Things I’ve Learned from World History

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

As I mentioned way back here, I’ve been avoiding television and radio in an effort to wean myself from idiocy. As part of that effort, I’ve been partaking of some of the Great Courses offered by The Teaching Company. I think the Great Courses series is terrific, by the way — if you have any sort of commute, I recommend spending that car time listening to the stuff put out by The Teaching Company. You’ll learn something, and with their material loaded up on your iPod, you stand a very good chance of never having to listen to the vacuous opinions of Sean Hannity.

Recently, I took a chance on the course entitled “A Brief History of the World,” lectured by Professor Peter N. Stearns. I went into it thinking it would be a very broad overview of world historical events and trends, and I guess it qualifies as that — at least to an extent. Still, I was surprised by the tone and emphasis. I guess I’d never realized that World History had emerged in recent years as a unique discipline, and though I figured PC, globalism, and multiculturalism had crept into history teaching, I hadn’t realized they’d become so . . . institutionalized.

According to Wikipedia:

World History looks for common patterns that emerge across all cultures. World historians use a thematic approach, with two major focal points: integration (how processes of world history have drawn people of the world together) and difference (how patterns of world history reveal the diversity of the human experience).

So, World History is explicitly about multiculturalism and diversity. Great. Fascinating. Super. In fact, I don’t think it’s unfair to describe World History as sociology viewed across a world historical timeline. I don’t know about you, but while I’ve often enjoyed history — the study of what happened, who was involved in it, which army was the most powerful, and so forth — sociology often bores me. Not because I’m disinterested in how ancient peoples might have lived, mind you. It’s more because it tends to be taught by people who have an ideological axe to grind.

Anyway, most of what I know about history I learned from Mel Brooks’ “History of the World: Part I,” so take what I say with a grain of salt. Professor Stearns surely knows way more than I ever will. Beyond that, he’s a good speaker, and he keeps the course moving at a decent clip. Still, I can’t recommend this course. The topic is handled so broadly that all but the totally ignorant will feel like they’re going over well-established ground, and the PC-ishness of the content is just about maddening. (Though Professor Stearns takes pains to frame World History as being something other than an anti-Western program, it’s damn hard to take him at face value.) I see the reviews of the course aren’t all that great. So I guess I’m not alone in my opinion.

As I listened to the course, I scribbled down some of the odder things I heard. Odd to my ears, at any rate. I thought it’d be amusing to share them here. Perhaps they’re all completely valid, provable, etc. Perhaps they’re all established historical facts at this point, and I’m just an ignoramus. I apologize up front if, through inaccurate recall or imprecise note-taking, I’ve mischaracterized any of Professor Stearns’ views. But though I’ve  framed several of these points in snarky terms, I don’t believe they misrepresent the content of the course.

Hey, if you’re looking for some awesome history courses put out by the Teaching Company, I can heartily recommend Professor Kenneth W. Harl’s course on the Vikings, as well as his course on ancient Asia Minor. Here’s Paleo Retiree’s review of the latter course over at 2 Blowhards.

So, without further ado. . . Things I’ve Learned from World History:

  • If you’re giving a course on World History, it’s important to spend two full lectures telling the listener about the discipline of World History — its adherents, its theories, and its history. This is all just for background and has nothing to do with convincing the listener that World History is a) not stupid, and b) not just a lame attempt to lower his appreciation of Western Civilization.
  • Women probably invented farming because, being the primary gatherers, they were more likely to drop seeds and notice them sprouting. (Isn’t this a bit like saying that women likely invented the vacuum cleaner because they were more likely to do house work?)
  • Female gatherers were responsible for bringing home more calories than male hunters.
  • Men took part in hunting in large part because they liked to boast about it. Eating meat — it’s about the boastin’, not the roastin’.
  • Ibn Battuta, a 14th-century Islamic traveler, is worth devoting a full 20 minutes to. But no time for Alexander the Great, Plato, Augustus, Napoleon, Bismark, Luther, or Hitler. (To be fair, there aren’t many individuals named in the course. One of the aims of World History seems to be to de-emphasize the individual. Ibn Battuta, however — that guy is fucking important.)
  • You may think Battuta was somewhat similar to Marco Polo. Well, you’d be wrong, because Polo was probably lying about his travels. We know this because his writings don’t mention the Chinese practice of foot binding.
  • Three religions can be identified as “world religions” — Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. However, only one — Islam – is worth devoting a whole lecture to.
  • Islam was a tolerant-ish faith not very concerned with conversion.
  • Confucianism (Han) and Hinduism (Gupta) were very important to their respective empires, but the social and religious foundations of the Roman Empire weren’t all that notable or interesting. Sorry, Jupiter, Homer, Plato, Hellenism, etc. But those Romans — they did build some nice aqueducts.
  • Slavery. Phew, that shit was bad. However, a lot of the slavery throughout history was really pretty all right, or at least served a purpose. African slavery was the only totally bad slavery.
  • Islam is pro-woman because it’s against infanticide.
  • The Greeks and the Romans shouldn’t be seen as having fostered Western Civ. because they also contributed to Eastern and African traditions. (Isn’t this a bit like saying that Babe Ruth shouldn’t be considered part of the Yankee tradition because he also played a few years for the Red Sox?)
  • In fact, Western Civ. isn’t really a definable thing.
  • The West got strong largely by stealing ideas from other cultures. Like the printing press.
  • You know, Gandhi was sort of right — the West has no civilization.
  • Christianity gave Westerners the idea that they were above nature. This is why Westerners have such an urge to dominate others.
  • The Mongols were a very tolerant people who engaged in conquest mostly because it fostered contact between cultures. (Apparently, China’s building a wall to keep them out was just an advanced form of Chinese bigotry.)
  • When the Mongols did cruel things, it was usually because their armies were small, and cruelty was the only tactic available to them.
  • Genghis Khan was a sort of proto-feminist because his wife is known to have advised him.
  • Islamic and Mongol conquest = multiculturalism. Western conquest = colonialism.
  • Black Death (spread to the West from China) was kinda okay for Europe because it inspired innovation. However, disease spread to the New World from Western Europe — this inspired no innovation to speak of.
  • Subsaharan Africa circa 1200 – 1300 was about as advanced as Europe around the same time.
  • Contact with the Mongols is what made Europe so advanced, because it forced Europeans to open up to other cultures. At which point the Europeans could steal stuff.
  • Africa ended up lagging behind the rest of the world in large part because they were never conquered by the Mongols. Thus they never benefited from the Mongols’ generous program of multiculturalism.
  • Isolated cultures — those in Africa, those in the pre-Columbian Americas — hardly qualify as historical, because there’s no cultural cross-pollination. History, you see, is multiculturalism. (This isn’t expressed directly, but it’s the general idea.)
  • The West’s development of guns and cannon was almost wholly the result of “dumb luck.” The West stole gun powder from China, then just happened to stumble upon the techniques of  metal casting through its experience making church bells.
  • African polygamy was caused by slavery.
  • Western society is more disdainful of poor people than other societies.
  • When China outpaces the West: “We all need to realize how backward Western Europe was at this time.” When the West movies ahead of the East: “It’s a mistake to view China as being backward.”
  • To the extent that America is “exceptional,” it’s due to its dependence on religion, guns, and violence.
  • During the 20th century, America had no more upward mobility than Europe. (Given all those dirt-poor immigrants pouring into America at that time, it’s hard to take this seriously. Did they not come here seeking upward mobility? I guess it depends on how the statistic is figured.)
  • The only U.S. president worth mentioning is Jimmy Carter, and then only because he was concerned about civil rights in Latin America.
  • In reaction to feminism, male violence against women, including rape, has probably increased enormously over historical norms.
  • Coding babies by color (blue for boys, pink for girls) is likely a patriarchal reaction against feminism.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing, Education, Philosophy and Religion, Politics and Economics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Things I’ve Learned from World History

  1. agnostic says:

    It’s true, this man has no dick.

  2. Sir Barken Hyena says:

    This isn’t history it’s propaganda. It’s purpose is to erase, not to record.

  3. Paleo Retiree says:

    Oh, I tried that series, it was awful. Couldn’t make it all the way thru. One of the Teaching Company’s worst. You listened to every last second of it? Gadzooks.

    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      I thought of stopping it several times. Then I figured it was worth listening to just for 1) the yucks, and 2) the learning experience. Learning about the World History mindset, I mean — not actual history.

  4. Paleo Retiree says:

    If you’re looking for great big-picture history, though, I’ve got two suggestions for you.

    This one is genius — takes you from the Big Bang to the present, from cosmology thru geology thru anthropology to history. One of the best things I’ve ever listened to — so good I’m tempted to listen to it again.

    This one is a brilliant intro to Western Civ. Very Jesuitical, it seemed to me — but hey, nobody does Western Civ as concisely as a Jesuit. It’s the course I wish I’d been given freshman year.

    As you know, Harl is great. So is Patrick Allitt — look for him and enjoy too.

    Hey, something I didn’t realize until very recently: “History” as an academic discipline isn’t at all what I thought it was — the study of humans thru time. In fact, it’s quite explicitly the study of documents — ie., it ONLY concerns itself with those stretches when people were writing stuff down. I always wondered why there were such huge gaps in what histories were telling me about. Now I know.

    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      Yeah, back when I was doing the Art History thing, History was described as the history of documents, whereas AH was the history of objects. Makes sense. Hey, looking at old documents is kind of dry, not to mention limiting, but it has its upsides. You’re studying stuff that actually happened — or at least stuff that people of that time thought had actually happened. Cuts down on the nutty theorizing. In contrast, World History seems to be all about theories and mindsets. I guess that’s an aspect of post-modernism or something — that move from actual, testable facts to theories, models, etc.

      Thanks for the lecture recs. Don’t think I’ve tried anything by Allitt.

      • Paleo Retiree says:

        His American Religious History (or some title like that) is a wonderfully oddball tour thru AmHist. He’s super-articulate and very appreciative of his topic. Haven’t been thru his Victorian Britain yet.

  5. JJT says:

    Sterns is Jewish. He sees himself in an ethnic war against Europe and the European diaspora. Ok? Period. Note patterns, please.

  6. Alex J. says:

    Archaeology is the before-documents studying, and thus it has its nutty theorizing. E.g. “That axe head, it’s not a weapon, it’s ceremonial, because … it is, you see.”

  7. ironrailsironweights says:

    All this is very depressing, but then again I’m not sure if many people actually believe such p.c. nonsense.

    Peter

  8. Scott says:

    “Two hundred and fifty bucks?!?!”, he shrieked.

    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      Yeah, the courses ain’t cheap. You can sometimes get them through libraries, though. And the Teaching Company runs some nice sales. Recommend you don’t buy this particular course, though.

      • Paleo Retiree says:

        I’ve never bought a Teaching Company course that wasn’t on sale. On sale, they’re about a quarter the list price. And they all go on sale sooner or later.

  9. dearieme says:

    This world historian uses a thematic approach, with two major focal points: food and water.
    Or ‘browsing and sluicing’ as I prefer to call them. Then again, perhaps there ought to be a third focal point but it might be considered rude to mention it.

    Mind you, when I studied optics ‘focal point’ tended to be singular.

  10. Podsnap says:

    Thanks for the warning on that one I will avoid it.

    Some l can recommend are ‘The Historical Jesus”, “Renaissance Reformation, Rise Of Nations”, the Big History one is OK but a little PC. Allitt is pretty good – I did his Victorians and ‘Conservative Tradition’ (natch). Rufus Fears is reasonable as well.

    You can get a lot of this stuff on torrent etc. You guys may be opposed to that – I find it hard to justify to myself, but…..

    • Paleo Retiree says:

      You found the Big History series PC? In what way? I’m usually pretty sensitive to excessive PCness …

  11. thrashmad says:

    Did it reallys say that the Europeans got the printing press from another culture? As i remmebr it the Chinese where first with printing and movable types, but the printing press was still invented by Gutenberg.

    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      My memory is that he downplays Gutenberg “inventing” the printing press and heavily emphasizes that the Chinese already had it. It is also strongly implied that Gutenberg knew of Chinese innovations in that area. I was quite interested in hearing the evidence for that, but he doesn’t explain where he got it. And there’s no: “Well, it’s *possible* Gutenberg knew that the Chinese had developed movable type, but it’s hard for us to know for sure.” I think an ignorant person comes away from that assuming Gutenberg basically stole the printing press from the Chinese. I don’t think I’m exaggerating there at all.

      A lot of the course is like that — Stearns throws out ideas and suggestions which sound like pure supposition, and then he never explains where he got the information or what it’s based on. The thing about people hunting not because they needed meat for their diets but because males needed something to boast about is a particularly funny example. He throws that out there two times, never bothering to explain what the evidence is. Of course, the ideas in that case are 1) women were more important than men when it came to providing sustenance, and 2) humans aren’t natural meat eaters.

      I got the impression that a lot of the crazier ideas come from academic papers that have been written in recent years. You know how that goes — some loony academic writes a paper suggesting X, and it’s taken that X is now a proven fact because it’s been a-okay’d by Right Thinking People. And just you try to say otherwise. This shit is science!

      • thrashmad says:

        Yeah, I’ve seen some of that. It is of course good that some people debunks the old myths, 1) Gutenberg invented printing and 2) he didn’t invent printing, but the movable type. But it’s sad that some seems to have confused printing with movable types with the printing press andtherefore spreads the myth that it was invented before Gutenberg.

        It’s of course possible that Gutenberg got the idea of movable type from East Asia, but to me it looks unlikeley to be direct copying, since his method of making types are different and uses different material.

  12. chucho says:

    I’ve always wanted to try one of these, but I can’t bite even at the sale price. It’s obvious the Teaching Company is providing a valuable service in the marketplace, but you have to wonder how much of their expense goes to the professors and institutions. And if it is indeed substantial, then it’s somewhat scandalous when you consider how over-subsidized and backstopped those institutions are by the US government.

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  14. Peter Stearns? Hah. The voice of historical revisionism from the bowels of the Cathedral at Harvard. In the words of Mencius Moldbug, “There is simply no power in the world, not even obviousness, that can displace our present economics faculty, or dislodge them from their lock on policy.

    They have tenure, after all. They’re scientists, which means that if you oppose them you’re an ASS. And they will remain in power until someone drives a tank or two into Harvard Yard – which, come to think of it, doesn’t sound like such a bad idea at all.”

  15. Zimriel says:

    I was on his side on the first two points.

    On the third and fourth point, I started thinking that he was leaving out that food isn’t just calories, but also protein – which hunter-gatherers get either through cannibalism (warfare) or hunting. And then I started thinking about propaganda technique.

    It was around the fifth point that I got to the stage of “I see what you did there”.

    I’d also consider Manichaeism as a world religion, but that’s a nit. I was already lol’ing by that point.

  16. breviosity says:

    Thanks Fabrizio, funniest post of the day – and truest. This really is the current orthodoxy in world history.

  17. WillieMaize24 says:

    Heh.. IIf you really want to learn about19th century history try the Flashman series.. That’s how we learned it in the old days. And then try some of the stuff Moldbug recommends.

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