them learn and help the school better serve its undergraduate population?

Not my country. I wish them the best.

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