Why the world before 1450 matters

It is no surprise that I am not excited by the proposal to focus AP History in the United States on the period after 1450. Overall I agree with many of the comments made in T. Greer’s tweet thread. Though I have a concurrent opinion with many history teachers who oppose the change, my opposition is for different reasons. To be frank I don’t care about “showing our black and brown and native students that their histories matter—that their histories don’t start at slavery”.

Though my leanings are toward positivism, that is, I think history is an empirical discipline, even with a potential scientific scaffold, I understand that with finite time and resources your choices are conditional on your viewpoint. When I grew up in the American North the Civil War was taught with facts, but the arrangement and emphasis of those facts were not flattering to the Confederacy. I think objectively this isn’t hard from a modern perspective. But, the fact that some Union regiments were raised in the area where I grew up is certainly relevant

But this old-fashioned biased perspective still gave the nod to the importance of objectivity in some deep way. And though I was an immigrant who was routinely asked “where I was really from”, there was also an understanding that I needed to know this particular Union history, because it was the history which I inherited.  It was our history, which set the objective preconditions of the world in which we lived. The sharply critical cast of modern history teaching has its roots in this fundamental understanding. History may often have had propagandistic overtones, in that it inculcated, but the facts still mattered, and sometimes they were at counter-purposes to the narrative (e.g., the Abolitionists were clearly in the minority even in the North; good history teachers didn’t lie about this).

The idea that one’s history, “their” history, is rooted in descent is common sense. But it’s also an idea which brings together frog-Nazis and Critical Race Theorists. Because of the closeness of the past few hundred years, the histories will be contested on the grounds of ideology. All narratives are contested, but emotion and effort vary in the contestation. The way to push through the contestation is to flood the zone with facts, with robust models. But this isn’t feasible for high school students, many of whom simply want to obtain a good AP score so they never have to take a history course again.

Rather, I think history before 1450 is critical not because it is relevant to a diverse student body due to genealogical affinity, but because common human universal themes are easier to perceive in more distant peoples whose actions and choices don’t have as strong a direct connection to the lived present. Consider the Classical Greeks. It is reasonable to assert that the genesis of the West as we understand it has to be traced at least in part to the Ionian flowering of the 5th century, and to Athens in particular. But it is not reasonable to make Classical Greeks a stand-in for modern Europeans, whose Christianity (at a minimum culturally) would be alien, and whose origins are from peoples who the ancient Greeks would term barbarians.

The Classical Greeks are profoundly alien to moderns, rupturing excessive identity, though that didn’t stop 19th century Romantics! Athenian democracy is very different from the modern democracies, with its participatory character and the large class of excluded residents. But Athenian democracy, and Classical Greece more generally, also highlight deep universal aspects of the human condition. It speaks more forcefully to many students because the mental clutter of the past few centuries, and their ideological baggage, are removed from the picture.

Additionally, cross-cultural comparisons of similarities and differences in the ancient and medieval world are useful because they are less overshadowed by the “Great Divergence”, and the post-1800 European breakout. While the world before Classical Greece was one of strange and isolated polities in a vast barbarous world, the world after 1450 points strongly in our mind’s eye to a state where Europe occludes our entire view. The problem is not slavery, because the age of European supremacy saw the abolition of slavery.

Obviously, even the period before 1450 can be fraught. Consider the rise of Islam, and the crystallization of the West as Christian Europe in tension with the rising civilization to the south, and the receding pagan wilderness to the north and east. There are plenty of opportunities for debate, disagreement, and ideological axes to grind. But contrast the same argument around the Arab-Israeli conflict or Sykes-Picot Agreement.  The fact is that pushing the past further back into the past muddles modern preoccupations. And that’s a feature, not a bug.

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8 thoughts on “Why the world before 1450 matters

  1. This is part of the ideological constrictions we can observe in the last decades and at a higher rate in the last years. Accompanied by lower (classic) education and average IQ.

    Most people cant think yet understand beyond what they experience in their day to day life. They dont even know how their great grandparents lived. History can teach you a lot about alternatives, but also about the society you live in and that most things are not self-evident.
    Just think about our money based economy and how it came to be. If you cut off at 1450,you miss the most important part.

    But that way its easier to stay in the Christian based, American and capitalist framework.

    Not that the history beyond 1450 being told honest and complete enough in the West, but such a change is the final blow to classic education.

    But I guess minions are not supposed to think out of the box anyway and now the establishment does no longer feel the urge to pretend otherwise.
    Minions just need their ideological conditioning and job qualification and no more.

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  2. I don’t think this is off topic, though perhaps an open thread would be more appropriate..

    I finished The Fate of Rome the other day. A really illuminating book and a wonderful piece of scholarship in the way it tied so many pieces together. I have a much better sense of late classical history as a result of reading this book, along with Ward-Perkins’ The fall of Rome : and the end of civilization and McLaughlin’s The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean – the Ancient World Economy and the Kingdoms of Africa, Arabia and India, all in short order. Soon up (after as much of Coyne’s Speciation as I can manage), Heather’s Empires and Barbarians : the Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe. I never took any AP courses* and focused more on literature and philosophy than history as my off-major courses in college. Ever since, and even at the time, I have been working hard to make up for that lacuna.

    *My HS goal was to graduate as quickly as possible rather than with as much college prep as possible – the college-arms race was much, much less exaggerated at the tail end of the Vietnam War.

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  3. One last comment: I had not noticed the image of Darwin’s book at the top of the post. About 2 chapters into it, I brought it to work today to return to the library, unfinished. Based on this, I conclude that it covers too much and too diverse material in each chapter to be useful to this bear of small brain. For instance, the 50+ page 2nd chapter covering the Age of Discovery includes: the Portuguese entrance into the Indian Ocean; the Spanish conquest of the W. Indies, Mexico and Peru; the rise of Muscovy; the Turkish conquest of Byzantium and expansion to the gates of Vienna; the rise of the Savafids; the revival of Muslim power in India; and 16+ pages on East Asia. Too much for me to digest and keep track of!

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  4. I can’t get excited about this one. Everything that is taught by the current generation of teachers at every level from nursery school to graduate school is filtered the the gobsmackingly uneducated and PC addled brains of the current generation of teachers.

    I think it is safe to guess that there are not 50 teachers in this country who have studied as much history as our esteemed host. 90% of the rest of them think that history began with the invention of the iPhone.

    The topics in the curriculum will make no difference. The classes will be devoted to denouncing whiteness, patriarchy, imperialism, colonialism, heterosexuality, families, the United States, and Israel.

    I say all of this a person who had the honor of taking world history in college from one of the very few people who had the learning to teach the subject, Willam H. McNeill. He has gone, and with him, his learning.

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  5. “…there was also an understanding that I needed to know this particular Union history, because it was the history which I inherited. ”

    I grew up in Alabama, and one night when some family friends of my parents were over for dinner, the mom, originally from New England, became startled and aghast when her daughter was using personal pronouns in describing the fate of the Confederacy in the Civil War (“we lost”). To mom, “we” was obviously the Union, but the daughter had lived in Alabama her whole life and gone to public schools in Alabama, and consequently inherited that history.

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