Tim Roberts: Comparing American and Turkish history

Roundup: Talking About History

[Tim Roberts is assistant professor of history at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He is the author of Distant Revolutions: 1848 and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism, forthcoming from the University of Virginia Press, and is currently researching the interaction of American overseas traders and missionaries during the early American republic. He thanks Bilkent students Ay?egül Avc?, Gül?ah ?enkol, and Veysel ?im?ek for their insights and corrections to this essay.]

How do you teach the early history of the United States to foreigners? Foreign students—in particular, those I've taught in Ankara, Turkey—know a lot about American pop culture. And they are familiar with American literature, if they have taken any courses in American studies, the main academic discipline for teaching and learning about America from abroad. But foreign students often know little, if anything, about American history. In a course I offered on U.S. foreign relations, I asked one student, a graduate of an American studies program, why American culture and literature seem worth studying but not American history? My query was a leading question: I hoped she would exclaim, "But American history is important!" Unfortunately she calmly replied that studying American literature offered her the chance not only to learn English but also to learn about similarities between American literature and other kinds of literature. American history offered no such advantage, however, because it was too unique to say anything about other nations' histories. What, for example, could U.S. history possibly have to do with Turkish history?

By way of answering these quaint-sounding but in fact important questions—how to teach U.S. history abroad and why—I explained that U.S. history actually has quite a bit to do with Turkish history and not only since World War II, when America achieved true global influence. I have in mind the era of the early American republic, when American relations with the Ottoman Empire, modern Turkey's ancestor, consisted largely of trade in opium and figs and the evangelical business of a few hearty New England missionaries.

It is clear to me that, despite these seemingly modest connections between the United States and Turkey, the early history of the United States can offer Turkish students lessons about the early history of their own country. And Turkish students' familiarity with Turkish history and society, in particular issues of national identity and citizenship, minority rights, and women's rights, can enable them to better appreciate early U.S. history. Both countries, in other words, struggled with how to form "republican" identities. The challenge of getting foreign students to see the early United States as more than a fuzzy abstraction has prompted me to teach important episodes in U.S. history through cross-national and cross-cultural analogies. I don't incorporate such a comparative strategy wholesale, but even a selective use of the method has paid substantial dividends....

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