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How this website can help to teach or learn history


The Problem

"Don't know nothin' about history ... (but I do know that I love you.)" is the refrain of a popular song. History is the whipping boy of popular culture. It's chic to be ignorant of this subject - to have escaped memorizing all those names and dates taught in high school.

Still, most people believe that history is an important part of our cultural heritage. If education is the process of transmitting that culture to the next generation, then history must be part of any serious curriculum. As a matter of fact, there is much interest in history among the public, especially among the community's most intelligent and active members. History shows us what we are as a people, what we have been, and what we might be. It furnishes patterns for human experience.

We must acknowledge the disconnect between history as a subject and the vehicles used to convey its knowledge. Perhaps history is not being taught the right way. Perhaps the communications media do not tell history in a way that makes it interesting to people. Our daily newspapers all have food sections, sections for entertainment, weather, and sports, but nothing relating to the big questions of civilization and history. They would if they thought the readers were interested.


Critique of the Problem

A standard complaint is that history requires memorization of trivial names and dates. Why is this information trivial? It may be because this kind of history lacks context; it lacks a place in a larger framework of intelligible events. Modern culture is fragmented, disjointed, and lacking in a sense of the whole. While academics understandably deplore stupid generalizations, information without generalization is hardly worth knowing. The human mind does not function that way. People need to see a pattern in something in order to understand it.

The same is true of history. If history is taught without a sense of historical trends, then it will amount to a collection of trivial names and dates. If retention of knowledge is the object, it can be argued that students can learn facts more easily when they see how these facts fit into a pattern. There is no escaping the need for generality in history or in any other field.

The problem with world history may be that many of its expressions lack a structure which makes sense to people. (Structure means a whole divided into meaningful parts.) World history needs to have a sense of the dynamic of change in human societies. It needs to identify historical turning points that explain why one period of time is different from another. There may be certain basic cleavages in humanity's past experience which it is the historian's business to find.


What approach is taken here?

The book, Five Epochs of Civilization, is about finding turning points which separate one culture or civilization from another. It presents a structure of understanding which may help to see why history has developed as it has and which make it easier to fit facts into their proper place. But this conception of history is only a theory. It is a proposal which says that certain generalizations can usefully describe humanity's past experience .

This part of the discussion will be brief since this question is answered by the rest of the web site. Basically, Five Epochs of Civilization takes the position that world history (or the story of civilized societies) can be understood in terms of five civilizations. They are:

Civilization I - the primitive urban society which first emerged in Egypt and Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium B.C. and in China around 1900 B.C., which used ideographic writing, which developed the arts of warfare and government, and which culminated in four great political empires of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, A.D.

Civilization II - the spiritualized societies that followed in the footsteps of those political empires and created empires of their own in the form of world religions, which began around the time that alphabetic writing was introduced in human societies, and which culminated in the full development of religion as a worldly institution including one which went to war.

Civilization III - the civilization of western Europe which departed from Christianity, which began in the Italian Renaissance, which focused on commerce and secular education, which explored and colonized many nonwestern societies on earth, which culminated in the national cultures and economies of the European-style nation-state, and whose downfall is associated with the two world wars of the 20th century.

Civilization IV - the entertainment-centered culture which includes music, drama, and sports, which began with the circus-like amusements of 19th century industrialized society, which expanded greatly with the invention of phonographs, movies, radio, and television, which has developed its own "pop" culture, and which dominates U.S. society today.

Civilization V - the computer culture, as yet in its infancy.


How might this material be used in the classroom?

To be honest, it may not be well-suited to the purpose of preparing students to pass tests. Although educational testing varies by school and by classroom, there is an effort underway to standardize tests so that educational performance can be evaluated objectively. Like it or not, the testing aspect is increasingly important in the educational field.

There is a move to increase instruction in world history in U.S. secondary schools. For example, the College Board and Educational Testing Service have developed a course in world history for high-school students who seek advanced placement in college. This curriculum, developed upon the recommendation of an advisory board consisting of history teachers and professors, will be the basis of advanced-placement testing. (See AP Curriculum in World History for a detailed critique.)

The approach taken by this course does not fit the scheme presented in Five Epochs of Civilization. For one thing, the advanced-placement curriculum in world history takes the position that world history, as a serious academic discipline, begins around the year 1000 A.D., which is "generally recognized in the field as a chronological break point centering on the intensification of international contacts among Asia, Europe, Saharan, and sub-Saharan Africa." At most, 14% of the time spent in this course would be devoted to studying events before 1000 A.D.

A problem with that scheme is that it minimizes history in the period associated with, for instance, the founding and formation of the great world religions or with the establishment of government. Can Islamic society be understood if only minimal attention is given to studying the life of Mohammed? Can Chinese society be understood without learning how the first emperor, Shih Hwang-ti, conquered the other warring kingdoms and attempted to remake society at break-neck speed, or how the Confucian classics were made the basis of imperial examinations during the Han dynasty? Should the military exploits of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, Cyrus II of Persia, and the Indian emperors Chandragupta I and Asoka, among others, be relegated to a small space antecedent to world history? And what about the classical Mayan society?

The advanced-placement curriculum says it wants a more active use of intellect in studying history. It wants students to learn to construct and evaluate arguments, use primary documents, be able to see change and continuity over time, be open to diverse interpretations, see global patterns, be able to compare between societies, and be able to assess claims of universal standards. In that regard, it would be helpful for students to have a coherent scheme of history in front of them, even one at odds with the current orthodoxy.

This web site and the related book provide an alternative perspective. Unrelated though they are to the direct requirements of the advanced-placement course, they may still be useful as supplemental materials to be used in teaching such courses depending on students' interests. Also in tune with current thinking, the history is written from a worldwide perspective instead of being "western history plus". Together, the book and web site provide food for historical thought. The concepts are pertinent to events happening in our own times.



How do the concepts compare with other historical schemes?

Toynbee and Spengler: The author in his personal interest and evolution comes out of their tradition. These eminent 20th Century historians believed in the organic nature of human societies -i.e., the internal clockwork of life that leads each entity through a process of birth, growth, maturity, and decay. However, Spengler and Toynbee study societies from the standpoint of governments, peoples, and material organization more than from the standpoint of cultural organization. Five Epochs of Civilization focuses on civilization as a cultural entity with particular values, ideas, and types of expression.

William McNeill and the "interaction" school of world historians: This school of thought regards interaction between different societies as a primary source of historical change, paying particular attention to the Silk Road and other trade routes, migration, religious missions, etc. Five Epochs of Civilization follows the scheme of Spengler and Toynbee which emphasizes the internal dynamics of society as a source of change. However, it does identify (in Chapter 10) the condition of expanded geographical horizons as an element that is present at the time of historical turning points when new civilizations appear.

Marxist history: Marx and Engels' idea is that economic relationships drive history and cultural events are mere surface reflections of the underlying conditions. Material arrangements drive ideas, values, fashions, and the like. Five Epochs of Civilization, on the other hand, looks at culture (including ideas and values) as the primary basis of civilizations. Like Marxism, however, it does identify a certain material structure as a driver of historical change: the cultural (or communication) technologies. For instance, writing as a material technique did call forth an enormous body of expression associated with a particular culture. In this respect, its history takes as much from Marshall McLuhan and from McLuhan's colleague, Robert Logan, as from Spengler, Toynbee, or other historians.

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HOME PAGE | What are 5 civilizations? | communication technology | about religion | entertainment | DIAGRAM
PREDICT THE FUTURE | history of cultural technology | teach history | summarize this theory | Christmas | BOOK