Marin Academy educator highlights history’s unknown figures – Marin Independent Journal

Despite his long career in academia, Derek Anderson has never seen him write a book. In fact, the Sausalito resident saw firsthand the struggles his father had while writing a biography of Abraham Lincoln. However, on a sleepless night in March 2012, everything changed.

Inspired by A History of the World in 100 Objects, Neil MacGregor’s book, which Anderson used in his world history class at Marin Academy, he began to think about other ways in which history can be told, the people who forget in the retelling of history and those who became household names for their positive or negative impact on the world.

This revelation resulted in his debut book “Improbable Voices”, published last fall, which introduces 26 men and women, one for each letter of the alphabet whose historical contributions he believes should be better known, such as the Scottish businessman Richard Oswald, English General Robert Monckton and Julie de Lespinasse who oversaw a prominent parlor in Paris during the Enlightenment.

Anderson has been with Marin Academy for over 30 years and is now the library director and archivist of the San Rafael private school and teacher of interdisciplinary world history.

He shares some of these lesser-known historical figures from his book at the Washington, DC History & Culture online event on April 17th at 12:00 noon. Register at

Q. What moved you to the education sector?

A I grew up in a family where books were important and education was important. My father was a college professor and my mother was involved in community education and helping people get education. I had to answer the question, did I want to become a teacher? I knew that if I chose something else, there would always be a cloud hanging over me, this: “What if?” I love working with students and having the opportunity to nurture and explore their curiosity with them.

Q. What was it about the story that interested you?

A It encompasses everything, not just political history. It’s art, culture, and travel, all sorts of things.

Q. You have traveled the world. Has that affected your work?

Photo by Derek Anderson

Derek Anderson’s travels around the world, for example to Angkor Thom in Cambodia in 2003, have influenced his work as an educator and author.

A Yes. I got a scholarship in 1999 to go to Australia and learn about the native Australians and up until that point traveling was something I did for myself. When I was traveling I suddenly realized I could bring it back into the classroom, and the book is an extension of that. The first chapter is about a man named Afonso de Albuquerque, and a few years ago I had to go to Lisbon, Portugal and show him the statue. For me, traveling is about seeing the world, but also about connecting with the past, seeing history and trying to understand things more deeply.

Q. Are there characters that you refer to in the book?

A Gijsbert Heeck, a Dutch doctor traveling with the Dutch East India Company. He lands in Asia and keeps this diary, which in my opinion is one of the great travel stories of the 17th century. For me it was interesting, among other things, that he goes to Thailand and doesn’t understand what Buddhism is, he doesn’t understand anything about Thai culture and he has all the prejudices one might expect and yet he tries his best to describe what he saw. I was supposed to go to China shortly after Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the trip was canceled. I ended up going to Thailand, but because I had done all of this reading and prepared to be in China, I didn’t know enough about Thai history. I think this parallel between trying to understand these temples and trying to understand them in Bangkok when I was 26 is something I feel connected to.

Q. You say on your website that your work is “a new approach to world history”. what does that mean to you?

A Again, it goes back to the traditional, dominant narration of the story, and that so much of the approach to the story is done through the famous characters. The world didn’t need another biography with your famous person’s name and I thought I might be the person offering something new. … Its purpose is in line with national efforts to give voice to those who have been overlooked for too long.

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