Western Civ.

From History News Network (hat tip: Paul Halsall):

“Western Civ” Was Not a Late Invention

The claim that “Western civilization” as a concept and a course of study was invented during World War I is mistaken. That claim has been in heavy circulation among academic historians for nearly four decades, and has often been used as a culture war weapon against those who uphold traditionalist views of the West’s cultural continuity. First offered in 1982 by University of New Brunswick historian Gilbert Allardyce, this model specimen of historical deconstruction was widely cited amidst national controversy in 1987-88 by scholars who favored replacing Stanford’s Western Culture requirement with a multicultural alternative. Allardyce later helped found what he dubbed the “world history movement,” and his take-down of Western Civ is invoked by historians generally, and partisans of world history in particular, to this day.

Allardyce’s deconstruction of Western Civ was further developed by historian Lawrence Levine in his 1996 brief for multiculturalism, The Opening of the American Mind. As Levine put it, “The Western Civ curriculum, portrayed by conservative critics of the university in our time as apolitical and of extremely long duration, was in fact neither. It was a 20th century phenomenon which had its origins in a wartime government initiative, and its heyday lasted scarcely fifty years.”

Yet the Allardyce-Levine thesis is false, and dramatically so. Under only slightly different names, Western Civ has been taught since colonial times, appealing across the political spectrum until the late 1960s. While it takes a bit of digging to rebut Allardyce and Levine, any historian even moderately skeptical of their thesis could have exposed its gaping holes long ago. That nothing of the sort has happened suggests that contemporary historians’ hostility to America’s “dominant narrative” has hamstrung the discipline’s ability to self-correct. I lay out a refutation of the Allardyce-Levine thesis and explore the weaknesses of history’s post-1960s disciplinary orthodoxies in The Lost History of Western Civilization, a book-length report for the National Association of Scholars, a portion of which is summarized here.

More at the link

IDS 498

This past semester I tried something new, an Interdisciplinary Studies course on Homer, the ancient Greek epic poet whose works act as one of the cornerstones of Western Civilization. But rather than focussing on the great mountain of Homeric scholarship produced ever since the Archaic Age, we simply read one book of the Iliad and the Odyssey before for every class meeting and got together to discuss it. We used Ian Johnston’s translations, which I like and which are also available online. I was very impressed with my students’ insights, and I’m pleased to say that the course got even better as the result of the lockdown: we simply conducted it by email, and writing out one’s thoughts, and responses to those thoughts, concentrates the mind even better than open-ended discussion. For the record, I preserve some of this discussion, none of which is of my composition. Well done! 

Book 6

Starting at line 31, when Athena appears to Nausicaa, she comes as a friend of similar age. I found this funny because the way Athena talks to Nausicaa, she sounds more like a mom criticizing her cleanliness than a friend. She acts like the “mom-friend” to Nausicaa; the friend who always tells her friends what they are doing wrong and “how to get a man.”

I observed a Homeric Simile in lines 127-138 describing how Nausicaa stands out in her group of servants like the goddess Artemis in a group going for a hunt. I found this simile especially interesting since Odysseus says, “If you’re one of the gods who hold the wide heaven, then I think you most resemble Artemis… in your loveliness, / your stature, and your shape” when he first addresses her (189-192). Homer must have made this connection deliberately to either emphasize his simile or to prove the loveliness of Nausicaa—or both.

When Odysseus is first introduced in this book, he covers himself with thick bushes since the waves made him naked (159-160). This reminds me of Adam in the book of Genesis when he feels ashamed of his nudeness after eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Odysseus is also introduced with a Homeric Simile in lines 161-169. This simile compares him to a mountain lion to emphasize his stealthy movements. This simile seemed weird since the mountain lion would be hunting prey, and Odysseus is hiding from fear. 

Book 7

I would LOVE to find a study on the society of Phaeacia, and how well Homer’s mythic status for the place correlates to its place in real-world history. Homer sets up this society as an idyllic, heavenly society blessed by a multitude of gods. I find it interesting how godly blessings seem to get passed down from generation to generation – women continually receive blessings from Athena with the loom, and men receive the same with their skill on the sea from Poseidon. (Piggybacking on what Jamie said-maybe Odysseus receiving help and honor from people blessed by Poseidon could be a form of irony in the story? Or maybe a way for Homer to take Poseidon down a peg, if that makes sense?) However, despite receiving blessings from the gods to the point of being the perfect Greek society, they do not hold an important Greek ideal – hospitality. From what we can tell, other Greeks are always ready to receive strangers into their homes and treat them with hospitality and warmness, but the Phaeacians are said to treat strangers with wariness, not being the friendliest people. I feel like that is an important point in the story, thought I am not sure if there is any commentary Homer is trying to make here.

Book 8

I found it interesting that only one Muse loved and gifted Demodocus, but Homer does not state which Muse it is (line 74). It also says that she destroyed his eyes and gave him this gift at the same time, so he traded one kind of sight for another. This feels like a typical theme/occurrence in mythology. I also wonder if this sight helped him identify the “honored guest” since his first unprompted song was about Odysseus and Achilles arguing at Troy (line 90). Alcinous also notices how this and a later song about Troy make his guest weep, but does not ask who he is or why this is his reaction. Instead, Alcinous simply asks Demodocus to change songs. 

After the feast and first song, Alcinous changes the subject by inviting the Phaeacians to compete in games. This reminded me of funeral or festival games. This scene makes it seem like the Greeks took any opportunity to show their strength and practice athletic challenges. They find honor in this competition as expressed in Laodamas’ words: “there’s no greater glory for a man / than what he wins with his own hands and feet” (line 181-182). Euryalus also guilt trips Odysseus into competing in discus by claiming Odysseus is an all show no work kind of person. Odysseus proves him very wrong and spends a lot of time bragging about his competitive prowess. 

The Phaeacians conclude the games with more feasting and songs, and they give expensive gifts to Odysseus before his journey. One song is about Aphrodite and Ares cheating on Hephaestus. This song, of the three, is written in more detail than the other two. It includes detailed storytelling and dialogue among the gods, including Apollo and Hermes discussing how they would like to be the ones trapped with Aphrodite in a total male-ego led conversation (lines 422-431). 

I also found it interesting that Odysseus promises Nausicaa he will pray to her like a god until the end of his days (line 583-585). He is honoring her for saving him, but will his prayers mean anything since she is a living (younger) human and not an immortal deity? Or is he just saying this to be polite and show gratefulness?

He also ass Demodocus to play a song about the Trojan Horse (line 318-326). Is this so he can reminisce and grow sad again, or because he wants to hear of his glory days and have everyone hear about his greatness? Although he has avoided telling them who he is for this long. It’s is odd that the Phaeacians have gone through all this trouble to honor him and have no clue who he is.

Book 9

My first observation about this book is a criticism on Odysseus’ character. In lines 40-51 he describes how painful it was to be trapped with Calypso and kept away from his homeland. He did not mention his wife, his parents he misses, his wife? Nah. Not even mentioned. Neither is his son, he only misses the terrain of Ithaca. 

I also found it interesting that the behavior of his men mimics the behavior of the suitors—they want to drink, slaughter (other people’s) animals, and be merry. They have no concern for returning home. When Odysseus does get them back in the ships, he assures the ritual sacrifices are made before they leave, unlike Menelaus (lines 87-89). However, this sacrifice did not do him any favors; his ships were still attacked by storms at sea. 

In telling his tale, Odysseus spends little time discussing Ismarus or the Lotus-Eaters. He gives small summaries about how he and his men acted in those situations, but most of his summaries and descriptions center on the appearance of the land and oceans they traveled through. I wonder if this is in response to his longing for his homeland.

After these two events are chronicled, Odysseus spends most of his tale focusing on the detail of his encounter with Polyphemus. My guess is he does this because it shows more cunning in Odysseus than the other two encounters, and this portrays him as a stronger hero than simply avoiding a mesmerizing flower. 

Odysseus’ first appeal to Polyphemus is interesting because in it, he describes how:

“…Zeus protects
All suppliants and strangers—as god of guests,
He cares for all respected visitors.” (line 354-356)

This is the first time I’ve heard this quality attributed to Zeus. Usually I would think of Hermes as god protecting travelers, and I guess my brain associated these two things together. Zeus never seems great at caring for his guests either which makes this more interesting. 

Looking onto Odysseus’ craftiness, we notice he gives Polyphemus the name “Nobody” when he introduces himself (line 486). He thought ahead enough to realize that, if Polyphemus asks for help and names his attacker, other Cyclopes will think he is alone. However, he does not remain nameless. When he screams his name as the ship is leaving, this is an act of Hubris because he wants everyone to know his power and cunning (line 664). Hubris is Odysseus’ fatal flaw—all heroes have one. His pride will likely cause him more problems throughout his journey. His flaw makes him more human though, he is not some perfect hero travelling and winning every battle. 

Of course, after revealing his name we learn of a prophecy that conveniently existed before Odysseus met Polyphemus. So Polyphemus belittles Odysseus by claiming he his puny and weak, and he brushes it off by saying he couldn’t protect himself because it was meant to be. So even monsters blame their negative situations on the gods. But at least he can send his dad after Odysseus for the rest of his journey. This is where we learn why Poseidon has been angry at Odysseus for the whole epic. 

Book 10

1. Odysseus is… oddly patient with his crew. I can definitely see his mourning as proportional to his circumstances, but if I were him I definitely would have had a much more violent reaction to their stupidity in getting the crew off-course from Ithaca. I guess you can’t really go on a violent rampage when you’re dependent on a crew to keep your ship moving.

2. The reaction of Aeolus reminds me of that old Jewish belief that someone with lots of misfortune must have done something wrong in the eyes of God to deserve their punishment. I’m writing this with a massive headache so I don’t think I can provide much more commentary on this point.

3. Before reading this book, I was under the impression that Odysseus was a massive playboy that slept with a bunch of women outside of marriage but held up a double standard and got mad at his wife for possibly being unfaithful (though she did remain faithful in her marriage bed). However, so far in this book, the nature of Odysseus’s sexual relationship with women is much more DARK than I expected. Thus far, Odysseus has been held at the mercy of powerful women, who keep him captive on their islands, far from civilization. The only way he’s been able to be safe in these situations has been to perform sexually for these women. In the case of Circe, of course, he has the power to attack her, but Hermes explicitly tells him that the only way to save his crew is to sleep with Circe so she’ll turn them back. That does NOT sound consensual to me, at all. Of course we got told that he eventually has sex with these women voluntarily, as was the case with Calypso, but from a psychological standpoint this does not make his situation better, as plenty of victims of abuse end up believing they are volunteering and complacent in their abuse due to Stockholm Syndrome. The implication of this interpretation is troubling to me, so if I get this wrong I will not be offended! These are just my first impressions upon reading this passage.

4. Did Circe explain why Odysseus had to travel to the Underworld to talk to the prophet? Or is this just a random task she’s making him complete?

Majoring in History

From The Conversation:

Don’t despair if your teen wants to major in history instead of science

It might be your worst nightmare. Your child, sitting at the kitchen table, slides you a brochure from the local university.

“I’ve been thinking of majoring in history.”

Before you panic and begin calling the nearest computer science department, or worse, begin to crack those tired barista jokes, hear me out. This might just be the thing that your child, and our society, needs.

Choosing to become a history major is a future-friendly investment. A history degree teaches skills that are in short supply today: the ability to interpret context, and — crucially — where we’ve been, so as to better understand the world around us today and tomorrow.

We’ve never needed knowledge of history and the skills that come with the discipline more than we do now. Not only is it a good choice of a major for all the usual selfish reasons — you’ll likely get a good job, even if it takes a bit longer than the STEM disciplines, and more importantly you’ll probably be very happy with it.

But for our society more generally, we need a generation with deep capacities to acknowledge context and ambiguity. This idea of ambiguity not only pertains to interpreting the past based on a diverse body of incomplete sources, voices and outcomes, but also how our contemporary judgements of that record shape our choices today.

Our whole society hurts when students turn their back on history. A sense of history — where we have come from, the shared anchors of democratic society, the why and how of our current moment in time — is critical.

Read the whole thing.

A Professor Speaks Out

From Quillette, some confirmation of a theory of mine:

When first published, Zinn’s book was a disruptive and influential text, which would have made it a wonderful teaching tool then—but circumstances have changed. I know this because my classes were all Zinn, all the time (even though his textbook itself never made an actual appearance). In my head, this made my classes all about counter-narrative. But to my own students, my classes were just plain old… narrative.

Much more at the link.

Also:

There are two values in conflict here. One is the idea that engaging with an opposing idea makes the other idea stronger. The opposing position is that by engaging with other ideas, you make your own ideas stronger. Gay chose the latter approach, at some risk. Indeed, the prevailing logic among many is that by debating Sommers, Gay became just as “offensive” as Sommers herself.

It is hard to imagine anybody with more progressive bona fides than Gay, yet even she still feels somewhat apprehensive about engaging with ideological adversaries. This trend toward freezing out controversial ideas is a deadly threat to any trend in academia that even comes close to my own teaching approach. That career counselor was absolutely correct to recommend dropping any detailed discussion of my methods in my cover letter.

Also…

• Many people ask me if there are opportunities for “extra credit.” The answer is always no. The idea that you can just “play till you win” is corrupting of education.

• It is true that you are all paying a lot of money to come here (or maybe you are; I am not privy to whatever deal you happen to be getting). But whatever you are paying, it is not coming to me, I assure you. And it is not useful anyway to see your professor as a service industry worker. Do not think of me as your masseuse, your waiter, your accountant, or even your lawyer. No, the only way that I can have any effect on you is if you consider me your boss. If I want something done, I want it done! And I do not want to hear anything about how you are “paying for this.” I want you to pass, but it is not actually my job to pass you. It is my job to grade you honestly.

From the Syllabus

Regarding University Courses:

The whole point of small universities like Reinhardt is that you can interact with your professors. This is not an opportunity that students at large state schools normally get, where graduate student teaching assistants act as intermediaries between professors and students, especially in introductory courses like this one.

However, university is not high school. High schools are large, part-time prisons, one of whose main functions is to keep young people occupied for forty hours a week and hopefully out of trouble. University is qualitatively different. The conceit is that you are adults, attending voluntarily, and can be trusted to arrange your schedule as you see fit. You therefore only have fifteen hours of class time a week, and once you’re out of class your time is your own – the idea being that you can now be trusted to do your work without anyone forcing you to.

This means that class time is at a premium. I cannot speak for other instructors here, but I will not be wasting much class time on “fun in-class activities” like movies, skits, taking up tests, etc. If you would like further contact with me for whatever reason, please come by my office hours.

It also means that I will not be chasing after you if you start failing the course, or stop coming to class. Your grade is your responsibility. I want you to learn something, and I want you to pass the course. But you must also want these things, and you have to make the first move. I hold office hours for a reason, and I am always baffled why students do not take more advantage of them.

Teaching World War I

Georgia Medievalists’ Group member John Terry has published an essay in the Washington Post:

Why teaching World War I is crucial in 2018

We are living in the world the Great War made.

On Sunday, we marked the centennial of the end of World War I. Many history teachers in 2018, however, may be tempted to bow to student preferences and rush through the “Great War,” devoting more time to World War II. This would be a mistake. While the Second World War looms much larger in our national imagination, our modern political landscape is more a product of the First World War than the Second. It’s also far less well understood, as President Trump’s failure to understand why he should have braved rain to pay respects to America’s World War I dead vividly demonstrated.

Read the whole thing.

Also: See this great collection of photos at the Atlantic: The Fading Battlefields of World War I.

High School Textbooks

A laff from The Onion:

High School History Textbook Concludes With Little Blurb About Last 40 Years

EDISON, NJ—Immediately after dedicating 20 pages to the end of the Vietnam War and its aftermath, 11th-grade social studies textbook The American Vision awkwardly crammed the last 40 years of history into a little blurb titled “Into Our New Millennium.” “They spent a whole chapter on Teddy Roosevelt alone, but now they’re racing through the 1970s and just kind of stuffing Nixon’s resignation, the energy crisis, and the Iranian hostage situation into bullet points,” said student Russell Keener of the single-page spread, which somehow managed to encompass the attempted assassination of President Reagan, Rubik’s cubes, the Tiananmen Square protests, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. “It felt like we spent forever on the cotton gin, but now we’re just blazing through several decades like they’re nothing. One moment it’s the Lewinsky scandal, and the next we’ve got the first black president? It’s especially jarring when the last page has two thumbnail pictures, one of the Twin Towers falling and the other of a computer with a caption saying ‘The advent of the internet forever changed the way we see the world.’ Huh?” At press time, students reported not being certain how to take the book’s concluding sentence, which asked the question, “And who knows what will happen next?”

Ireland

Currently teaching my history of Ireland course in preparation for a study-abroad trip there next week. Participating in one of these has been a long-term goal of mine ever since I came to Reinhardt fourteen years ago, but something has always intervened, so I am very much looking forward to this one. Thanks to star organizer Cheryl Brown and EF Tours, we will be visiting the Dingle Peninsula, the Rock of Cashel, Dublin, Newgrange, Derry, and Belfast. Of course, as with my trip to the Middle East in October, this will likely mean a paucity of blog posts for the duration (5/24-6/9), but I should have some good material to write about upon my return.

The Style Sheet

For lack of anything substantive to post right now, please enjoy my style sheet for undergraduate papers. Comments or suggestions are welcome.

***

These rules do not apply to all forms of writing, but they do apply to formal, academic prose. Thus, you are to follow them when submitting assignments for this class. Violations will bring your grade down!

• Number your pages.

• Always have a proper title. “Western Civ. Paper” or “Book Review” are not proper titles.

• A novel is defined as “a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism.” Do not refer to any historical book as a “novel.”

• Please italicize the titles of books, and place the titles of articles in “quotation marks.”

• Please accurately designate when past events occurred. Do not use vague phrases like “at that time” or “in those days.”

• Be aware of the distinction between it’s and its, and all other homophones such as:

thrown and throne
to, two and too
whose and who’s
populace and populous
four, for and fore
allowed and aloud
principle and principal
fourth and forth
know and no
since and sense
their, there, and they’re
cited and sited
pray and prey
rein, rain, and reign
your and you’re

• Avoid “process” statements, such as “after reading this document” or “I have chosen to write about A and B” or “at first this wasn’t clear to me.” Just as athletes dress in the dressing room or chefs cook in a kitchen, so also you should hide the essay-writing process from your reader. Just get down to it.

• Make sure that pronouns agree with the nouns they refer to. Instead of: “When a student does not come to class, they are in trouble” write “When a student does not come to class, he is in trouble” (both singular, if sexist) or “When students do not come to class, they are in trouble” (both plural).

• It must also be clear which noun a pronoun is referring to. “The Serbs disdained the Croats, because they were more sophisticated.” Who was more sophisticated?

• If you have a subordinate clause referring to a person, make sure that the relative pronoun is who, not that or which. “Many people that voted were confused” ought to be “Many people who voted were confused.” Always use “who” to refer to people (and “that” to refer to things).

• “Where” refers to a place, and “when” to a time. Do not write things like “the century where this event occurred.”

• Do not neglect the proper formation of past participle. For example, write “he was supposed to do it,” not “he was suppose to do it.”

• Verbs in the active voice tend to be better than verbs in the passive voice. “The dog ate its breakfast” is usually better than “the breakfast was eaten by the dog.” The passive voice can be useful, such as when you do not know who was doing the eating (“The breakfast was eaten.”). Too many passives, however, make for weak prose. Name the actors and their motivation.

• One recounts literature in the present tense (ex. “No one can be certain if Hamlet is really insane”) but recounts history in the past tense (ex. “Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to death around A.D. 30.”). Always use the past tense when writing about historical events. Certainly, you should not shift tenses when recounting the past (“Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to death, and then washes his hands of the matter”).

• Make sure that you write in complete sentences.

• Only use commas where appropriate. In particular, avoid placing a comma after the main verb in a sentence, e.g. “He wanted, to establish an absolute monarchy.” Omit the comma. Also, do not join independent clauses together only with a comma (a comma splice) or with nothing at all (a run-on sentence).

• Please use the examples below as models for the formation of possessives. Do not form plurals with apostrophe-s.

Singular noun: The dog’s breakfast (apostrophe-s)
Singular noun ending in “s”: Prince Charles’s bald patch (s-apostrophe-s)
Plural noun not ending in “s”: The women’s salaries (apostrophe-s)
Plural noun ending in “s”: The deans’ luncheon (s-apostrophe)
Special case: Jesus’ parables, Moses’ laws (s-apostrophe)

• Avoid colloquialisms, such as “Henry VIII was a righteous dude” or “the Black Death was a major bummer.” They are out of place in formal writing and imply that the reader does not need to take you seriously.

• The first time you mention some person or some thing you should explain who or what it is. Always give a person’s name and job description in full the first time you mention him or her – “U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt,” for example. Later, you can give his last name only. Similarly, write “North Atlantic Treaty Organization” before you start using “NATO.”

• Practice proper parallelism. Write sentences like “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” or “The Bible contains the mind of God, the state of man, the way of salvation, the doom of sinners, and the happiness of believers.” Do you see how these work? In the first sentence, the four objects of the verb “to offer” are all single-word, concrete nouns. In the second sentence, four nouns, each modified by an adjectival phrase, act as the object of the verb “contains.” That is, all the list items are grammatically parallel to each other. Do not write lists that do not exhibit such parallelism, for example: “The candidate promised quality, frugal, clean administration, and honest.” (A possible revision: “The candidate promised quality, frugality, cleanliness, and honesty.”)

• Each paragraph should function as its own mini-essay. A paragraph should start with a topic sentence and stick to that particular topic, with the sentences flowing logically from one to the other. If narrating events, the events should be narrated in the order they occurred – certainly, information should not be introduced without explanation.

• Think carefully about the words you use. If you are unsure of the meaning of a word, look it up in a dictionary. Use a thesaurus to find words that are similar in meaning. Come back to your paper more than a day after writing it and read it through. Does it make sense? Can you say it better?