Thursday, September 5, 2013

History: What you need to know.



I have spent the last few decades thinking about history.  I spent much of that time reading history and sitting through hours and hours of lectures on history. Asian  history (I like the Meiji Period in Japan and the great Mongolian conquests of the Huns), European History, Mesoamerican History, and most recently I have spent a lot of time on the early days of the Russian people and the invention of the concept of “race”.

I realized this a long time ago but am just getting around to fleshing out my conclusion. We are all aware that history is more than a recitation of facts. There are dynamics and relationships which move these facts into place and fill them with meaning. I have come to realize that understanding a period requires understanding it from a few different perspectives.

Three overlapping Magisteria: Politics, Class and Culture.  This is what you need to know as a student of history.

Politics, the way power is held. A democracy, a theocracy, a dictatorship, or what have you.

Class, the divisions which make up our communities. Today we use money and academic status. A few hundred years ago it was aristocratic birth order.

Culture, the glue of civilization. One might argue that this one encompasses the other two but there are some lines I like to draw.  Culture is the glue of society. It is academia, economic systems, means of production and societal standing (slaves, minorities, women, gays and the like.).

Combined these three are all you need to know about any society and facts are useless without the necessary context. What did the discovery of the New World mean in 1492? Now we need to understand Spain and its place in Europe and the world. We need to look to our overlapping Magesteria.

Same could be said for the Atomic Bomb, Apartheid, The Communist Revolution in the USSR or China, The Democratic Revolutions in the US or France, or Constantine's conversion to Christianity. These events mean things only in the broader sense of the culture or society in question. 

So I suggest, as you will probably guess, that instead of memorizing facts we spend a little more time understanding the worlds they take place in.

-Josh

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