Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Little History Of The World

I listened to the audio book of this a few years ago and was charmed. It was written by EH Gombrich in the 30's as an introduction for children. When I started listening again last week I wondered when it would be appropriate for my granddaughters.

I stopped about halfway through. There are two related flaws, only one of which I noticed the first time. Taken together, I would no longer recommend it as history - though it does remain charming.

 It is in the old history style, focusing on battles, kings, and changes in official religion. As we moved away from that lots of folks sniffed that we were moving to History Lite and it was all some anti-American, anti-Western, anti-male, anti-something tripe - an effort to evade the hard work of learning concrete information. There's some truth in that, but much less than half. More modern historical treatments focus on what families were like, or how cultures viewed death, or trade. We spend more time on domestic architecture, migration, and relations among groups - things that had always been present, but only brought forward when they impacted the big stuff.

I greatly approve. If we wanted to know about the history of Papua New Guinea, or heck a newly-discovered planet, we would care not at all about their intrigues and coups and wars. We would want to know what their lives were like, and how that developed. Wars and rulers would influence that, but it would be those which were in the supplemental role.

Gombrich hits some of the big items in cultural history - one could hardly ignore the Renaissance, even if one believes (as I do), that it was a long process starting around 1100 rather than an explosive one starting in the 15th C. But he underemphasises such things. I don't like my history that way anymore. Relatedly, his perspective is very much that of standard narrative bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment, which emphasises how wonderful rationalism is contrasted to faith or trade or technology, achieved by ignoring such things as its connection to the French and Communist and National Socialist revolutions. I think reasoning a wonderful thing, and one of the great forces for good in Western Civilisation. But unchecked, it has unintended effects, just like everything else in the world.

Gombrich does not state his early 20th-C continental rationalism explicitly for children. But it is strongly implicit in his choice of materials, and perhaps more pernicious thereby.


Gringo said...

But he underemphasises such things. I don't like my history that way anymore. Relatedly, his perspective is very much that of standard narrative bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment, which emphasises how wonderful rationalism is contrasted to faith or trade or technology,

I once asked a fellow commenter what he thought distinguished Europe from Islam and China – which at the time were more advanced in scientific knowledge than Europe- to cause the Scientific Revolution from 1500 onwards to occur in Europe and not elsewhere.

The answer came back “Enlightenment…secular.. rational….,” which totally ignored my starting point of 1500 or so. The Scientific Revolution in Europe was going great guns centuries before the Enlightenment. Copernicus was a cleric and the nephew of a bishop. Etc.

Anyone who answers such a question with "Enlightenment..." is ignoring centuries of science, philosophy, and religion- and how differing worldviews among Europe, Islam and China resulted in different results.

james said...

I love the Will and Ariel Durant history of the West. They cover the kings and religions, and the art and how people lived. And it is in umpteen volumes.

Gringo said...

James: I have bought several volumes of the Durant series at a used bookstore for $1. The Durants are very good writers. The books are a smooth, effortless read- which takes a lot of effort in the writing.

Texan99 said...

It is strange to read older histories that focus almost exclusively on the palace intrigues, when I want to know how the population is dealing with its natural resources and what kind of social systems they have for dealings with markets and child-rearing and disputes.

It was a big shock to me as a college freshman to read history books that looked to primary information (like contemporary lists of inherited goods) about everyday life and attempted to draw tentative conclusions from them, rather than describing all history as a kind of sweeping narrative embedded with assumptions about what was inevitable and why it happened.

I'm listening to a pretty good "Teaching Company" lecture on the history of science, a subject I find much easier to grasp than ordinary history. I love hearing how natural scientists grappled with early discoveries, how they got derailed by confusing data, how they resolved their disagreements, how they were hit with flashes of creative intuition when everyone was stuck with an old model that didn't really fit the data. It's so easy to say, "Oh, electricity and magnetism work like this," and so unimaginably difficult to figure them out for the first time, especially depending on whether the society around you is helping or hindering you.

The early natural scientists spent what now seem like astonishing amounts of time accepting or rejecting theories on the basis of their personal notions of what God must be like. Was He the sort that would guide every particle's motion by His own hand, or did He set the universal laws in motion and then stand back? Even today, people think science will answer that question. Every time we learn to understand some new mechanism, most people assume it's evidence for or against the existence of God.

Well, I've drifted off-topic. My original point was that I like history that makes a serious attempt to deal with a broad range of causes, taking into account that the people at the time didn't know what was coming next. Also, just as I prefer a "modern" scientific technique of taking data as you find it rather than imposing your personal notion of God's probable design on it, I prefer history that develops a narrative out of a broad range of facts rather than imposing the narrative onto those limited facts that support it, and neglecting the rest.