Teaching the Silk Road: A Journey of Pedagogical Discovery

Article excerpt

Four years ago the rasher of the two of us, A.J. Andrea, a historian who specializes in long-distance travel and cultural encounters before 1492, suggested to William Mierse, an art historian and archeologist specializing in the late Hellenistic World, that sometime in the future we should jointly teach a course on the Silk Road. At the time Andrea was preparing the third edition of Volume I of The Human Record (1998)--now into a fourth edition--a global history source book that emphasizes travel and cultural exchange as two of its main themes, and the idea seemed exciting. Given our respective schedules, we concluded that the spring semester of 2000 would be the first mutually convenient term in which we could offer the course, and we would do so as a seminar for first-year students. It all sounded so nice and easy--until we began to plan our syllabus.

As we mapped out the course, several problems became obvious:

(1) There is no textbook, good, bad, or mediocre, on the Silk Road.

(2) There is no way, even with a textbook, that we could cover in depth and in any reasonable chronological fashion the 1,500 years or so during which the Silk Road flourished--especially within the context of a seminar.

(3) It would be necessary for us to introduce our students to several key and quite different disciplinary perspectives, namely anthropology, archeology, art history, and history, without unduly confusing them--a tall order.

(4) In all probability our first-year students would know absolutely nothing about the Silk Road, the lands over which its many routes ran, and the multiple cultures that played key historical roles in its long history, and we were right--not one of them had ever heard of a Parthian, a Tangut, or even a Uighur (as difficult as that might be to believe).

(5) Of all the gaps in the students' knowledge, the most critical would be basic geography--as we have learned in our combined half century of teaching.

With the naive optimism, perhaps, of John of Piano Carpini setting off for the court of the Great Khan, we decided to forge ahead, regardless but not mindless of the perils that lay ahead. Like Friar John, we also had faith--in our case, faith that there were some resources that we could use and maybe even some skills we could call upon. First the resources:

(1) Video programs--the teacher's lifeline! There exist twelve fifty-five-minute video programs on the Silk Road. Divided into two six-pan series, they were produced respectively in 1990 and 1992 and aired on the Discovery Channel. The earlier series--a less satisfactory series--is The Silk Road: An Ancient World of Adventure; the later series--and somewhat better--entitled simply The Silk Road, is a joint production of NHK of Japan and CCTV of China. Neither is ideal, but there they are.

(2) Andrea's global history sourcebook contains a fair number of sources, both documentary and artifactual, that relate to the Silk Road and the many cultures that were involved in Silk Road interchanges, and these sources could serve as bases for class discussion and student exploration.

(3) The University of Vermont (UVM) has an excellent collection of Asian art slides from which Mierse could extract many examples of artistic evidence of cross-cultural encounters and exchanges along the Silk Road.

(4) Regardless of the fact that there was, at the point in which we were preparing our syllabus, no single textbook or book of any sort in print on the Silk Road, there were a few books and special journal issues (all of which appear in the annotated bibliography below) that could serve as guide posts, or maybe even oases, along the Silk Road. As our momentary lapse into the past tense suggests, several books on the Silk Road appeared subsequent to the start of our seminar, and they also appear in our appended bibliography. …