Friday, December 9, 2011

world history

I have been listening to Prof. George Stearns lecture on "world history".  You might think that all histroy is world history and, in a sense, it is.  However, the subject of world history is evidently a new one.  As a species, humans go back several million years but we can probably say that the last 100,000 or so years covers the period where people were recognizably like us.  

Depending on the evidence one uses and the definitions of interest, just the last 50,000 years covers a great deal more than we tend to learn about in school.  No wonder, since there is so much than might be of value to know and the first 20 years of life are, after all, a limited time.  Certainly, not all of it can be devoted to learning and much of that learning takes place at home, church, and other places besides school.  

It comes as no surprise to find that a well-educated person aiming at seeing the truly big picture can find trends, facts and patterns in a long look, an attempt to cover the planet, that we wouldn't see or grasp or understand or even detect, were our vision limited to American or state history.  My experience was that historians and teachers often said that history could not cover times before the invention of writing, since before that time, there were no clear records of events.  Again, what is meant by "writing" matters in such thinking but increasing scientific and intellectual effort at validating hypotheses about who did what when and why extends the time period scholars are comfortable discussing.

A really interesting aspect of courses in world history is that the push to create them came from students in American universities from non-Western backgrounds.  Complaints and questions from them lead professors to get to work at creating a long-range look at history over the earth.  I guess the effort is about 20 years old.

When we stop and think about the population of the earth, currently at about 7 billion people, the approximately 400 million Americans make up less than 1/14 of the whole, that 93% of people are not us.  Our country is roughly 200 years old.  Of course, there are older and bigger countries than ours and some of the ideas, habits and customs in them are of great interest.  Clearly, not everything we do and think is superior to everything they do and think.  Thinking about what has happened to people can be eye-opening and comforting. 

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