Vol. LXII, No. 10
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
“It’s not enough to know what people say, you’ve got to know what they do,” according to Norman Itzkowitz, a professor emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at the University and a subscriber to the psychohistorical practices of Sir Lewis Namier, who used wills and tax records to reflect 18th-century parliamentary voting patterns in Great Britain. “I’ve made my reputation doing that for the Ottoman Empire.”
Mr. Itzkowitz’s 50-year devotion to Near Eastern Studies began when he joined the University’s faculty at age 26 in 1958 and published an article, “Eighteenth Century Ottoman Realities,” rebuking the then-Eurocentric attitude in academia toward understanding Near Eastern languages. After receiving his doctorate in History and Oriental Studies the following year, he pursued an interest in psychoanalysis, studying at the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis. What followed was his seminal work, Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition (1962), and, later, The Psychological Dimensions of Near Eastern Studies, the 1977 volume he co-edited with L. Carl Brown, now a Foreign Affairs emeritus at Princeton University. The Immortal Atatürk: A Psychobiography, which came out in 1994, was written with Vamik Volkan, now an emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.
Sitting his tiny, picturesquely untidy office in Firestone, with its faint, familiar scent of old books, Mr. Itzkowitz, now 76, has a certain boyish, slightly mischievous affect that may reflect the subject of latest endeavor: children’s books about bad guys.
When Mr. Itzkowitz first teamed up with Enid A. Goldberg in the 1990s, the subject was the ethnic conflict in the Balkans, but their most recent collaboration resulted in a four-part series, A Wicked History (Scholastic 2007) featuring an all-star lineup of evildoers: Genghis Khan, The 13th-century Mongolian Tyrant; Grigori Rasputin, Holy Man or Mad Monk?; Vlad the Impaler: The Real Count Dracula; and Tomás De Torquemada, Architect of Torture During the Spanish Inquisition.
Intended for students between 5th and 10th grades, the thoroughly researched accounts include maps, drawings, timelines, glossaries, and bibliographies, but, more important, they are, Mr. Itzkowitz said, moral forays in which the young readers are asked to think seriously about the subject of each book and to make their own judgments. “Were they evil or not? Do the subjects deserve the reputation they have?” Mr. Itzkowitz added that one of the objectives, in addition to simply teaching history, is to get students thinking about reputations, how they are earned and how they stick through the ages. “We decided to see if we could become the next Harry Potter,” Mr. Itzkowitz said, straight-faced, before giving a laugh.
Scholastic had two audiences in mind: non-fiction readers and young readers. The initial printings were released out of Scholastic’s library division, complete with hard covers, but the latest pressing is a paperback. “We don’t know what’s been happening with those yet” he said, “but I understand the Princeton Public Library has put in for a set.
“The whole thing has been very instructive for us — you don’t want parents beating the principal’s door down saying ‘what are you having our kids read?’ So I think these did a good job in providing history with a lesson.”
The authors were well aware that romantic characterizations of four such figures could be misleading. “You have to decide, as the reader, whether these people deserved the reputation they have,” Mr. Itzkowitz said. “I mean, half the Asian population would not agree that Genghis Khan was a wicked guy” but would see him as “a great nation builder.
“Tell your teacher what you think and let’s talk about these issues. I think that’s worthwhile for kids,” he said.
During his career, Mr. Itzkowitz spent time doing seminars for the National Endowment for the Humanities for schoolteachers for both k-12 and college-level professors. During those seminars, he noticed how weak students were in geography and history. “I remember when I was 10 and went to school after Pearl Harbor, and our teacher couldn’t find Pearl Harbor on the map — and I carried that around with me as a very telling moment about where we are as a society and what’s important to us,” he said.
That understanding of place in geography and time influenced the choice of the four characters; there was also an effort to avoid focusing solely on European figures. Evil women, it turns out, were hard to come by. Lucrezia Borgia was a possibility, but she was the daughter of a pope: “How defend that in a classroom? So we had to be careful. We weren’t trying to do something outrageous here.”
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