When I was a child in school, it bothered me to no end that many of my teachers did not know more about the topics they were teaching than what was explicitly written in their lesson plan. It certainly discouraged creative and critical thinking in any but the most scripted (see "Questions After Reading" sections in textbooks). I recall the humiliating feeling of asking a question only to have my teacher reply, "That's not important" or "Let's stick to the lesson plan today, Alina". Those teachers gave one child a pretty clear signal that inquisitiveness and curiosity were not connected to "learning" and knowledge at school.
So I devour books to be a better teacher.
We have been using Susan Wise Bauer's classical history series, The Story of the World. Max's love for history dovetails sweetly with my own. Preparing for a new "school year" means reading up on different historical perspectives and stories to entice my ever-hungry Max. But reading Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature raised many questions for me about the river-valley civilization model used by Bauer in her history texts.
Currently a professor at Notre Dame, Fernandez-Arnesto (FA, for short) approaches history from a perspective in which civilizations are more broadly construed to include less "Western"- oriented social groupings and settlements. In his favorable review, Robert Fulford describes him as a member of the "history-is-how-you-slice-it movement". Fulford explains:
Fernández-Armesto slices history according to geography, and defines a civilization by the way people respond to the world around them: Specific forms of human organization arise in response to ecological region-types. He includes the usual suspects, among them coastlines, such as those of the Mediterranean, and river valleys, such as those of Mesopotamia, that old favourite of mega-historians. But others are unexpected. He charts the growth of societies in grasslands, from the North American prairies to the Eurasian Steppe, and even in apparent wastelands, both deserts and polar regions.
He explains, vividly and persuasively, the societies that arise in these radically different contexts. When he deals with forests he ranges over mythical wild men who live in the woods, the impenetrable German forests that produced the enemies of Rome, the Huron of the Great Lakes, and the Arthurian legend, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. On Arctic-dwellers, he mentions that in 1884 a Swedish judge declared that protecting the grazing lands of reindeer was unnecessary and counterproductive, since the Sami (also known as the Laplanders), who lived off the herds, were an inferior culture, doomed to extinction. Saving the Sami would violate the central law of our species, survival of the fittest.
The judge lost that argument, and rightly so. As Fernández-Armesto says, the Sami, inseparable from their reindeer, have created an elaborate and delicate system of "controlled nomadism" by adapting nature to human needs.
Over 11 centuries or more, they have learned to move the reindeer in herds of thousands. They organize the animals, escorting them to grazing grounds, so that the animals can maintain the Sami by providing food, clothing, and implements made from reindeer bone, a more careful version of the relationship between the buffalo and the plains hunters in 19th-century North America. Does this deserve the term "civilization"? Fernández-Armesto's answer is an emphatic yes.
How does this affect my teaching The Story of the World to Max? Let's get back to FA's book. Remember that the classical method teaches ancient history as an outgrowth of the original River Valley civilizations. As a teaching model, it is facile and lovely. However, as an actual approach to the understanding of ancient civilization, it is limited and overly indebted to Oswald Spengler. Not unenthusiastically, FA plays with a few sacred cows:
Dethronement of Sumer, Egypt, China, and the Indus from their usual leading role enables them to be seen in the contexts in which they are best understood. They form one possible class of environments in which civilization happens, not necessarily the best or most propitious. By this stage in the book, it should be apparent to the reader kind enough to have persevered this far that the civilizing impulse is amazingly widespread. Almost every environment habitable by man has been affected by people's lust to change it to suit themselves.
FA believes we deceive ourselves in two important ways which allow us to miss the bigger pictures in history. The first is the "diffusionist fallacy":
The habit of putting these ancient river-valley civilizations together at the top of the story nourishes what I call the diffusionist illusion. People have traditionally talked about civilization "spreading" from place to place and not happening by other means. This is the result, I think, of two forms of self-deception. First of these is self-congratulation. If we suppose-- as people throughout history have regularly supposed-- that the way we live represents the climax of human achievement, we need to represent it as unique or, at least, rare: when you find a lot of examples of something that you expect to be unique, you have to explain the effect as a result of diffusion. Yet, in reality, civilization is an ordinary thing, an impulse so widespread that is has again transformed almost every habitable environment. Peoples modest enough in the face of nature to forgo or severely limit their interventions are much rarer than those who, like us, crush nature into an image of our own approving. The attitude of these reticent cultures should therefore be considered much harder to explain than that of the civilized.
The second is the "migrationist fallacy":
The second self-deception is belief in what might be called the migrationist fallacy, which powerfully warped previous generations' picture of the remote past. Our received wisdom about prehistoric times was formulated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Europe was enjoying her own great imperial age. The experience of those times convinced self-appointed imperial master-races that civilization was something which descended from superior to inferior peoples. Its vectors were conquerors, colonists, and missionaries. Left to themselves, the barbarians would be mired in cultural immobility. The self-perception of the times was projected, almost without utterance, onto the depiction of the past.... Almost every development, every major change in the prehistoric world was turned by migrationist scholarship into a kind of pre-enactment of later European colonialism and attributed to the influence of migrants or scholars or the irradiation of cultural superiority, warming barbaric darkness into civilized enlightenment.
The result was to justify the project of the times: a world of peoples ranked in hierarchical order, sliced and stacked according to abilities supposed to be innate.
FA acknowledges that "scholarly fashion has changed with the cultural context", so "processual change" often accounts for changes formerly credited to diffusions and migrations. We now know that people did not have to learn agriculture from their neighbors (though they may have done so in some cases) because the "same processes which produced it in one part of the world could do so in another". And now FA creates a little quandary for Susan Wise Bauer and her classical coterie:
Civilizations have to be open to a range of influences or they wither or become inert.... But these are very general patterns of exchange in which civilizations enrich each other. It is mistaken to suppose that civilizations could not develop independently in different environments, without help from the peoples of the ancient river valleys.
He takes the example of writing, which began all over the world for different reasons, including bureaucratic ones (records of taxation), religious ones, and social ones.
Writing originated independently in quite different ways in widely separated parts of the world. Indeed, the scale and speed of the growth of our knowledge of early writing systems have plunged the chronology and definition of writing into turmoil. How much information does a system have to be able to convey before it can be called writing? Will notched sticks or knotted strings do? Is Mesoamerican picture-writing pictures or writing? The answers to elusive questions of this sort can force radical revisions of traditional diffusionist schemes.
Historical change and adaptation does not move in one direction. Western civilization is not the only advanced, sophisticated manner of life. There is more than one way to eat a peach and love it. Although it might be comforting and quaint to believe that history is a march towards progress, the actual study of history reveals it as a gallivant towards different understandings of progress. More people have been killed in wars and government-sponsored mass murders in the past hundred years than any notion of "progress", no matter how paltry, could support. Rather than raise Max to fall prostrate before the sublime ghosts of Hegel's historical absolutes, I prefer he learn history in a more open-ended, anything-is-possible fashion.
The models with which we raise our children constitute the tiny categories into which they classify the rest of the world. Best to have many, many wonderful categories-- enough to make your head spin-- than to offer the wrong categories, the categories which make nationalism, ethnocentrism, and other chronic diseases of the 21st century an unfortunate mental habit and habitat.
- It appears FA was arrested for jaywalking in the law-full city of Atlanta. How wonderful that police are cracking down on professors wandering around the city while attending meetings of the American Historical Association. Doesn't it make you feel safe to know that jaywalking is a crime worthy of handcuffs? Blah.
- This interview with FA illuminates his profound relationship to his Catholic faith, his attempts to sort through the "Euro-centrism" plaguing history departments, and much more. A great read.
- A fancy PDF bio for FA.
- "Civilizations: How we see others, how others see us", a lecture given by FA for UNESCO meeting