I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. -- Thomas Jefferson

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Slicing Up History When We Homeschool:
Beyond Ancient/Medieval/Modern

The traditional approach to dividing up human history is:
  • Ancient 3000 BC - 500 AD (3500 years)
  • Medieval 500 AD - 1500 AD (1000 years)
  • Modern 1500 AD - 2000 AD (500 years)
The disparities in the lengths of time encompassed by each of these periods is striking: the Ancient Period is approximately seven times as long as the Modern Period!

It is natural that we are more interested in what happened in 1700 AD than in what happened in 1700 BC. But to make the Ancient Period seven times as long as the Modern Period risks badly biasing our understanding of the past: surely human life and thought must have changed rather significantly between 3000 BC and 500 AD.

The elapsed time between the building of the Pyramids and the death of Caesar is greater than the time from Caesar to ourselves. To lump Caesar in with the Pyramids as "ancient" is deceptive.

Of course, the origin of this framework goes back to early modern times, and is really simply a division among:
  • Greeks and Romans
  • The Feudal Period
  • The Renaissance and Post-Renaissance Age
I.e., this way of dividing human history comes from Early Modern Westerners who were largely ignorant both of history prior to the Greeks (early Egypt, Mesopotamia, etc), and of non-Western history (China, India, etc.).

A more balanced division of history is:
  • Archaic Period 3000 BC - 1000 BC (2000 years)
  • Ancient Period 1000 BC - 500 AD (1500 years)
  • Period of Barbarian Conquests 500 AD - 2000 AD (1500 years)
It is not simply that this division gives periods that are more equal in duration; this division also helps us think more clearly about long-term historical processes.

When we talk about the “Bronze Age” vs. the “Iron Age,” we are already implicitly recognizing some such division: the Bronze Age world of the Pharaoh Khufu or the Great King Sargon of Akkad was a very different world from the Iron Age world of Qin Shi Huang Di and Julius Caesar, of Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus.

The Archaic Period could be described as the period of “temple-states,” where the gods were largely the affair of the rulers and their dependent priests. During the Ancient Period, that system was replaced by wide-ranging thought and speculations about the nature of human life and reality. The Greek philosophers, the competing schools of thought in late Zhou China, the creation of the Upanishads and Buddhism in India, the creation of Judaism and then Christianity in Palestine – none of this has much precedent during the Archaic Period. (Because the central religious and philosophical perspectives that are still widespread today arose during the Ancient Period, the central part of this period has been labeled the “Axial Age” by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers.)

Belief systems during the Archaic Period tended to focus on the relationship between the gods and the entire community as mediated through the rulers and the priests. The transition during the Ancient Period to systems of thought and belief that focused on the individual and his relationship to the gods and to reality is a dramatic shift in human thought.

It's not that all of these revolutionary thinkers – from China to Greece – had similar thoughts. Quite the contrary! It is rather the diversity of thought in the Ancient Period that is so startling. Is the goal of life to be part of a society structured like a family (Confucianism)? Or is the goal of life to escape the cycle of rebirth through extinction of the self (Buddhism)? Or should we strive to live up to our potential as rational beings (Aristotle)? Or must we atone for our innate sinfulness by accepting the ultimate sacrifice made by Christ?

These are incommensurable goals for human life.

Why the “Period of Barbarian Conquests”?

To Westerners, the big news of 500 AD to 10000 AD is the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, the loss of classical culture, and the Dark Ages.

But, from the perspective of most of the Old World civilizations, the fate of the Western borderlands was of limited interest. The real news of those years was the explosive expansion of Islam due to Arab barbarians who conquered the original heartlands of human civilization in the Near East and beyond.

Similarly, the real news of 1000 AD to 1500 AD was the repeated irruptions of the Turkish and Mongol peoples out of Central Asia, overpowering, at one time or another, almost all of the civilized areas of the Old World, except of course the Western borderlands of Europe.

And, after 1500 AD, the conquest of the rest of the world by the West was, from the perspective of most of the civilized world, simply one more wave of barbarian conquests.

One of the key characteristics of the Period of Barbarian Conquests is the dominance of much of the world by the two religious systems descended from ancient Judaism: the sister religions of Islam and Christianity.

Christians and Muslims may see each other as the ultimate heretics, but from the view of much of the world, and from the perspective of pre-Christian pagan culture, the two monotheistic religions are remarkably similar, not only in their beliefs but also in their relentlessly expansionist, missionary, imperialist activities.

I think the most important aspect of the general perspective I am proposing here is that it sheds some light on where we stand today.

First, is the Age of Barbarian Conquests now at its end, and are China and India re-asserting their position as dominant civilizations?

Second, will Christianity and/or Islam dominate human systems of belief in the future or is a new pattern of belief arising?

Of course, it is not possible to answer those questions with certainty.

But it is clear that the rise of science during the last five hundred years is radically changing the old games of civilization: physics is the same in Beijing as in London; chemistry is the same in New Delhi as in New York. Is it possible that the wild and lush diversity of systems of thought created during the Ancient Period are now being replaced by a single unified system of belief – natural science?

How does all this affect homeschooling?

I know of no textbook that does an adequate job of restructuring the narrative of human history along the lines I am suggesting here. Some high-school and college texts try to present a more balanced view of world cultures that moves beyond the narrow Greece-Rome/feudalism/Modern-West framework, but I know of none that adopt the broader framework I have sketched out here.

But we homeschoolers do not need to use a single textbook. There are a number of excellent books, at an upper-grade-school through high-school level that discuss separate civilizations and cultures. Homeschoolers can selectively use those books to create a broad curriculum that explores the pattern of human history that I have laid out.

Time-Life published two very nice series, The Emergence of Man and Lost Civilizations, that include a number of useful volumes: e.g., we have used The First Farmers and The First Cities in the former series and Early Europe: Mysteries in Stone in the latter series. Lost Civilizations, incidentally, is not about silliness such as Atlantis, but rather focuses on archaeological discoveries relating to ancient humans. Other Time-Life series, such as Time-Frame and The Great Ages of Man are also worth checking out. (All of these are long out of print, but generally available through public libraries and used book sources on-line.) It is important to cover the prehistoric agricultural revolution and the urban revolution: the two books I mentioned from The Emergence of Man series are helpful in doing that.

Lucent Books, in its World History Series, has a number of well-written books at a middle-school level: we have used, for example, Don Nardo's Ancient Mesopotamia.

Dorling-Kindersley's beautifully produced Voyages Through Time series, all written by Peter Ackroyd, is much better written then most DK books, but of course still has the wonderful illustrations that DK is famous for. We have gone through most of the volumes in this series: these books are our kids' favorites among all the history/social-studies books we have used up till now in our homeschooling.

At a beginning grade-school level, I recommend Anne Millard's and Particia Vanags' Usborne History of the World (this is the “white” book, not the “Internet-linked” book), which uses cartoons to give a nice, brief overview of world history up to 1900. The book is admirably neutral – not pro-Christian nor anti-Christian, not “politically correct” nor hiding past atrocities, but just a nice description of the broad course of world history at an early to mid-grade school reading level.

None of these books explicitly lays out the picture of history I have described here. But they do provide detailed and interesting factual narratives that can serve as the basis for a broad view of human history.

It is then the homeschooling parent's job to present the broad picture of history over the last five millennia, and explain how all of these historical details fit into that broad picture.

How we slice up history, how we categorize the past, can of course never tell us why past events occurred as they did, much less predict the future. In the end, one needs not simply a broad framework but also knowledge of detailed historical facts.

But, thinking about the periods of the past more clearly, and fitting all of the details of history into a broader narrative, can help us ask better questions not only about the past but also about the future.


  1. Thanks for visiting my blog this evening, and even more so for including me in your blog roll!

    This post looks fascinating... I've got to come back when I'm not so very tired. That may be a few days though. The first part of this week is pretty loaded.

  2. This is a very interesting idea. Until recently I hadn't come across the 3 division style of history; I am much more familiar with the Well-Trained Mind's division into 4 years to cover all that history. While WTM does divide things unevenly, it's because of the relative availability of primary sources for the various eras of history. But this is an interesting idea.