Wednesday, January 12, 2011

World History (1): Why You Need to Know

The following "conversation starters" were developed for my world history students at Aquinas College and Grand Valley State University, beginning in 2008.

You may think you hate history. But I don't think it's true. I think you love history. You love it because...

... Because it’s one helluva good story -- actually, many good stories. These stories will stock your mind with treasures that will make you more discerning and interesting.

... Because it helps you understand who you are as a human being by tracing our development as a species. You’ll see the constants of the human condition -- our struggle to survive, to adapt, to thrive, to seek to realize our aspirations, and to overcome limits. You will also see how nature limits our seeking. One of the best ways to explore our deep roots is by reading evolutionary psychology. Politically incorrect as it is, you should be exposed to works like Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters, by Alan Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa (2007). You should become more familiar with your Pleistocene brain stem that seeks comfort in stuffing your face with cheeseburgers, french fries, and ice cream.

... Because as Americans, you need to grapple with how to make judgments about other cultures, past and present. On the one hand, if you are a relativist and take the position that you should never condemn the practices of other peoples, then what do you say about the Nazis' Final Solution, or Aztec human sacrifice, or female circumcision in some parts of Africa? Closer to home, what do you do with the KKK? Can you take no ethical stand on these matters? On the other hand, if you believe that you absolutely have the right to judge other peoples and other times -- condemning, say, slave holding among America's founders -- are you guilty of the fallacy of presentism? Are you able to see the historical options available to a people when they lived? (As a young legislator, Jefferson tried to introduce a bill that would abolish slavery in Virginia, and it failed utterly.) So it's okay to judge. Just remember that responsible historical judgment avoids the extremes of relativism and presentism.

... Because you should be aware that each major religion links today’s civilizations with a people's deepest roots. If you intend to have dealings with foreign nations and civilizations through your work, leisure, or volunteer efforts, you should understand a people's deep religious roots to understand their worldview.

... Because you should understand how and why the West rose above “the Rest,” starting around 1500 A.D. What was it about Western civilization vis-a-vis other civilizations that made such disparities arise? What challenges and opportunities do these disparities present to Americans today?

... Because you will better understand the challenges the rising generation faces. America oversees a "soft empire" in most of the world (through economic dominance) and a "hard empire" in strategic places (through the projection of force in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere). As the citizen of this empire, you should know why Muslims extremists regard the U.S. as the "Great Satan.” You should know the places where our young are sent to fight wars. You should know whether Afghanistan has ever been conquered. You should understand the extent and severity of the global financial crisis that began late in 2007. You should know what it means that the four-century-long era of Western dominance is ending. You should know that environmental crises do not stop at borders and can become international crises if leaders do not know how to communicate with each other across borders or worldviews.

... Because you are part of a world community with remarkable connectivity. The global financial crisis has not been contained in national silos but has deeply affected us all. More, technological advances in electronics mean today that we are connected via cell phones and the Internet to virtually everyone. I recently heard that 1 of every 14 human beings has some presence on Facebook (and 1 of every 8 Americans). In the 1970s, almost half the world was closed to travel by U.S. citizens; today there are almost no barriers to international travel. The reality of the proverbial "global village" is more apparent than ever.

... Because you should be asking a really important question: What do you think makes a nation, empire, or civilization decline and fall? Indeed, you should be asking whether the U.S. is in danger of decline and fall? World history gives you the perspective to see that nations, empires, and civilizations are fragile things. Arnold Toynbee's massive Study of History identified some 30 civilizations or proto-civilizations that have existed. Fewer than a half dozen still exist -- i.e., fewer than one of six civilizations still stand. Does that stop you in your tracks? You should ask yourself: What would happen if nobody studied our past? If parents did not teach their children; if teachers did not instruct; if clerics did not preach; if journalists did not write; if libraries did not lend; if publishers did not produce; if bookstores did not sell – what would happen? In 25 years or so, much would be forgotten. You would not know your constitutional rights. You would not know the legal limits of your government. You would not know the consolations of your faith. You would not have time-tested rules of conduct in your daily life; even something so basic as the Golden Rule might be lost. We would enter a dark age. Living in ignorance, you would be the slave of the few who retained such knowledge, because their knowledge would translate into power.

... Because world history is a critical part of a liberal arts education -- a liberating education that teaches you how to look at the world from the perspective of several disciplines. History – the study of change over time – is one of its major disciplines. It prepares you for a life of leadership on a big stage. When you learn helpful tools of the historical trade, like timelines and thresholds, you sharpen your thinking skills in specific ways. History helps you understand the importance of context -- historic and current; it helps you distinguish between good and bad analogies; it equips you to analyze in terms of continuity vs. change; it gives you a sense of scale from individual great men and women (biography) to people collectively (social history); it sharpens your awareness of the relationship between history and geography.

Two Adventures

If you let it, the study of history will take you on two of the greatest adventures you'll ever experience. One of these adventures is deep inside you -- which is why you don’t really hate history. You are the result of history, and how can you hate the story of you? You don't hate history so much as you hate the way history has been taught to you. There is no excuse for a boring history talk, course, article, or book.

The other adventure takes you across the broad earth with all its diverse peoples and their cultures, life-ways, and stories.

Taking either direction, you will be better able to discover yourself.


Questions to think about:

1. What characterizes the liberal arts?

2. What makes history one of the liberal arts?

3. What is a responsible way to make historical judgments about a people who lived in a distant time and/or place?

4. What factors might account for the decline and fall of a nation, empire, or civilization?

5. How does a religion influence a people's worldview?

Bonus: Who is the greatest human being who has ever lived? Why?

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