History and prehistory

The textbook assigned for my history classes occasionally made references to groups of people who had lived in various places for many thousands of years or of people who arrived in certain places many thousands of years ago. I promised my students that they would not be required to learn those time spans, and I assured them they would not be tested on those numbers.

Right after explaining to the class what the textbook means by “BCE and “CE,” I gave them that assurance. “This class is a class about history,” I told them. Those few sentences in the book are about prehistory. We are not studying prehistory in this class; if it comes up in other classes, you can learn about it there. I used the opportunity to teach the students that, when it comes to prehistory, more than two theories are available. The reduction of debates and disagreements to two choices can be a problem in many areas—particularly in the study of history. I reminded the students that often prehistory is approached as if there are only two positions: Evolution, in which the world has changed and developed over millions of years, and Creation, in which the world was made by an Almighty God less than ten thousand years ago. I pointed out that there are other theories. Some people believe that an Almighty God created over millions of years, gradually shaping the world and life in it into what we know today. Others see God as a Spirit of the Universe, evolving with the worlds and with the life living on those worlds. Still others view the universe as passing through stages, gradually building to a high point, then crashing into destruction and beginning again the process of building. Some versions of Hinduism regard the physical world as a place in which building and destruction and rebuilding has been the pattern, repeated many times through the long course of history.

Evolution did not begin with Charles Darwin. When we reach the nineteenth century and talk about Darwin, I point out that his writings were heavily footnoted. None of his ideas were new; he was merely a successful writer who brought those ideas together and expressed them in a popular fashion. One might say that Darwin had a better press agent than other scientists of his generation—just as one might say that Guttenberg had a better press agent than other inventers of his time. Guttenberg was selected as the most influential man of the millennium (1000-2000) because of his printing invention; but printing was invented in China centuries before Guttenberg was born. Even movable type had been devised before Guttenberg came along. His printing business was more successful than those of his competitors, and he ended up taking credit for the new technology, but he scarcely deserves credit for changing the world by inventing printing or any facet of printing technology.

And don’t let me even start talking about Thomas Edison….

But I digress. I also tell my students that if Charles Darwin were transported into a biology class taking place in our time and were given an examination on evolution, Darwin would fail the test. The theory of evolution has changed (some would say it has evolved) since Darwin wrote his famous books. Darwin believed in slow, gradual change continually occurring in nature. Scientists today teach about long periods of stability and sudden changes—often climate change brought about by meteorite strikes or other cataclysmic events. Darwin believed that all surviving adaptations were improvements—“survival of the fittest”—but scientists today insist that many surviving adaptations are not the best possible results of change—“survival of the survivors.”

In any case, human beings at the beginning of recorded history were essentially like human beings today. They had the same intellectual capability, the same ability to learn, and the same ability to remember that people have today. They had less to learn and less to remember—not only history, but science and literature and other classes would also have been greatly abbreviated from what students learn today. Their bodies were smaller, on the average, and their lives were shorter, but that was due more to nutrition and other health-related issues than to any evolutionary change over the past few thousand years. No, when we think of the earliest people who lived at the beginning of history, those people were very much like ourselves.

Poor people. J.

The history of history

History changes. One might think that the only updates history books require is an additional chapter every few years to cover the last events. If one thought that, one would be wrong. We continue to learn more about our past, requiring revisions of our earlier writings about history. Consider the following examples:

  • In 2012, a construction project in England unearthed a skeleton that archaeologists and historians hoped might belong to King Richard III. The condition of the skeleton was compared to details known about the king, and careful study of the chemical composition of the bones was conducted; both kinds of tests demonstrated a convincing case that the remains were indeed those of Richard. Further chemical examination of the skeleton and studies of its form provided additional information about King Richard, including information about his diseases, his diet, and the injuries he sustained in his last battle. All this data helped to add details to our understanding of Richard III, of his life and death, and of conditions in England when he was alive.
  • Until recently, history textbooks reported that we can only guess at the number of slaves imported from Africa into the western hemisphere between 1500 and 1800. A team of young historians, aware that the slave trade was a business, went searching for business records. They found them. Historians now can say with confidence that twelve million slaves were sold and purchased from the African coast during those three hundred years—most of them sold by African tribes to European traders—and that nine million slaves were sold in the western hemisphere as part of the same trade. These numbers demonstrate that three million Africans died while being transported across the Atlantic Ocean in those three centuries—and their death was largely dismissed as part of the cost of doing business.
  • During the Roman Empire, a man named Ptolemy created a map and geography textbook of the inhabited world, to the best of educated knowledge at that time. Ptolemy included cities of Germanic groups in northern Europe on his map. For centuries, historians scoffed at Ptolemy’s invention of European cities, since historians knew he never visited that part of the world, and since other Roman soldiers described the German tribes as wanderers with no fixed abode. But when researchers decided to test Ptolemy’s claims, they found that the cities he located on his map were in the same location as some contemporary German cities. They then learned that ancient artifacts had been found in most of those cities. No one had ever considered the possibility that those were ancient German cities, since “everyone knew” that the Germans didn’t live in cities before crossing into the Roman Empire. Now the German heritage, and the early history of those cities, is better understood.

Earlier historians debated among themselves whether great people create history or history creates great people. Would the Christian Church have experienced a Reformation without Martin Luther? Would the American colonies have revolted against the British and later created a Presidency without George Washington? For some historians, history was essentially biography. For others, biographies distracted students from real history. Tolstoy in his novel War and Peace insisted that Napoleon was not a great man, that he was moved by historic forces he did not understand, and that his rise and fall would have happened to anyone who happened to become the leader of France at that particular time.

Current historians favor the latter approach. Recognizing the cliché that “the winners write the histories,” many historians work hard to learn about the losers and about those who were living ordinary lives at the time of great events. More than ever before, history focuses on the lives and conditions of people who never wrote a book, painted a masterpiece, led an army or a government, or sparked a new religion or philosophy. Modern science helps through its study of trace chemicals and of details such as pollen collected from various archaeological sites. Climate change can be traced in its warmer and cooler patterns by observing available crops in different areas, migration of people and of animals, and even studying tree rings. Global warming one thousand years ago made Viking settlements possible in Iceland, Greenland, and North America. When the planet cooled, those settlements were abandoned.

Karl Marx studied history as a battle between economic forces. Many historians today follow Marxist patterns by observing the contrasting economic situations of successful and unsuccessful civilized groups. Many historians focus on groups that were considered unsuccessful at the time. Today there are feminist histories, black histories, Native American histories, and many other efforts to document people who were marginalized in their own lifetimes and were incapable of writing and publishing their own histories, their own experiences, and their own perceptions.

Targeted studies of such groups have great value. At the same time, awareness of minority groups or oppressed peoples cannot fully replace the larger framework of history that has been built over the centuries. In earlier years, and in survey courses, students need to learn about the broad picture of human history. Given that broad picture, they develop an ability to evaluate and interpret the experiences of marginalized groups. Efforts to include these accounts within the basic and elementary presentations of history defeat the purpose of an educated society. Instead of creating a fuller and more accurate picture, these histories of oppression confuse students, distort their understanding of history, and crush their interest in learning more about themselves and their origins.

History of the marginalized and oppressed must continue to be studied and taught, but it must always be placed within the context of fuller history. It cannot be used as a substitute for traditional history lessons. The traditional history, even with its simplifications and other flaws, unites society and gives people a common ground, a place from which they can discuss the detailed nuances of history. Sacrificing traditional history to honor those who struggled and suffered, in the end, serves no good or worthy purpose. J.

Teaching history

I miss being in the classroom. The COVID crisis helped the school for which I taught hasten its transfer from classroom teaching to online teaching. They had already been pushing that direction for some time. I took the training sessions but did not offer to teach online. The students who enrolled in my classes preferred to learn in the classroom. But when the campus was closed, the conversion to online teaching forced me to take a break in my college career. Now, I suspect, the break has become a permanent retirement.

My classroom was on a military base, although the school responsible for the classes is a state institution. Many of my students were active military personnel; others were family of active personnel, retired military personnel, and people from the community who enrolled through the state school. I had a few students older than me, while I also had students still in high school earning their first college credits.

I taught history. Occasionally I taught a class in world religions or in introduction to philosophy, but mostly I taught the survey history classes: World History to 1650 and World History since 1650. The year 1650 was arbitrarily chosen; it was the middle of the textbook. Even when the school faculty changed textbooks and the new textbook split around 1500, they didn’t bother to change the name of the classes. Sometimes I would challenge students to guess why the class either began or ended with 1650. I heard some good suggestions about the Industrial Revolution, the Age of European Exploration and Colonization, and other landmarks that might have happened around 1650; students groaned when I told them that the only reason the year was chosen was that it was the middle of the book. But I then made the point that we have as much information to study and learn about the past 370 years as we have for the thousands of years that preceded 1650.

Some of my student signed up for the class because they love history. Others took it only because they were required to have one class in history. I managed to benefit the entire range of students. People who think they hate history, more often than not, had history ruined for them by a bad teacher, one who forced them to memorize names and places and dates, to focus on trivia that is easily found online. I focused on teaching the bigger themes of history, giving students a reason to seek the details online. A survey class cannot spend time on details. Taking a survey class in history is like running through a buffet restaurant—one sees and smells some of the food available, and one can return later to sample the dishes that seemed most appealing. I had the students write some “compare and contrast” essays to force them into a bit of focused research: What similarities and differences can one find studying Napoleon and Hitler? What similarities and differences can one find studying Socrates and Confucius? I gave them choices so they could focus on topics most interesting to them (and so I wouldn’t have to read a dozen versions of the same essay). But mostly I invited them to see the vast themes of human history on this planet. We discussed migrations, wars, economic trade, and the spread of ideas. We talked about significant developments in technology, artistic expression, and philosophy. We analyzed the significance of geographic features, climate change at various times in history, foods, and diseases. At times we debated similarities and connections between past happenings and current events.

The first night we met was always exciting, and also a bit stressful, even anxiety-inducing. They would find out what kind of instructor I aimed to be and how their work as students would be evaluated; I measured how willing they would be to discuss ideas in the classroom and to share experiences that related to our lessons. For example, when we talked about the beliefs and practices of Muslims, some of my students were able to describe things they had seen in Muslim countries. One of the joys of teaching college is the presence of students who have learned things I haven’t learned or who have had experiences I haven’t had. I always invited them to share what they knew with the rest of us.

I also invited them to challenge interpretations of history, even those that were presented on the quizzes. I wanted them to see that history is more that memorizing a list of data; history is sorting the data, connecting the data, and interpreting the data. Historians sort through information, seeking understandings of what happened, why it happened, and what it caused to happen. Historians are allowed to disagree with one another. Sometimes I disagreed with the textbook. Students were allowed and invited to disagree with me—not to earn an extra point on a quiz, but to help all of us learn more about history. If they stated their case well, using valid information from the textbook or other sources, I gave them the point. If they were merely quibbling, I held to the point, defending it and showing how historians work to gather and share their understanding of history.

Near the end of the first night’s discussion, I told the class about President Nixon. In August 1974, Nixon resigned from the office of President—he is the only U.S. President to resign. The Watergate scandal that produced that resignation is complicated, and I did not describe it that first night. But I explained how distraught, discouraged, and depressed he was having to leave that important job that he had fought so much to gain and to hold. I then told the students how Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had tried to comfort the President by saying that history would remember him more kindly than his contemporaries. I also quoted Nixon’s response to those words, as he said, “That depends upon who writes the histories.”

I pointed out to the students that, by enrolling in that class, they had become historians. They were taking on responsibility—they would help to write the histories. They owed it to their subjects, and to those who would read their work, to be accurate and fair. They would need to do thorough research, to think clearly and deeply about the information they had studied, and to communicate their conclusions effectively, convincingly, and honestly.

I would like to believe that, over the years, I have helped to shape a few good historians. I miss being in the classroom. J.

Remembrance of opportunities lost

We all carry regrets from the past. What we cannot fix, we try to forget. Sometimes, though, the memories linger for a while; they refuse to be lost in the mists of time now expired.

I remember a college cheerleader—I’ll call her Lori. One summer she and I were among the first students to return to campus for the new school year. We first crossed paths at an all-campus party for returning students. I happened across this party by accident and remained at the edge, not wanting to be surrounded by the crowd. Somehow, Lori and I noticed each other and began a conversation. The conversation continued back at my dorm room. (Nothing else happened; we merely talked.) She encouraged me to attend a scrimmage the school’s football team was holding the next day. Because of her invitation, I went to the scrimmage. It seemed odd to me—the team was recreating the closing minutes of the game they had lost to our biggest rival at the end of last season. They were experimenting to see what might have happened with our new quarterback in charge of the offense’s final drive in the place of last year’s quarterback. The scrimmage was designed to turn into a pep rally (celebrating the win that might have happened but didn’t); the pep rally included a meal, and Lori asked me to attend, but I declined. I wanted to get back to my room and finish unpacking, and I wanted to see if my roommate and other friends had arrived. Although some of my roommate’s possessions were in the room, he was not around when I returned, but a couple of other friends were there. While we visited, Lori dropped in again. I meant to introduce her to my friends, but somehow—in the confusion of the moment—introductions were not made. Instead, I pulled out a wooden box I had made that summer. Picturing it in my hands today, it would have made a nice cage for a cricket or other large insect. One of my friends asked if it was made from toothpicks, and I answered no, that it was made from splinters pulled off an old railroad tie. I did not say this, but I was thinking that no cheerleaders had been around to encourage my work on this piece of art. It seems that somehow Lori read my mind, because she suddenly ran out of the room, sobbing. At that instant, I was torn—I wanted to go to her, to comfort her, to have her come back so I could introduce her to my friends and make her part of the group. At the same time, I was reluctant to leave my friends for her, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to say to her. Before I could resolve the dilemma, I awoke.

Yes, this was all a dream and Lori, like the wooden art project, was only a creation of my dream mind. She didn’t even have a name in the dream; she was only “the cheerleader.” But the regret I felt was real. I appreciated our brief friendship, I wanted that friendship to continue to grow, and I hated the knowledge that I had hurt her feelings, even if it was only in my thoughts and in my dream.

I didn’t mention the earlier parts of the dream in which I visited a classroom where I had earlier taught a class, spoke with some of the students in that classroom, watched the new professor hand out candy and pizza to the students, then left and tried (but failed) to find my car in the parking lot, all of which led to the party where I met the cheerleader. I’ve been having (and remembering) a lot of dreams this year that are like this dream—vivid, filled with related happenings as well as people and places, and often shaping my feelings for the entire day following the dream. These dreams may be due, at least partly, to medications I am taking, but they obviously come from my own mind. I dream about people I remember—family and friends and coworkers, including some who have died, others who I haven’t seem for years, and some I still see nearly every day. At times the dreams are so vivid and realistic that I confuse them for memories of actual events or scenes from movies I’ve recently watched. (Did I recently see a deer, dream about a deer, or watch a movie that included a deer. That’s right—the deer was in last night’s movie.) In no way do I consider my dreams to be messages from God or predictions of the future. Dreams are mental problem-solving devices, managing hopes and fears, often in symbolic ways. But I still feel bad about upsetting Lori. If I could, I would let her know that I am sorry and that I still want us to be friends. J.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

The autumnal equinox has passed. When the alarm goes off in the morning, it is still dark outside. Darkness falls again soon after supper, so my evening reading and writing is done with the help of electric lights. The darkness contributes to the melancholy feeling I have about some other changes that happened in my life this month.

For the last ten years, I have been an adjunct instructor for a two-year college. I have taught at a branch campus of a state university; the branch is located on military property. Some of my students have been active military personnel; some retired from the military; some spouses or children of military personnel; and some simply nearby residents taking a college class. I have had students old enough to remember the day President Kennedy was shot; I have had students too young to remember the day that terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. I’ve heard many anecdotes about military life including events in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I began by teaching a course in World Religions since my degrees were in the field of religion. Most of my classes have been a survey of world history. Two nights a week for sixteen weeks I have guided students from the earliest civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China, right up to current events. Some of my students have said that they never liked history until they took my class. Others have contributed to the class by sharing personal experiences in other cultures, things they’ve been taught in other classes, and things they’ve picked up from the Internet. I hope that among my dozens of students over the last ten years, a good number have gained not merely a few new facts but a way of learning about history that helps them lead more informed and interesting lives.

My summer class and fall classes this year were canceled due to low enrollment. The administration of the state university has been promoting online learning, and it appears that we have reached the point where more students would rather learn online than in the classroom. I’m not opposed to the latest technology, but when it comes to teaching history, I prefer the classroom experience. I like to see the facial expressions and body language of the people I am teaching. I like the conversations before and after class that cover many things not related to the subject matter of the class. I like seeing students interact with one another.

This week I told the school to keep my name off the spring listing of classes. I don’t know yet whether I have taught my last college class, but the burden of preparing a class, then having it canceled at the last moment, is one I want to avoid for a while.

Meanwhile, I am driving a different car. For the last fifteen years I have been driving a 1999 Ford Escort. It had about 50,000 miles on the odometer when I bought it; it now has more than 210,000 miles. The air conditioner hasn’t worked for years, and this fall a faulty sensor started causing a warning light to flicker on and off. In a recent post I described my Escort as “a common Ford to carry me home.” I suspect that the reference to the spiritual song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” went past many of my readers.

My parents bought a Ford Granada when I was in high school. I learned how to drive on that car. When I graduated college, they gave me the car as a gift. A few years later I had the chance to buy a Mercury Sable in good condition from an elderly couple who no longer needed two cars. I sold the Granada to a man who lived on the same street as me, attended the same church, and needed a car. The Sable served well for many years, but I ended up buying the Escort fifteen years ago and selling the Sable to a high school girl who was getting her first car. The very same day I bought my current car, my daughter went to her job and heard a fellow employee say that he needed to acquire a car quickly. She told him about my Escort, he came by the house the next morning, test drove it, handed over five hundred dollars, and drove away.

The first car I test drove from the used car lot was a Ford Focus. It seemed OK when I drove it. However, before deciding on the car I asked to check the trunk. Last month two of my daughters were stranded by the side of the rode in a remote place for two hours because they had a flat tire. Although my daughter had owned the car for two years, she did not realize that there was no spare tire and no jack in the trunk. A call to 911 did not get help to them; eventually they found the number for the county sheriff and got the help they needed. Anyhow, when I opened the trunk of the Focus, I found no spare tire and sitting rainwater in the tire well. That ended my interest in the Focus.

The salesman suggested that I test drive a 2004 Honda Accord. It also handled well, it had a spare tire and no water in the trunk, and he dropped the price $1000 to match what he had been asking for the Focus. I went home that Saturday afternoon, did some research on the Accord, called him Monday to say I would buy the car, and drove it home on Tuesday. I’ve had more than a week to get used to it, and I am comfortable with the car. My Escort had a radio with a cassette tape deck, but my Accord has two radios—one with a CD player, which probably came with the car when it was new, and another with lots of lights and buttons that I don’t understand at all. It is set to a local station I enjoy, so I have not done much experimenting with it.

Though it seems strange after all these years to be in a different car—one that is not a Ford—I’m sure that I made the right decision. After all the book of Acts says several times that the first Christians were in one Accord, and what was good enough for them should be good enough for me. J.