The Case for Interdisciplinary Education: A Student’s Perspective

by Edward Kim

Introduction

The word, “Interdisciplinary” has been circulating in education for years. Over time, “interdisciplinary collaborations” and “interdisciplinary learning spaces” have become more prevalent in schools and institutions across the country. Just this year, I have proposed a new interdisciplinary class called “Science and Society” to my district Curriculum Committee and got it approved for implementation. However, the significant increase in interdisciplinary learning over the years is hardly a surprise given its vast appeal.

To begin with, the very prospect of learning through a marriage of multiple disciplines is an inherently progressive standard. It is a clear break from the status quo of traditional disciplinary barriers that have been established in education systems for decades. As a result, interdisciplinarity is an innovative and exciting topic for many teachers, supervisors, and students. More recently, it has begun to move into frontline conversations about 21st century education reform and a fundamental structuring of pedagogy itself.

As a student interested in education policy, I too share the enthusiasm of others who are excited to see the rise of a new learning model that aims to boldly change the educational landscape. At the same time, the hype and novelty surrounding such a learning paradigm can often overshadow the reality behind what interdisciplinary education truly is and why it has become essential for schools across the nation. I would like to take this opportunity to share why interdisciplinary education is much deeper and more profound than it appears to be, and why it has become a fundamental necessity for the education system in America.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Currently, the world is seeing tremendous advancements in science and technology that will certainly permeate every aspect of society. With giant leaps being made in robotics, artificial intelligence, 5G connectivity, gene editing, virtual reality, robotics, and sustainable technology to name a few, the world is building upon the previous digital revolution (the “3rd” Industrial Revolution) in ways never seen before. Ever since the World Economic Forum introduced the realization of this new “Fourth Industrial Revolution” in 2015, people have started to grasp just how drastic these technological changes are going to be.1

The Job Market

An obvious result of these enormous changes in technology is a corresponding shift in the job market. The predicted impact of automation and artificial intelligence on jobs is staggering: a McKinsey study claims that 400 million workers across the world will be displaced by automation within the next 10 years2, while an Oxford University study reveals that around 47% of American jobs are at high risk of being taken over by computerization.3 While there is much debate on the extent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s impact on net job growth, it is indisputable that employees in the next few years will work in an environment increasingly dominated by automation. At this point, it is important to take a step back and consider what this all really means for workers and what kinds of skills they will need to bring to the workplace. Simply put, what are the things people can do that automation cannot already do better and more efficiently? Our ability to collect and analyze data, memorize, calculate, and perform repetitive physical tasks are not on that list and will be at high risk of being supplanted by automation. The reality is that certain job skills will not maintain the same value at a time of such rapid change in the world. Not being able to identify what skills may be placed at higher value as a result of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (FIR) could be disastrous for people and the economy.

This is where interdisciplinary education will make a difference. In the coming years, one of the most coveted and important job skills will be the ability to think about and approach problems by drawing from multiple disciplines. More specifically, this will come in the form of being able to understand modern technologies and scientific developments within societal, historical, economic, and moral contexts – perspectives that artificial intelligence would not be fully trusted with in the near future. People who have developed the capacity and willingness to approach the complex issues of today from an interdisciplinary standpoint will not only be assets to the workforce by being able to provide nuanced solutions covering both objective and subjective perspectives, but will also be most conscientious about how to deal with the FIR technologies that are dramatically impacting the job market.

Public Policy and Scientific Progress

The Fourth Industrial Revolution will bring about significant dilemmas for government at the federal and local levels. While technological progress is amazing and currently improving the quality of life for millions, it has limited value until society determines how it will advance civilization and be regulated. The current controversy surrounding the role of giant tech companies (Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Google) in politics as well as partisan strife on issues such as abortion, artificial intelligence, climate change, cyber security, and healthcare are just the beginning. Novel technologies brought on by the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be radically more pervasive in the lives of people and much more multifaceted than the issues of today.

One prominent example is the bioethical issue of embryonic gene editing (the technology for which already has been used) which will have a tremendous impact on people’s relationship with biomedical technology. If granted the decision to choose on an individual basis whether gene editing is a viable option for their own children, people could potentially be given the ability to dictate the evolution of the human species by selecting certain characteristics. From what kind of moral or even policy-based foundation can society learn to adequately deal with such decisions? People in this nation are already extremely polarized and struggling to make significant strides in reconciliating opposing viewpoints over the single controversy of abortion, which is just the tip of the iceberg of dilemmas brought by increasing biotechnological capabilities. This is ignoring the host of moral, political, economic, and social quandaries that will result from the rise of artificial intelligence, human-machine interfaces, augmented reality, and much more. As of now, the world is woefully unprepared to deal with the inevitable technological dilemmas that will arise in the future. Future generations need to be able to relate perspectives from economics, ethics, behavioral psychology, and sociology to the current rise of advanced FIR technologies.

Outside FIR, the necessity for interdisciplinary thinking relating to modern issues is already being put into the spotlight due to the complex nature of the current pandemic. The immediate COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the need to approach a topic as complicated as a pandemic from scientific, economic, and social standpoints.

When the world’s current events are so obviously multifaceted and require not just dialogue among experts from different fields but also people able to integrate different disciplines, it is the responsibility of the education system to take notice and adapt appropriately. Education is the only wide-encompassing entity that can systematically influence young people, and is the key to empowering a new generation of people who will be prepared for such dramatic changes in the world.

Historical Precedent

Examining the drastic advancements in technology throughout time and their effects on society is extremely relevant in regards to the current Fourth Industrial Revolution and the importance of interdisciplinarity. The transformation of society in Europe and the United States from an agrarian to an industrial civilization (~1740-1860) undeniably had many positive effects such as the overall increase in quality of life and wealth for the average person. On the other hand, the failure to consider mechanization and industrialization from a holistic view of multiple perspectives presented unprecedented consequences such as soaring income inequality, vast overcrowding of cities, and loss of individuality and sense of agency for many workers. Perhaps the most disastrous overlooked consequence of industrialization was its devastating effect on the environment, as the government made practically no effort to mitigate the pollution produced by factories. Below is a report from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change showing the dramatic increase in greenhouse gas levels as a direct result of industrialization. The inability for society to prepare for the interdisciplinary nature of technological changes has had ramifications lasting to this day.

The necessity for taking a nuanced approach to the world’s problems did not begin with the Fourth Industrial Revolution and has always been prevalent throughout history.

The Essence of Interdisciplinary Learning

Many educators are familiar with interdisciplinarity as a newer approach to education. However, the idea of combining multiple disciplines dates back to pedagogy used in ancient Greece with the Trivium and Quadrivium, which represent early philosophical approaches to a “unified” form of liberal arts education. Although originating in ancient Greece, the Trivium and Quadrivium primarily came into use in the early Middle Ages, and are often associated with that era historically. While there has been much evidence over time indicating the benefits of interdisciplinarity,4, 5, 6, 7 what about this learning model in particular makes it go beyond simply recognizing the connections between concepts learned in two different classes? The word “Interdisciplinary” literally means “between or among disciplines.” But what does “between or among disciplines” really mean? Perhaps the true essence of learning between disciplines is much deeper and more profound than it immediately seems.

“Mindsets”

Every academic discipline, whether it be social studies, math, science, or language arts, has a certain knowledge base to go along with it. A foundation of facts and fundamental skills are necessary to advance a student’s learning in any subject. It would not make sense to do calculus without having a solid grounding in algebra, or to analyze historic events without first learning at least the basic factual details of those events. However, too often the disciplines are viewed as really just a set of facts, formulas, and “knowledge bases.” Interdisciplinarity takes the disciplines and elevates the meaning behind them to the point that such restricted viewpoints no longer become sustainable.

By its very nature, an interdisciplinary approach requires an understanding of the disciplines far above the informational level. Actually “combining” multiple disciplines in a profound and meaningful way is simply not feasible without first viewing them as different “mindsets” and not just “knowledge bases.” Through this approach, it is possible to put the social studies, natural sciences, and humanities into larger and more applied contexts that exist across and beyond the spheres of those respective fields. When multiple disciplines are not only juxtaposed but truly integrated, the differences and similarities of what they each offer and aim to accomplish through different ways of approaching issues become illuminated. One of the most prevalent issues in society is unnecessary conflict between people with differing perspectives who are unwilling to compromise or take each other’s viewpoints seriously. Interdisciplinarity eliminates the notion that one perspective is superior and fosters a healthy dialogue that seeks to value and combine multiple disciplines and ways of thinking. Thus, Interdisciplinary thinking is not simply defined by the ability to make obvious, surface-level connections across different fields.

Innovative Thinking

A unique quality to interdisciplinary learning is that in many ways it opposes thinking by analogy. Thinking by analogy builds off of what has already been long-established, which is often the case when studying or conducting research in a single discipline. Granted, there are obvious benefits to specialization in one subject area that can have tremendous applications in society and academia. Advancing knowledge in an area over time is intrinsically valuable, and interdisciplinarity does not aim to overhaul or “dethrone” the existing educational paradigm but rather gain more presence and importance in the learning process.

However, exclusively thinking by analogy is what prevents innovation and progress. Being stuck in the past when the world is being upturned by the Fourth Industrial Revolution is dangerous, and a learning model that can create new perspectives and ways of approaching nuanced issues of today is needed now more than ever. By exploring a scientific issue through a social studies lens or vice versa, students are pushed to think critically about what connections can be made that have never been identified before.

Interdisciplinary Learning in the Classroom

While the theory behind interdisciplinarity may sound attractive, actually implementing it in the classroom is a different story entirely. The key point is that there is no one way to effectively do this. Education policy itself is highly localized, and each district has its unique way of implementing and maintaining the standards outlined by the state. This is not too surprising considering the fact that different students make up the population in different areas. These are the personal thoughts of a student which were enhanced by various conversations over the past years with education professionals.

Distinct Class

A direct pathway to increase interdisciplinary education would be the implementation of a separate class (or classes) specifically designed to foster this thinking in students. In my own district, the Curriculum Committee approved a “Science and Society” elective class built on specific topics that were identified to be effective in helping students think from both a scientific and societal perspective: the origin of scientific thought, Darwinian evolution and society, and the scientific revolution and enlightenment. However, the resources that were used to develop the components and structure of this class were very specific to the school and district where it was being implemented.

A plausible approach to implement “interdisciplinary” classes in a more general sense is the idea of thematic classes. These would not be attached or affiliated with any one department in particular, but rather a shared responsibility between or among multiple departments. If this is the case, faculty who develop the curriculum and coordinate the logistics might have more leeway to cooperate in a joint-effort. Perhaps even a classroom with a two-teacher dynamic, each from a different discipline, might be fitting for a class of this type. This goes back to the idea of interdisciplinarity as a convergence of “mindsets,” not simply knowledge bases. The specific experiences and perspective that a social studies teacher brings to a classroom environment is significantly different from that of a science teacher, and even a simple dialogue or sharing of ideas between professionals from different disciplines in a classroom can be very powerful.

Furthermore, the NJ Student Learning Standards that were recently revised contain specific curricular areas that are great candidates for thematically oriented classes. These include a section in the social studies standards called “Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, Reformation, and Enlightenment,” the unit on biological evolution in the science standards, and a unit called “Influence of Engineering, Technology, and Science on Society and the Natural World” also from the science standards. These are areas that are not only explicitly part of the learning curriculum as mandated by the New Jersey Student Learning Standards, but also areas that can be targets of thematically organized classes that can very easily bring in multiple disciplinary perspectives.

Depth Over Breadth

An alternative approach to creating a distinct interdisciplinary class is something that might be more broadly implemented in traditional social studies and science classes. This is not necessarily about changing the curriculum content itself, but how this content is conveyed to students. By creating a larger emphasis on how curricular content relates to real contemporary issues and society at large, students will have a more efficient and holistic learning experience.

This broadly based approach addresses an aspect of education that needs improvement, which is how students personally view their learning. On too many occasions students are bombarded with the rapid pace and workload of classes, which leaves them with insufficient room to seriously consider the importance and realistic implications of what they are learning. Too often, the curriculum taught in the class is left in the classroom only and interpreted by students as merely a series of strategies and memory points to be utilized in assessments. Classrooms brimming with potential to explore concepts in a deep and substantive manner are sometimes forced to prioritize breadth over depth, out of fear that the required units might not all get covered. How will this prepare the next generations for the rapidly changing world and the slew of complex interdisciplinary issues that will force us to think outside of traditional education models? Students need an educational model that is inherently interdisciplinary and thematically based in multiple subject areas.

While having a knowledge base of facts and concepts is necessary in a social studies class, it is important for students to understand how this knowledge fits into a larger context that includes disciplines other than the social studies. This educational approach is not only a more accurate reflection of the real world that is not arbitrarily divided into separate disciplines, but also a far more efficient and engaging way of teaching. It goes back to the idea of interdisciplinarity as “mindsets.” Considering one discipline in the context of another is impossible unless the student is willing to go beyond the superficial and internalize what kind of thought process or approach a certain discipline brings to a nuanced dialogue. As such, an increased focus on the holistic applications of a discipline will naturally enhance students’ understanding of that discipline itself.

Conclusion

Interdisciplinary learning is no longer a privilege for schools but a necessity. Change in the education system is time-sensitive and needs to start happening now. In many ways, this change is already becoming evident. Only recently the initiative to implement curricula for climate change was added to the NJ Student Learning Standards, and there has been a clear move in the right direction from the NJ Department of Education to increase the prevalence of interdisciplinary learning. Little by little, cumulative changes will hopefully provide the next generations with increasingly innovative and advanced ways of thinking and learning about the world around them.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Mr. Hank Bitten at NJCSS for his tremendous support throughout this. I also want to thank Mr. Gold, Ms. d’Adolf, Dr. Mamman, and the wonderful educators and professionals back at Tenafly High School for being such a positive influence in my life.

References

1 – Written by Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman. “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: What It Means and How to Respond.” World Economic Forum, www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-what-it-means-and-how-to-respond/.

2 – Manyika, James, et al. “Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: What the Future of Work Will Mean for Jobs, Skills, and Wages.” McKinsey & Company, McKinsey & Company, 11 May 2019, http://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/jobs-lost-jobs-gained-what-the-future-of-work-will-mean-for-jobs-skills-and-wages#.

3 – Frey, Carl Benedikt, and Michael A. Osborne. “The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?.” Technological forecasting and social change 114 (2017): 254-280

4 – Hall, Pippa, and Lynda Weaver. “Interdisciplinary education and teamwork: a long and winding road.” Medical education 35.9 (2001): 867-875

5 – Strauss, Ronald P., et al. “Cognitive and attitudinal impacts of a university AIDS course: interdisciplinary education as a public health intervention.” American Journal of Public Health 82.4 (1992): 569-572

6 – Jones, Casey. “Interdisciplinary approach-advantages, disadvantages, and the future benefits of interdisciplinary studies.” Essai 7.1 (2010): 26.

7 – Coops, Nicholas C., et al. “How an entry-level, interdisciplinary sustainability course revealed the benefits and challenges of a university-wide initiative for sustainability education.” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education (2015).

Diagram 1: https://www.mum-writes.com/2018/06/rex-facing-the-4th-industrial-revolution-with-holistic-learning/

Diagram 2: https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/climatescience/greenhousegases/indu strialrevolution.html


Diagram 3: https://pt.slideshare.net/nacis_slides/cartographic-curiosity-promoting-interdisciplinary-thinkin g-in-general-education-through-maps

Teaching and Learning Medievalism in Popular Culture as History Education

Mark Helmsing and Andrew Vardas-Doane
George Mason University, Fairfax VA

Although the period in human history we call the medieval period ended around the year 1500 CE, we are surrounded by medievalism in our lives today. For most history and social studies educators, a claim such as this does not make sense. We accept the end of the medieval period with the Renaissance, ushering in what we teach our students as the early modern period in our human history. Historians and educators position the medieval period, as a “middle” period used to demarcate Western history, occurs after the end of ancient history and before the period in which we currently live (Arnold, 2008). And yet, as we explain in this paper, medievalism—the icons, images, tropes, and representations of how humans think of that time period—permeates our lives today. Learning to understand medievalism in relation to the broadly defined medieval period and from the specific construct of the European Middle Ages enables our students to develop a sharper sense of periodization and significance within their broader historical thinking.

Because of the elision between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, history and social studies educators should take seriously the need to point out medievalism with their students and strive to make more visible and explicit the historical inspiration for such representations. In the first half of this article we provide some ways of thinking about medievalism. In the second half of this article we take these aspects of historical thinking related to medievalism and examine how they work in a popular video game and film franchise, Assassin’s Creed, a form of medieval world building that is popular amongst adolescents and young adults (Gilbert, 2017; Hammar, 2017). Our aim with this article to encourage educators to consider some implications for history and social studies educators related to the intersections of popular culture and medievalism as history education.

Approaching Medievalism for Historical Thinking

To assume that the medieval is irrelevant or antiquated, or to discount how medievalism effects our contemporary thought and shapes so many images and ideas in popular culture, is to neglect the significance of properly understanding and accounting for historical periodization (Cole & Smith, 2010). One may think that historical periodization is cut-and-dry as a commonplace of historical thinking. Say “medieval” and we think of courtly love, knights in shining armor, kings and queens residing in large castles (often with moats and drawbridges). My (Author 1) thinking about medievalism as an issue worthy of considering in relation to historical thinking occurred in early 2017 when I spent a semester away from my university duties teaching 7th graders. The topic of the HBO television series Game of Thrones came up in conversation one day and a student remarked that he thought “it must have been awful living back then.” It took me a few seconds to realize that he was engaging in two aspects of historical thinking. First, he assumed that the time period in which the Game of Thrones world is set was a long time ago, ostensibly linking it to the history of the Middle Ages. Secondly, and more importantly (or pressingly, depending on how you look at it), the student was conflating the imaginary fantasy world of Game of Thrones—and entirely fictional world and text—with ‘actually existing’ medieval history from real life. When I pressed him on the matter he said that of course he knew the dragons and White Walkers were not real, but that he assumed what he saw on the television series was what life was like “back then, with all of the kings and stuff.” This conversation set me about to think about what it is we may need to be more explicit about in our curriculum and pedagogy to help students not only to separate fact from fiction, works of fantasy from works of history, but also to help our students be more perspicacious and attentive to when, how, and why aspects of medievalism appear to us throughout art, literature, music, film, theater, and popular culture at large. In this section we offer some reasons for why history and social studies educators should investigate (both professionally for their own historical thinking and with their students) aspects of medievalism and the medieval world.

Examples of Encountering Medievalism in Popular Culture

            First, we need to help our students see that we engage with medievalism when we consume media about actually existing persons and events from the medieval period, as in Kingdom of Heaven (2005), a feature film about the Crusades in the 12th century, or in Pippin (1972/2013), a Broadway musical about the eldest son of Charlemagne in the 8th and 9th centuries. Yet we also engage with medievalism when we consume media that is speculative fiction and fantasies using icons, images, tropes, and representations of the medieval world, as in Game of Thrones, a massively popular book and television series about feudal royal houses warring with each other, or in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017), only the latest of several feature films inspired by the Arthurian legends of Camelot, the Round Table, and the Lady in the Lake.

            Secondly, we and our students engage with medievalism when we encounter phrases, concepts, and iconographies that remain embedded in Western thought long after the end of the medieval period. For example, when teaching about torture that occurred in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or the Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, we may describe documented examples of torture as “medieval” in their barbarity, despite the fact that much of what we think of as medieval torture did not actually exist until the Tudor period that began with the end of medievalism in the 1500s (Matthews, 2015). To use another example, our notions of chivalry, courtship, and courtly love are concepts that took on distinctive forms as part of a complex code of rules and conduct in the medieval period (Emery & Utz, 2017). These concepts remain in our thought today, as evidenced by news headlines such as “Chivalry isn’t dead” (Fuller-Hall, 2018) and “Stanford professor puts desire in a medieval context” (Marian, 2013). Educators can select some medieval phrases, concepts, and iconographies for students to identify in our current social and political discourse, helping students map these concepts back to the actually existing historical medieval world. For example, in their edited volume Medievalism: Key Critical Terms, Emery and Utz (2017) survey the significance of terms such as feast, gothic, heresy, humor, love, purity, and troubadour, connecting how these concepts existed within the medieval world and how they have maintained their medieval legacy in our contemporary cultures. In investigating these and other concepts of the medieval, students are able to examine the continuity and change of the history of medieval thought in our world. In some cases, regrettably, medieval concepts, ideas, and iconography are taken up to promote repellant nationalist, racist, and supremacist beliefs, such as the adoption of the Templar Knights and runes with Norse warrior mythology and other medieval marks used to signify racial purity by white supremacists (Devega, 2017; Livingstone, 2017; Weill, 2018). Such uses and abuses should also be interrogated and critiqued in history and social studies education, ranging from how we describe something as violent or regressive as being “medieval” to invoking language and associations to the Crusades as Holy Wars with jihads and ISIS/ISIL.

            Thirdly, educators and students should realize we place ourselves within contemporary medieval worlds that we often visit in the present, such as medieval fairs and Renaissance fairs or “Ren Fests,” which are anachronistic for many reasons, least of which is that they visually blur and blend the High Middle Ages with Elizabethan England and the European Renaissance. I (Author 1) studied the history of the Middle Ages as a sixth-grade student in a project-based social studies unit where I and my fellow classmates created and hosted a “medieval faire” for the entire school (my contribution was learning to walk on stilts and recite ballads and folk poems). A popular choice for some high school history and/or British literature classes, Renaissance fairs allow visitors to dress in robes, boots, and bodices and converse with strolling troubadours and jolly court jesters. When I (Author 1) taught high school social studies and English courses, I chaperoned a number of field trips to such fairs, often cringing at what I perceived as historically inaccurate cross-periodizations of Elizabethan England, medieval France, and 17th century swashbuckling seafarers and pirates. Nonetheless, watching students marvel at medieval blacksmiths and singing troubadours may make up for the lack of precise periodization.

We also consume medievalism when we cheer on jousting knights while feasting on drumsticks and drinking frothy ales at one of the Medieval Times Dinner and TournamentÒ locations throughout Canada and the United States, notable for their scripted performance’s references to the medieval worlds of the Iberian Peninsula in the characters of King Don Carlos, Princes Catalina, and Lord Ulrich. These and other examples of medieval worldbuilding at public events and themed amusement parks offer ample opportunities for educators to have their students challenge the accuracy, veracity, and legibility of medieval representations in these spaces, calling upon students to think critically (and historically) about how such places and spaces evoke and ‘use’ medievalism.

             Finally, medievalism and fantasy as a genre for fiction and popular culture is fully entangled. The many dragons, elves, and giants in the fantasy franchise Dungeons & DragonsÒ have no existing evidence in historical fact, but the bards, monks, and paladins of the fantasy role-playing game are based on actually existing classes of people in the medieval period. Indeed, paladins, (with a name that derives from Palantine, a Latin word for servant) were high-ranking warriors in Charlemagne’s court (Freeman, 2017). The paladins did not, however, roll multi-sided dice when engaged in battle to the best of historians’ knowledge. Because representations of fire-breathing dragons often appear in literature and other mass media in landscapes occupied with castles, villages, dense forests, and feudal farms and fields. In the following section, we investigate the play of the medieval in one example: Assassin’s Creed.

Overview of Assassin’s Creed

With a global gaming market of $70.6 billion in 2012 to a soaring $121.7 in 2017, the market for games and gamers is climbing at an exponential rate. Projections for 2021 peak at over $180 billion dollars spent worldwide. Of the games produced and developed, many carry a medieval theme that draws millions of players each year. One game, Assassin’s Creed serves as an example of how our students may confront medievalism in their everyday lives. Operating as a medieval historical and science fiction twist on real-world events, Assassin’s Creed has sparked a franchise that as of September 2016 has sold over 100 million copies (Makuch, 2016). The latest of ten installments, Assassin’s Creed: Origins ranked as the eighth bestselling game of 2017. Therefore, based upon these numbers and our anecdotal experience of having middle and high school students express their fandom for the video games series and its film adaptation, we use it as an example of popular culture primed for some historical thinking about medievalism.

Plot Structure of Assassin’s Creed

            Released in 2007, the first Assassin’s Creed game features a character, Desmond Miles, who is kidnapped by Absergo Industries. This multinational corporate conglomerate forces Desmond to use a device called an animus to (re)live the memories of his ancestors through memories stored in his genes. He is thrown back in time to the twelfth century following the Third Crusade to Masyaf Castle (an actual medieval castle in present-day Syria) where he must live out the life of his ancestor who belongs to the Assassin Order. The plot revolves around a historical conflict between the Assassins and the Knights Templar, suggesting that students actively confront historical markers and significance about the Knights Templar, the Crusades, and Holy Wars in medieval Europe and what we now identify as the Middle East. In the video game, the goal of the Templars is to create world peace by subjugating the human race who they believe are incapable of ruling themselves without barbarism. The assassins fight against this stripping of free will and believe in the progression of new ideas and individuality. As a character in the game, the player progresses the storyline of his forefather, learning more about the history of the world and the conflict between the two factions (IGN, 2012).

As the player continues through the game, Desmond finds out Absergo Industries is the modern face of the Knights Templar who are attempting to have Desmond lead them to ancient objects of power called Pieces of Eden. These artifacts were created by a primeval race of Homo sapiens divinus, a highly advanced humanoid species. This race, termed the Isu, genetically modified the homo genus species in order to create a force of slave-labor. Using the Pieces of Eden, devices interacting with neurotransmitters in the minds of humans, they controlled humans until Adam and Eve escaped and began humanity as it is known today. The epic battle between the Templars and Assassin Order exists as a repercussion to the fall of the Isu and the eventual use of Pieces of Eden by humans against humans. The Templars, believing freedom leads to chaos, hope to use the artifacts to eliminate autonomy. The Assassins exist to prevent that dream from becoming a reality (Assassin’s Creed Wiki, 2018).

Problematizing the Knights Templar in Assassin’s Creed

Using the Assassin’s Creed plotline as a teaching tool for exploring medievalism encourages teachers and students to enact a critical media literacy with existing historical thinking skills and approaches. Throughout the gameplay, many deaths of actually existing historical figures are changed to assassinations to keep in with the themed narrative of the storyline. Acknowledging this plot device as an adaptation of history helps students identify historical errors, but also to be alert to when popular culture gets the history of the Middle Ages right and when it gets it wrong. Shifting students’ historical perspectives to view a real military order, the Knights Templar, portrayed as a power-hungry collection of world dominating fanatics can confuse and inspire conspiracy where no evidence is evident. The disbanding of the Knights Templars in 1312 at the behest of Pope Clement V marks the end of their historical timeline, despite, however, their continued presence in (questionable) usage amongst contemporary subgroups and populations as mentioned earlier in this article. This, unsurprisingly, takes on what we deem to be a concerningly problematic stance within the video game. The assassinations necessary to complete the game are made out to be necessary evils in order to protect the human race from the Templars. The historical record from the Middle Ages informs us that the real ‘assassins’ were a small Muslim Shiite sect, the Nizari Ismailis. Known as heretics by both Sunnis and Shiites, this group’s origin can be traced to immediately preceding the First Crusade during the crisis of the Fatamid Caliphate (Liebel, 2009).

Contextualizing History in Assassin’s Creed

Almost all the historical content in the movie is a complete fabrication. Claims that major players in history such as Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Mahatma Gandhi, and Genghis Khan used Pieces of Eden to further their agendas can leave players questioning their understanding of historical reality. There are, however, two accurate representations that can be used in the social studies classroom to help further students’ understanding of medieval times and see medievalism in action.

First, as mentioned previously, students can learn about the real Masyaf Castle. This castle exists in partial ruin and is in modern day Syria near the Mediterranean Sea. It served as a base of operations of sorts for a guild of assassins identified as the Nizari Ismailis during and following the Third Crusade (1189-1192 CE). The game’s developers worked tirelessly to make their depictions of main cities (Jerusalem, Acre, and Damascus) as accurate as possible. Ubisoft hired a team of historians to advise on their gameplay and narrativization to make sure the layout and worldbuilding appear historically suitable. Using the game as an exploration and inquiry tool would be an application of critical media literacy for exploring medievalism in popular culture.

Standing alone without an educator to intervene in offering some historical contextualization, Assassin’s Creed is, unsurprisingly, a weak classroom resource for history and social studies educators. As an example of medievalism for our students in the 21st century, it offers much to consider, deconstruct, and critique. We argue the game can be used as a springboard for students interested in history resulting from their engagement in the game’s fictitious portrayals of historical events through elements of historical fantasy and fiction. We urge educators to be cautious in discounting the game’s appeal to student, suggesting instead that educators become more alert to which aspects of medievalism appeal to our students and to find out how and why. Expanding upon this foundation and using the inaccurate storyline as a method for introducing historical accuracies could be exciting for students. With ten games set in time periods ranging from Ptolemaic Egypt to the American and French Revolutions to the Industrial Revolution and the Russian Revolution, a curriculum created around something akin to “The Truth Behind the Assassin’s Creed Histories” could be an engaging and productive avenue for educators. The curriculum would have the added benefit of exploring historically accurate renditions of cities such as London, Venice, Florence, Alexandria, Memphis, Jerusalem, Spain, Istanbul, and Paris.

In closing, we offer a final thought from medievalist Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. The idea of the medieval and its immortal memorialization and representation across our cultural, political, and experiential encounters in everyday life can cultivate in students the idea that the medieval is “alluringly strange” and also “discomfortingly familiar” (Cohen, 2000, p. 3). It is something we hope will keep our students’ interests in the past alive.

References

Arnold, J.H. (2008). What is medieval history? Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.

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