Humanity’s Story Told In A New Way

We are a violent species.  Other species are known to attack and kill others of their kind, to conquer and defend territory, but none can reach our high standard of warfare decimating populations and demolishing property as cruelly as possible.  We claim human rights, enact civil rights, and easily ignore both for the most selfish of reasons.  Still, our religious traditions and national ideals celebrate harmonious, peaceful coexistence.  If we are ever to become a more civilized and peaceful species, we’re going to have to understand the story of humanity from a history that isn’t constructed around sequential lists of wars and empires, glorious and heroic.

When Americans study history in school, they generally start with the wars of the Ancient Near East, work their way through Greek and Roman warfare then into Europe’s many wars, ending the first chapter with the conquest of the Americas.  Asian history is a footnote about Mongol Hordes. Arabian history has something to do with Islam and the Crusades.  Whatever we know of India we’re told by Rudyard Kipling.  Africa is called the dark continent because we never looked to see what light might have been burning there.  As for indigenous Americans, we learned it mostly from John Wayne movies.

United States history is likewise told as a sequence of wars: Revolutionary, 1912, Mexican, Civil, Spanish, WWI, WWII, Korean, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan.  Some years ago I looked into the number of named wars and armed conflicts in our history and came up with something around 150, half of which were wars of Native American conquest.

Wars are wars and we can’t ignore them. They do change the direction of history but the cost to humanity is heartbreaking.  Just War Theory tries to establish moral boundaries for the conflicts, but is easily twisted to fit immoral intent. At its roots, war is the product of greed, lust for power, and stupidity.  The world faces many evils that come from nature and individual malfeasance, but wars are wholly the product of greed fueled by emotionally manipulating populations to patriotically go along.

History taught as a sequence of wars somehow makes war seem normal, even righteous.  Wars are a part of history not to be ignored, but how would history be understood if it was taught as a story seen through a lens of the arts and sciences?  

Wars have changed the face of the world, and yet they tell us nothing about developments in morality and technology that are the foundations of civilization we know and desire. Historical stories of agriculture, tools, transportation, social mores, politics, art, literature, theology, philosophy, biology, astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, and physics are far more important to understanding who we are and how we got here than is knowing a list of wars embroidered with heroic deeds.

Nevertheless, state legislatures are replete with bills to restrict history to glorifying patriotic (white) nationalism,  expunging anything deemed unflattering to a preferred mythology.

History as the story of humanity’s development is told in fits and starts in English Social Studies, and the Sciences, where important moments in human development are taught as episodes of importance to the discipline, but not as part of a comprehensive history of a people.

What would it look like if history was taught from the point of view of human development?  It might look like Jacob Bronowski’s 1972 book, The Ascent of Man, that doesn’t avoid the importance of war, but has more important matters to cover: the origins of agriculture, the impact of the arts on civilization, how questions of public morality have changed, what technological developments have meant, etc.  It might also look something like a James Michener novel that begins with primal ooze and works its way through the centuries in the lives of ordinary human beings. 

History taught that way might guide us more directly to become the people and civilization of our ideals.

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