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My History Education
by William McGaughey
 

As a boy growing up in Detroit in the 1950s, I took history courses in grade school and high school but remember little of the course content.

Most history courses were in American history. We were certainly aware of the Revolutionary War, the U.S. Civil War, Washington, Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, and the westward expansion of our nation. Slavery was not yet a dominant theme in history textbooks. World Wars I and II would have been discussed in general terms.

With respect to world history, I doubt if I took a course in this subject. My understanding of world history began with a vague idea of the Egyptians and the people of Mesopotamia, especially building the pyramids. But world history proper began with the Greeks. We were aware of wars with the Persians, Pericles and construction of the Parthenon, experiments with democratic government, the great philosophers and scientists of those times, and Alexander the Great, though not of the Greek empires subsequently established by his generals.

The Roman empire followed in a seamless whole. We were aware of Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Caligula and Nero, Roman armies marching through Europe, Christians being thrown to the lions before crowds in the Coliseum, the emperor Constantine converting to Christianity, and perhaps something of Rome when it was a Republic. I had the additional advantage of having studied Latin between the 7th and 9th grades and of having read Caesar’s Gallic wars and Cicero’s orations against Catiline in their original language.

Then we were aware that history abruptly changed course. Barbarians overran Europe and the Roman empire fell. Ancient history came to an end. The Dark Ages and Middle Ages began. We were aware of the Germanic and Frankish tribes competing to control territories, their conversion to Christianity, theological debates and heresies, Charlemagne, Viking raids along northern coastal areas, the Crusades, construction of cathedrals, Pope Gregory VII who kept Emperor Henry IV waiting barefoot in the snow, and the slow emergence of monarchies that came to power in the European nation states. We were generally unaware that the Roman empire had continued for another thousand year through imperial dynasties headquartered in Constantinople.

The Dark Ages came to an end in the Renaissance. We were aware of the great painters and sculptors who lived in those times, the Medici family, the worldliness of the Roman church, Martin Luther’s Reformation, Columbus’ voyage to America and the age of global exploration, bloody wars between Protestants and Catholics, the development of literature and science, the growing power of European nation states, and western colonialism. But here world history begins to morph into American colonial history and the birth of the United States. After 1776, we paid less attention to what was happening in other parts of the world.

American history following the Constitutional convention can conveniently be told in terms of Presidential administrations that were elected every four years. I memorized the names of the U.S. Presidents. There were elections, wars, treaties, and other events that helped to explain how the American nation was developing. All this was packed into an orderly series of Presidential administrations. We had a strong sense that the United States had expanded from a small territory along the Atlantic seaboard into wilderness lands in Kentucky and beyond, and that the Louisiana purchase and the Mexican war had also added vast territories. The United States was destined to control North America from coast to coast within its latitudinal region. In the 20th century, it would emerge as a world power.

Traditional histories have been written along the skeleton of dynastic or presidential successions. These are national histories. The Bible acquaints us with the political history of the Jews, progressing from the period of Judges to King David and his successors. When I was a ten-year-old boy, I read “1066 and all That” which is a history of the British monarchy following William the Conqueror’s invasion of England. This was a wonderful tale of wars and intrigue including colorful personalities such as Henry VIII. The structure of history was quite clear and, because it involved heads of state, it described events that affected many people. The great advantage was that it focused on people. We could relate to this. Besides holding the reins of government, Henry VIII and Abraham Lincoln were people.

Even so, this kind of political history neglected much of importance in our society. Nations rise and fall. Presidential administrations change. As historically interested persons, we want some sense of where our society is headed. We want a history that takes into account how the world has changed materially - for instance, how Americans became dependent upon automobile transportation. The great writers, artists, and thinkers of our society also cannot be conveniently explained in terms of royal or Presidential administrations.

And, of course, as America pushed westward, the Indians who had inhabited these lands were brutally replaced. Many in our nation endured slavery. While the Civil War effectively ended this institution in the United States, there is more to the story than this. Additionally, when we focus upon national histories, we tend to ignore the history of the rest of the world. We become ignorant of world history. That was certainly my case.

With respect to my formal education in history, I took two history courses in college. Titled History I and History II, they were part of a set of courses in the humanities at Yale called “Directed Studies”. I remember that history was taught thematically but retain little specific content.

What I do remember was a paper that I wrote for the History II course. I researched the U.S. shipping industry in New England at the time of the Revolutionary War. I learned that American shippers had been a major player in world trade in colonial times. A ship owner in Salem, Massachusetts, named Elias Hasket Derby was our nation’s first millionaire. American ships once sailed to all parts of the world, bringing back exotic cargo and acquainting residents of this country with the culture of many nations.

But the Revolutionary War took a toll on this industry. Alexander Hamilton’s program in 1790 to promote domestic manufacturing and Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo of 1807 virtually killed the U.S. shipping industry. The first secessionist movement in the United States did not involve southerners but New Englanders who met in Hartford in 1814, angry that policies of the federal government had destroyed their source of livelihood.

The Yale library contained a copy of a leather-bound book written by Lord Sheffield, a member of Parliament, who argued that Great Britain was better off for having lost the Revolutionary war. He argued that the economic advantage from having exercised colonial control in America would be more than offset by the new opportunity to trade with America and there would be none of the administrative hassle. Despite his counter intuitive approach, I think this man was ahead of his time. I worked his argument into my paper. This research and writing showed that history could be more interesting than what is usually taught in schools.

My college roommate, who had spent much less time than I doing research, won the prize given for the best history paper. He went on to become a history professor at some college. I went on to become an accountant and later a landlord. I was also a self-published author of books. The earlier books concerned economic subjects. My book, Five Epochs of Civilization, was researched on and off in the 1980s and 1990s. It was finished in 1999 and published in January 2000.

History was not my major in college. I first majored in philosophy and then, liking some literature courses better, changed my major to English. Philosophy, however, remained my main interest. In the course of several decades, I worked on a paper to develop certain philosophical thoughts that I had in college. They concerned mental concentration and the concept of “rhythm”. Self-consciousness was another element that entered the equation. I kept writing down ideas on this subject in a series of notes that I called “Rhythm and Self-Consciousness”. My scheme of world history came from this set of ideas.

There were also certain influences. As a member of Book-of-the-Month club, I ordered an abridged copy of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. This was an exotic piece of writing that seemed profound even if I did not understand much of it. I also purchased a used set of H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History in two volumes. This book was also quite interesting. However, the author who pushed me the farthest in the direction of history was the British historian Arnold Toynbee. I bought a two-volume set of his A Study of History, followed by other of Toynbee’s works including An Historians Approach to Religion and Mankind and Mother Earth, which is a narrative of world history.

Spengler and Toynbee hooked me on the idea that civilizations are organic entities, each following a life cycle. They both convinced me of the need for an objective world history, free of regional or ethnic bias. Spengler was a master of historical analogies, albeit oversimplified. Toynbee presented the amazing concept that civilizations can be related to each other in generations. He described the process by which civilizations are born and die. He identified religion as a critical factor in their development.

For me, Toynbee was the great master of history. However, I thought his scheme of history did not adequately describe events in modern times. His emphasis upon religion seemed a bit overblown. So while I accepted most of Toynbee’s views, I could not accept his overall scheme.

While working on my ideas related to rhythm and self-consciousness, I was aware of a cultural transition that took place when people received their primary communication from the electronic media rather than from newspapers and books. This shift in culture was happening in our own time. I saw this, therefore, as a turning point in history. It was also obvious that there had been another turning point thousands of years ago when humanity had embraced the art of written language.

So we had three epochs of history: (1) the period before writing when tribal culture was passed along by word of mouth, (2) the period of literate culture, and (3) the period when people are neglecting literature as they watch television, listen to recorded music, and attend movies.

Then it seemed to me that the second period, which included most of recorded history, might be subdivided into smaller units of history as innovations were made in the art of writing. First, the original ideographic scripts, in which each written symbol represented a complete word, were replaced by the more convenient alphabetic scripts. This happened in the 1st millennium B.C. Second, the technology of printing profoundly affected the culture of literature even if the visual symbols used for words remained the same. Guttenberg’s production of a printed Bible in the mid 15th Century A.D. sets a date for dividing periods.

So we have broken the second period of history into three sub periods: (1) the early period when ideographic writing was used exclusively, (2) a period when alphabetic writing was used exclusively in handwritten manuscripts, and (3) a period dominated by printed literature.

While I was on this kick, it also seemed possible to divide the period of post-literate culture into at least two sub-periods. Although they are also an electronic medium, computers exhibit a different nature than that of electronic broadcasting and recording. They do not record and distribute fixed images but permit two-way communication between the user and image. Unlike broadcasting, computer technology allows messages to be targeted to individual users.

It then seemed to me that these changes in communication technology correlated with changes in society. If we look at the period of ideographic writing, for instance, we associate this writing with large political empires such as the Egyptian, Babylonian, and Assyrian empires. Political empires center on the institution of government. If we look at the period of alphabetic writing, we see that a great spiritual awakening took place around the time when alphabetic writing began to be used. Ultimately, this redirected culture culminated in religious institutions. The invention of the phonograph, motion-picture machine, radio, and television correlate obviously with an entertainment-centered culture. The third period, starting around the time of Gutenberg’s invention, was more difficult to interpret. I concluded that organizations of commerce and secular education were the dominant institutions in that epoch of history.

So that’s how my scheme of world history developed. It was deduced from general ideas relating to communication technologies rather than being established, through inductive process, from historical facts. So this history may lack a certain legitimacy in terms of its origin. The general scheme must be considered an hypothesis. However, I hold to it so long as, in my estimation, it explains the facts of world history more coherently, accurately and completely than competing models.

Arnold Toynbee’s Mankind and Mother Earth, A Study of History, and An Historian’s Approach to Religion, and H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History were my principal sources of information to flesh out the history with respect to the first two civilizations. Historical detail for the third epoch of civilization came primarily from Ernst Samhaber’s book, Merchants Make History. The histories of the fourth and fifth civilization come from various library books including The Variety History of Show Business and Kaufmann’s and Smarr’s Supercomputing and the Transformation of Science.

I finished writing the book and was working on the footnotes when my brother, Andrew McGaughey, suddenly died in an apartment adjoining mine during a heat wave in July 1999. He had lived to see only a preliminary design of the book cover. My mother, too, was in poor health, having undergone an operation for colon cancer in May 1999. She died in April 2001. My father died in November 2004; and another brother, in March 2005.

On the other hand, I married a woman from China in January 2000 who arrived in the United States a year and a half later. Through her, I have learned the importance of China’s dynastic history to Chinese people. Through a retired University of Minnesota history professor, David Kopf, met shortly before that time, I have learned something of other Asian civilizations.

So my life as author of a book on world history and creator of a related web site, http://www.WorldHistorySite.com, has come at a time of instability in my personal relationships and activities.

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