World History and Civilizations
History is almost by definition the all-encompassing subject. It has no real boundaries; every human sphere of investigation or endeavor has, just by virtue of continuing through time, acquired a dimension that is historical. Even the most up-to-date things are, insofar as we can talk about them, historical. We can only analyze, interpret, or understand what we’ve already seen or experienced.
History is also probably the subject about which there is the most potential disagreement. Two people can look at the same actions and events, and come away with radically different conclusions — first, about what happened, but then also about what it meant, and what its continuing significance is or should be. One hears a lot these days about the narrative that governs different perspectives on the world, on politics, and just about everything else. This is a valid concern: how we form a narrative to encompass the various things we understand or think we understand will shape our ability to form intelligent judgments. This is as timely a concern as any we will encounter: in today’s tendentious and embittered political arena, the ability to move beyond our own suppositions, and to understand where someone else is coming from, without bile or anger, is very important.
All in all, the challenges of history make for a fantastically rich broth — one so complex that students and teachers do one of two things with it: either they boggle at its extent and ambiguity, and so throw up their hands, or they reduce it to some one-dimensional representation of reality that becomes, as it goes along, a vanishingly useful look at a trivial slice of human experience. Either way, it winds up being perceived as irrelevant, crotchety, and not useful for the problems of tomorrow. Arguably it’s not even a very good analysis of the problems of yesterday.
Our history program was given its present shape by Mr. Paul Christiansen and me. We team-taught World History for several years together, and it was a bracing experience. Mr. Christiansen and I disagreed (and still do) about a lot of things, but we respected each other very highly (and still do). We do agree on a few basic things. We enthusiastically agree that history is and should be seen as the immediate and real expression of the totality of human experience. History is first and foremost about telling our story: no matter how rarefied it may become, it always centers on looking at events and making sense out of them; analysis and narrative converge to create meaning and understanding. For more on that point, see this page at the World History I website. History by nature addresses every problem humanity has ever encountered over the centuries (at least insofar as we can remember them). It confronts us with the successes, failures, and split decisions (mostly those) about how we as people dealt with the problems we faced in the past, and for that very reason it is our only real guide to the problems we confront today, and can expect to confront tomorrow. Disagreement and dialogue about those things is not merely useful; it’s organic to how the discipline works, and how people working together can come together to achieve consensus and a way forward. For a bit more about that point, see this page at the World History I site.
Over several years we taught the course as a kind of ongoing dialogue between the two of us, representing our often (though not always) divergent opinions and trying to model, for an age that really doesn’t see much of it, respectful disagreement and resolution of contradictions. That’s been fun for both of us, and I think various of our students benefitted as well. You can read about it in this blog article.> If nothing else, it has (we hope) broken down some of the monolithic and oracular status of the teacher. Sure, we both have history degrees and our students don’t, but the degree itself doesn’t confer understanding, and those without the degree still can have a lot of things to say. Human history is our birthright and our burden as human beings. We can deny it if we will, but it will be to our cost.
Lest the whole matter degenerate into mere chaos, however, we’ve imposed a fairly regular structure on the course. The book allows us to devote four discussion sessions to each unit of the book, meeting twice a week. During the first unit of World History I, we lay out the main underpinnings of three large areas of discourse that surface in every age and in every society: resources of all kinds, covering both physical and natural resources and the cumulative heritage of a culture as it progresses; the ongoing and necessarily dynamic relationship between the individual and the community, and finally power — its types, exercise, how it can be achieved and lost, and its relation to consent. (The links here take you to our starting discussions of those issues.) For every subsequent unit, we cycle through those topics, leaving for the fourth section a selection of questions having to do with the things peculiar to the particular society in question.
We believe this is a unique and grounded approach to this newest and oldest subject of human inquiry; at least neither of us nor anyone we’ve talked to about it has encountered the like. We think it is producing a uniquely focused grasp of the big questions that we all continue to face today — and bringing a lively engagement with the past into our lives right now.
Mr. Christiansen has left Scholars Online to pursue somewhat more regular teaching in another venue, and I wish him the best, with profound thanks for the time and effort he put in with me to create this structure and many of the questions that supported our discussion. His insight and his rigor have left a lasting mark on the course. Since then, however, I have not wanted to abandon the multiple-viewpoint approach to the course, so Dr Christe McMenomy (to whom I am married, yes, but with whom I still don’t always agree; shocking, I know) has taken up the place Mr. Christiansen filled. She probably agrees with my political and theological views somewhat more than Mr. Christiansen did; at the same time, she brings a widely divergent background in other kinds of materials, inasmuch as her Ph.D. is in the History of Science. We have, I think, managed to create a course that is challenging and that provokes serious thinking, while still not claiming for either of us the status of an oracle — which would be neither deserved nor appropriate for other reasons. What we want students to do is to make their own decisions about how to prioritize the many features that make up our historical perspectives — and hence the narratives with which they understand everything else in their lives as well.
Dr . Bruce McMenomy
United States History, 1607-1945 • Academic Year 2020-2021 • Grade 10
World History I • Academic Year 2020-2021 • Grade 9
Around the World in Nine Weeks • Summer 2020 • Grade 6
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