Ever since I graduated, I’ve been frustrated by my lack of a grasp of history. Yet I get kidded (I think good-naturedly) about being the History Professor, since I tend to leap into some conversation or other with some story from history. This says way more about the general lack of historical perspective than it does about my level of historical erudition.
Anyway, barring a (not totally out of the question) return to academia, here’s my approach to history. Use it wisely, to dazzle your friends and baffle your enemies:
1) Get the big stories right. This could also be titled: Look at the Map, or even look at the pictures in a travel guide.
Examples: Chinese culture is really widespread. Not only are there 1.3 billion Chinese, but Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indonesian and parts of many other cultures are offspring of Chinese culture, and Chinese influence continues to push outwards at the boarders. China is really, really big and important.
Islam is really widespread and – here’s the kicker – Islam has had effectively no positive influence on the lives of the people where it has held sway. Very politically incorrect, but also utterly historically undeniable. You can easily see this by the ridiculous lengths people go to to try to credit achievements to Islam. For comparison: vastly more useful, beautiful, and culturally positive things were produced by the about 50,000 5th century B.C. Athenians or the about 50,000 15th century Florentines than have been produced by the millions upon millions of Muslims over the 14 centuries Islam has existed. All you have to do is look to see this.
There are really big mountains between India and China, but if you are willing to ford some rivers, you could walk from the Levant to Mumbai.
2) Get the big movements right. Mostly talking about where people are from and where they went.
Example: Americans tend to think that the native Americans have been almost eliminated. That’s somewhat true in the US, but almost completely untrue outside of some of the Caribbean islands. The blood of Native Americans runs strong in the populations of most of Latin America.
The Germanic tribes settled both France and Germany. The French and Germans are descended from the same peoples. The French Germans (so to speak) sort of learned Latin (“French is the most degenerate Romance language” – some professor or other), while the Germans Germans didn’t.
3) Atrocities are as common as dirt. Many peoples, when given the opportunity, have not hesitated to exterminate their enemies as far as possible – it’s not something only crazed dictators do (they just do it more efficiently) it is something regular people do. This adds needed perspective – what we should learn from the Nazis is not that they were particularly monstrous, but that they were a lot like us. We should not be looking outward, but inward, if we wish to avoid more atrocities.
More later. Ciao.