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A Controversy in Academic Circles

Early in the 20th Century, the German historian Oswald Spengler created a stir among intellectuals with his book, Decline of the West. Western civilization was declining, he said, because it had reached a stage of ripeness in its life cycle. Spengler identified a number of other civilizations which had come and gone. He found analogies between the civilizations in their various aspects, implying that the West was no exception. The theory was quite impressive.

Even so, many western historians believed that Spengler had overstated stated his case. While Spengler's ideas were inspiring, Arnold Toynbee criticized him for treating preconceived metaphors as if they were "ironclad principles" of history. Yet, Toynbee also followed that approach. He espoused the concept that civilizations were organic entities whose development took place by an internal mechanism of growth and decay. In other words, they were living creatures governed by life cycles similar to our own. Toynbee identified twenty-one different civilizations which had appeared at various places on earth at particular times.

William McGaughey's Five Epochs of Civilization presents a theory in the mold of Spengler and Toynbee except that his civilizations are worldwide. They are stages in the development of human civilization. Societies in different parts of the world go through much the same processes of change even if in an unsynchronized way.

In spite of this, the differences between McGaughey and Spengler and Toynbee are less pronounced than the differences between the three of them and mainstream thinking among historians today. Ben Hunnicutt, a historian at the University of Iowa, wrote that McGaughey's book "reminds me of Toynbee's and other large projects that historians used to attempt .... Historians (today) are fleeing from what they see as evil, 'totalizing' projects that established history as the modern, well-respected field that it has become."

Why is this? It may be that intellectuals today are reacting against the 19th Century German tendency to think in generalities. Hegel and Marx exemplified that approach. They made sweeping statements which admitted many exceptions. Marxist arrogance in asserting that their theory of history was the only one with scientific validity turned off many scholars. Academics have lately tended to seek mathematical validation of their theories. They have tended to retreat into ever narrower disciplines. Because big theories are easily criticized, some may want to play it safe to protect their careers.

There is another reason why historians in the United States do not favor the view that an internal dynamic within civilizations drives historical change. It is because the diffusionist views of William McNeill have become so influential. McNeill and others stress the importance of contacts among different civilizations. They hold that the stimulation derived from such contacts create important changes in society. Therefore, their histories tend to stress such things as global navigation, the Silk Road connecting China with the West, religious missionaries, migrations, patterns of trade, currency exchange, etc.

Undeniably, contacts between different civilizations are an important part of the story of humanity; but they are not the only thing that matters. McNeill's views have become entrenched within the World History Association (WHA), which is the leading association concerned in the United States concerned with the teaching of world history. (Media such as the Annenberg Educational Channel deal with the WHA as duly authorized representatives of world historians in the teaching profession.) As with all organizations, a clique controls both the agenda of WHA conferences and its publication, Journal of World History. Publications whose approach deviates fundamentally from the McNeill line are unlikely to be reviewed. The annual conferences include work shops catering to the approved views.

The same organization and its leaders control the Advanced Placement Curriculum in World History and the testing that goes along with it. That means that any high school student who takes an Advanced Placement course in world history must pay particular attention to aspects of history which persons on the WHA-controlled committee think are important. Their types of questions will be on the tests. Yet, as the need to achieve high test scores increasingly drives the teaching and study of history, a damper is placed upon free expression of thought. Creative impulses are suppressed as a certain orthodoxy settles over this field.

It is no secret that U.S. education is in crisis for many reasons. One reason might be that the ideals of free inquiry, aiming to achieve the next breakthrough in theory, are no longer cherished within the educational community. Instead, hard-bitten cliques of professionals strive to keep the available resources for themselves. It's a matter of using the prestige and power of professional associations to partisan self-advantage at the cost of stifling diversity of thought.

Those of us whose incomes are not tied to teaching have more breathing space. We have the Internet to express ourselves in ways that imperialistic bureaucracies cannot control. Hopefully, that resource will be used to good effect. The point here is not to disparage William McNeill's views or deplore the methods used by his supporters but, rather, to open up the discussion to views outside that paradigm. It is also to support a self-critical discussion among historians who agree with Spengler and Toynbee that civilizations have life cycles.

One must admit that civilizations are an elusive entity. So much depends upon their proper definition. It's hard to quantify changes in public attitudes or changing structures in society or spot precise turning points when fundamental values change. Plants and animals may have discrete life cycles; but what constitutes the birth and death of a civilization? Is it the integrity of the political system? Is it the durability of a culture? Historians of our ilk must jump into the study of world history and do the best we can to find patterns in it.

Unpopular as he may be to some in our time, Hegel is still a towering figure in the history of thought. The dialectical process continues to illuminate. Karl Marx, too, had his inspired thoughts. Spengler and Toynbee were world historians of the highest rank. Hooray, then, for the big ideas! Let's have more of them. Let's rekindle an interest in world history by an honest search for truth - vigorous, uninhibited, open to all points of view. This is one of the highest callings of our time.

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