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Creating World History
World history is more than a subject taught in schools. It is a part of our culture. People want to know about history. We should consider how its understanding and knowledge can be spread within the general community to become an enriching influence in people's lives.
       
General objectives

An improved focus: Most historical writings and discussions contain observations about history. Straight history tells a story. To create a world history in its fullest sense means telling the story of human experience from the time of the earliest records until the present. This history should reflect all people's experiences. Its writing should narrate events in an orderly sequence.

Two issues that need to be resolved

(1) Selection and organization of content: Historians need to decide what are the significant stories representing human experience. From the mass of records the historians need to select certain themes and arrange historical events in some logical way. The result would be a set of stories representing humanity's collective experience. World history needs to be reasonably free of ethnocentric or regional bias.

(2) Mode of presentation: Traditionally, history is presented in books that contain written narratives. Sometimes pictures accompany the text. In the 21st century, technologies allow a richer sensual presentation which, presumably, would facilitate an improved process of learning. These technologies have both an auditory and visual component. The auditory component can be a human voice reading a written narration, sometimes accompanied by music or special sounds. The visual component can be a series of still images, as in a slide show, or a motion picture. They illustrate the process being discussed.

Levels of detail:

World history is too big a subject to be adequately covered in the time that students have available. Like pictures of the earth taken from outer space, it presents two incompatible situations: The image may be complete but lacking in meaningful detail; or it may give adequate detail but represent only a small portion of the total scene. The solution is to provide both completeness and detail by linking the historical presentations together on various levels of detail.

So the knowledge of world history might be envisioned as a pyramid: At the apex, one would first present humanity's history in its totality. On a level below this, each portion of the story would be told in greater detail in a set of stories. Then, on the next level below, events on the second level would be further divided into segments whose stories would be told in still greater detail. Eventually, at the lowest level, history boils down to particular events in particular people's lives. The structure of history should make clear which story or set of stories is situated on which level and how they are vertically linked to each other.

Requirement of veracity: History purports to be a true account of experiences. That means that its account is validated by the best available expert opinion. Each historical presentation should be reviewed for accuracy and balance by a group of knowledgeable historians. The presentations should make clear when an image is authentic - e.g., a picture of an actual historical artifact - and when it is a fictionalized representation.

Updated versions: As computer software is released in successive versions, so historical presentations can be created to replace earlier versions. A given work can be identified as Version 1, Version 2, etc., recognizing, however, that in some cases the earlier version could be superior with respect to expressive artistry or another aspect of presentation.

Analogy with science: The principle underlying natural science is that all knowledge is tentative. Theories are justified by the facts. Therefore, a theory contradicted by factual evidence should be replaced with a theory supporting the facts. The truths of nature can be expressed in rigid scientific or mathematical principles. Historical knowledge focuses on events inspired by human consciousness. It is not possible to develop a rigid set of principles to explain historical events.

The building block of history is the story - a story in which individual human beings interact with each other. What we should try to do is find the best set of stories to explain important events in the world. We should not be wedded to any particular theory of history but feel free to discard whatever does not fit the facts as we know them. Historical knowledge, like that of science, should be only a hypothesis.

 

Proposal for a Particular World History


The Hypothesis put forth in this Web Site: This proposal is based on concepts presented in a book, Five Epochs of Civilization, by William McGaughey. It was published in January 2000 by Thistlerose Publications.

What is a civilization? The experiences of "prehistoric" peoples living in tribal societies would be excluded for several reasons:

(1) Such peoples lack written records by which their past experiences might be known.

(2) Community life among tribal peoples tends to follow cycles of customary activity which are repetitious and therefore do not lend themselves to stories of meaningful change.

(3) Tribal peoples generally live in small groups that are isolated from each other; their experiences are hard to integrate into a history with other people. Even so, it would be useful to develop knowledge of tribal life to supplement to story of civilized societies.

How should the Story of Civilized Societies be Organized?

World history since the days of the original Mesopotamian and Egyptian city states has proceeded in four successive epochs.

(1) The first, covering the three millennia which preceded the birth of Christ, saw the formation of ever larger and more powerful political empires. Stories of military conflict between nations, or between civilized societies and warlike nomadic tribes, dominates this period of history.

(2) The second epoch of history focuses upon the three world religions - Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam - including the life of their founder, theological development, heresies, relations with the state, military conflict, etc. Its history covers the first millennium and a half of the Christian era.

(3) The third epoch, beginning with the Italian Renaissance, tells the story of European expansion into other parts of the world. Commercial and educational institutions emerged during this period. Market economies became important.

(4) The fourth epoch, which began in the 20th century, was an age of news and entertainment spurred by the invention of new communication devices. Television programs became the focus of public life.

(5) Now there are signs that a fifth civilization, associated with computer technology, may be emerging.

How would this History be Presented: An opportunity for us in the early 21st century is to harness electronic technologies of communication to teach history through visual images and spoken words. Since school classes and television programs usually come in hour-long segments, a good format for this historical instruction might be to create electronic tapes or other recordings that last one hour or, perhaps, a few minutes less. The sound track would contain a story-like narration similar to narratives in history books. At the higher levels, historical narratives would tend to be more abstract and impersonal in describing events. The visual part of the presentation would be an artfully contrived mixture of still images that are related to the narrative: sketches, photographs, portraits, landscapes, charts, maps, etc.

How would the Programs be Organized: It would be done in pyramid fashion. On the first (highest) level, there would be a single hour-long program which summarizes all world history. On the second level would be four programs to cover each of the four epochs separately. On the third level would be four or five programs covering separate segments of each epoch; the segments might be drawn geographically. On the fourth level would be a set of more detailed presentations for each segment on the third level, and so on. It might also help to have a general discussion of this approach to history, histories of the related cultural technologies, and "left over" histories which do not seem to fit into this scheme.

 

What work needs to be done to write this kind of history?

First, we need to decide what goes into the story of world history - which events represent the collective experience of the world's people and how the stories should be arranged and organized. In other words, there must be a selection of materials.

Second, we need to create the history. We need to create a structure of writings or other expressions that present the flow of history. Traditionally, history has been told through writings sometimes accompanied by pictures. Today, new and improved technologies of communication can tell history in other ways. We should utilize all possible modes and media of expression to create an intellectually and emotionally rich picture of history.

The requirement of objectivity:

In this age of increasing global integration, it's time to create a world history which neither disparages nor promotes any particular group of people but which follows the observed crevices of historical change to report developments important to human society as a whole.

A true world history should be written for all the world's people. Its regional coverage should adequately reflect the relative weight of populations without dwelling on this aspect alone.

To Build a World History

World history is an important part of a global culture. (To strengthen global culture does not mean weakening regional or national cultures. We can have both. Each individual belongs to both human society and a local community.) The creation of a global culture promotes better understanding among the earth's peoples and serves the cause of world peace.

Since histories have traditionally told the story of political dynasties and were therefore linked to particular kingdoms or empires, the creation of world history poses a challenge. It is the challenge of writing a history which follows universal themes. World history must transcend parochial experience.

From a Western European perspective, world history fits into a three-part scheme: ancient, medieval, modern. Ancient history is focused on classical Greece and the Roman empire. Historians often date the end of "ancient times" around 476 A.D. when the last Roman emperor in the West was deposed. "Medieval times" would run from that date until the time of the Italian Renaissance in the 14th and 15th centuries A.D. "Modern times" would be what followed the Renaissance.

One (of several) problems with this scheme is that it applies only to the peoples of western Europe. Eastern Europeans, for instance, have a different experience. For them, the Roman empire did not end in 476 A.D. since the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople was lineally descended from earlier emperors in Rome. The East Roman empire fell in 1454 A.D. when the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople. Even then, the religion of Byzantine society persisted throughout the area and found a new seat of power in the Ukraine and Russia.

Chinese history is more straightforward. In this case, there was a continuously strong central government - except during periods of interruption - from 221 B.C. when the Ch'in emperor unified China until 1912 when the last Ch'ing emperor was deposed. One might even see the subsequent Nationalist and Communist governments as a continuation of the imperial pattern.

World history, however, must unify the diverse patterns found in different regions. The solution proposed in Five Epochs of Civilization is to locate historical turning points in the introduction of new communication technologies and in new types of powerful institutions.

With respect to institutions, we know that large political empires have arisen in diverse societies on earth. We know that idea-based religions ("world religions') hold sway over many peoples. We know that the western model of society, with its commercial and secular orientation, has gained influence over the entire earth. We know that pop culture and the Internet have become building blocks of a new world culture. Why not, then, tell humanity's story in terms of these various institutions even if appearing in separate regional manifestations?

With respect to communication technologies, we know that writing is found in the cultures of all "civilized" societies with the possible exception of the Incas. We know that alphabetic writing has replaced ideographic writing in most societies except those of east Asia. We know that printed literature has become a more important cultural matrix than handwritten manuscripts. We know that the moving images of phonographs, motion pictures, radio, and television have swept through the cultural landscape of societies in every region on earth. Why not write world history to reflect those facts?

But there is another aspect of seeking to create a world history. It involves reaching out to diverse peoples, eliciting feedback. An author cannot legitimately pass off a particular piece of writing as a "world history" without running it by historians and critics in cultures other than his own. There must be a lively discussion among historians in all parts of the world before anything approaching world history can be said to exist.

Reaching out to diverse cultures also means attempting to pierce the language barrier between peoples. In this case, the text of the web site, www.WorldHistorySite.com, has been translated from English into five other European languages: French, Spanish, German, Portuguese, and Italian. Even so, it is a machine translation full of errors. This enterprise is in a primitive stage.

It is hoped that the Internet will spread this communication efficiently around the world and discussions of world history will percolate from various places on earth. Soon we will see something new in human culture as humanity becomes aware of its common heritage. We will then see a new sense of kinship forged through those experiences, East and West, North and South. We are living in one of those exciting times when the world is being fundamentally changed. Historians can help lead the way to creation of a world culture which respects the heritage of national and local communities.

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