Whirled History

One of my granddaughters arrived at our summer house early this month burdened with several volumes of assigned summer reading. By far the weightiest of these was her textbook for Advanced Placement World History, a two-inch thick tome that weighed, I thought, four or five pounds. It is called Ways of the World: A Global History with Sources, written or produced by two college teachers, Robert W. Strayer and Eric W. Nelson. Curious to know what my granddaughter would learn about the Greek and Roman world, I opened it to Part Two, which treats empires, cultural traditions, and social hierarchies from 600 BCE to 600 CE. My eye fell on these words from the study questions appended to one chapter: “How does Herodotus, as a Roman scholar . . .” As soon as I could, I borrowed the book and set out to read the sections on Greece and Rome. Would my granddaughter come away from her first AP course thinking that Herodotus was Roman, or that Vergil wrote the Iliad?

I needn’t have worried. For one thing, since 2020 AP World History has been officially called “AP World History: Modern,” and the syllabus takes its departure from 1200 CE. And apart from that one howler about Herodotus and a few other very minor, often debatable points, Ways of the World does not mislead students on the facts about the Greek and Roman world. How could it? There are very few facts in the book; it is all generalizations, themes, movements, and concepts. Cultures come and go, empires rise and fall, and stuff happens. There is no sense that any culture or event matters more than any other. It all whirls together in the blender of time past, and the resulting smoothie seems unlikely to nourish or inspire any tenth grader or be remembered for very long.

It’s not the textbook’s fault. Its authors had their task defined for them by the AP World History syllabus, which seems determined to avoid any suggestion that some cultures and regions matter more than others. As the course description puts it, “The AP World History: Modern course requires that students learn world history from a global perspective. Balanced coverage of the regions within the course ensures that a single region is not situated at the center of the historical narrative.” Dutifully following instructions, Strayer and Nelson give aboriginal Australia and fifth-century Athens equal billing, and China is neither more nor less significant than Meso-America.

But it that how world history should work? Hegel, who pretty much invented the modern idea of Weltgeschichte, seems not to have thought so, and the practice of historians suggests that doing history is, from its beginnings, a matter of giving a shape to the past—a shape, that is, beyond the banal facts that things move toward the way they are now. A global view and a commitment to valuing all human cultures, also, don’t preclude giving shape to a narrative. Herodotus’s narrative of the wars between Greece and Persia centers on the Greek world, but it includes Egypt, Babylon, Scythia, and most of the world as he knew it. Persians and other non-Greeks may be the enemy, but like Homer’s Trojans, they are fully human and sometimes admirable. Herodotus wants his narrative to have a shape and a goal: “so that things done by man not be forgotten in time, and that great and marvelous deeds, some displayed by the Hellenes, some by the barbarians, not lose their glory, including among others what was the cause of their waging war on each other” (Hdt. 1.1, tr. Godley).  His narrative has a center.

History, it seems to me—and I think Herodotus and Hegel would agree—is a matter of orienting ourselves to our past, and of doing with humankind’s past what we do with our own lives if we live long enough: picking out the important times, places, and events, trying to understand what they tell us about our here and now, and creating a narrative that helps us make sense of the world. It is not, to quote the AP World History course description again, a matter only of “concepts like humans and the environment, cultural developments and interactions, governance, economic systems, social interactions and organization, and technology and innovation.” General concepts are useful things because they allow us to organize information and ideas, but the information and ideas come first. Otherwise we end up with something like the bland concoction presented in my granddaughter’s hefty textbook.

~Lee T. Pearcy
August 22, 2021

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