Archive for June, 2007

Imagine a man who is both ruler of his kingdom and the vassal to another king for vast lands he possesses in that king’s country–a man who is at once sovereign, and beholden to another lord–a man whose whim is law in one context, but whose obligations in another context constrict his every move. You have in this remarkable circumstance the root cause of a fantastic, centuries-long debacle between nations far beyond the ken of almost any fiction writer.

Can you name the kings and the nations of this true scenario from history? Can you surmise its significance in determining the fate of the entire world?

(You will be able to, when you take Powell History’s history of Europe, starting July 18th.)

Man’s past is replete with characters and situations so compelling that they rival the greatest dramas of literature. It is no wonder that one of my students proclaimed about Powell History’s A First History for AdultsTM, “It keeps me more thrilled than any movie!

European history, in particular, is full of passionate conflicts, driven by deeply held beliefs, intermixed with power-lust and ambition. It is a story of popes and emperors vying for ultimate authority within the “Holy Roman Empire.” It is the tale of knights and kings crusading in the name of “God’s will” and their own dynastic aspirations. It is a saga of exploration and empire, charged with the romance of discovery and tragedy of generations wasted in war.

Considered from our vantage point in present-day America, the story of Europe is thoroughly engrossing in both its familiarity and its foreignness, even when its actors are loathsome and its outcomes abhorrent. Who can be bored in the presence of William “the Conqueror,” Peter “the Great,” and Napoleon–let alone Prince Henry “the Navigator” of Portugal, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, or Queen Elizabeth of England?!

Sadly, all too many people are convinced that history, and European history especially, is boring and irrelevant. Objectivists in particular often take the view that European history is unconnected to their world and rife with irrationality, and hence not worthy of attention.

The only way one can feel this way, however, is if one has accepted that traditional historical pedagogy has actually presented Europe’s story properly.

It hasn’t.

European history is at once fascinating as a story in itself, instructive as a source of stimulating cognitive material, and relevant as a factor in the development of America’s identity. It is a universe of untapped intellectual values.

Indeed, how can the home of the Renaissance and Enlightenment be anything else?!

But for the story to serve as both inspiration and true cognitive fuel, it must presented in an appropriate manner. That it be chock-full of fascinating details is not enough. Nor does it suffice for its myriad concretes to be illuminated by a proper philosophy. History—like every other subject—must be studied in a certain way, to yield a profitable, long-range context of knowledge.

Powell History’s A First History for AdultsTM was created to meet this need…


To read the complete essay, be sure to join the Powell History Mailing List.  Joining the list also doubles the number of book recommendations you get!

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One of the few widely held generalities about history is that it tends to “repeat itself.”  Of course, far fewer people can recall George Santayana’s complete quote, and fewer still take it seriously.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In that vein, let me quote an interesting passage from an article in the Wall Street Journal:

“A large portion of modern wars erupted because aggressive tyrannies believed that their democratic opponents were soft and weak. Often democracies have fed such beliefs by their own flaccid behavior. Hitler’s contempt for America, stoked by the policy of appeasement, is a familiar story. But there are many others. North Korea invaded South Korea after Secretary of State Dean Acheson declared that Korea lay beyond our “defense perimeter.” Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait after our ambassador assured him that America does not intervene in quarrels among Arabs. Imperial Germany launched World War I, encouraged by Great Britain’s open reluctance to get involved. Nasser brought on the 1967 Six Day War, thinking that he could extort some concessions from Israel by rattling his sword.”

(For the full article, click here: Opinion Journal.)

The most ominous parallel for me is between the West’s currently flaccid response to Islamism and its previously limp reaction to German statism (in its early Twentieth Century incarnations).

As I watch American politicians try to extricate America from any Middle Eastern entanglements, I am reminded of America’s efforts to do the same in Europe with the Neutrality Acts of the 1930s.

At the time, the New York Herald Tribune characterized American policy initiatives as attempting to “preserve the United States from intervention in the war of 1914-1918.”

The same seems to be true now.  Everyone is dissapointed with the results of the Iraq war.  No one wants a repeat of that scenario, and Americans are so desparate to put the whole thing behind them that they are refusing to see the emergence of a much larger, truly evil threat.

Islamist Iran is the new Germany.  That is obvious.

Israel has already grudgingly played the part of Czechoslovakia in permitting its rightful territory to be partioned, but that process is proceeding tortuously and will not go as smoothly as the previous notorious dismemberment.

America, which does not learn from history, will play the same role as before.

Russia may adopt its previous role as abettor of evil, although China may prefer the part in this context.

I wonder, who will be the next Poland?

I would not at all be surprised if the next time the West goes to war, it will be over a country that we do not intend to defend, but which, by our own incompetence, we become obliged to support out of shame for our refusal to see and failure to act.

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Teller (of Penn & Teller), a former Latin teacher and noted fan of A First History for Adults™ who may join us here at PHR on occasion, offers his own spin on the “Eur-Am Connection” in one of his road essays.

His essay, written as optional homework in Powell History’s 30-lecture course on the “Story of America” (still available!) addresses the connection between Europe and America, drawn as far back as the Fall of Rome, during the period of barbarian migrations.

Enjoy!  And don’t forget to join the Powell History Mailing List to get Part 2 of “Why Study European History?”, coming tomorrow exclusively for member of the mailing list.

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Part 1 of 5: The “Eur-Am” Connection

Although the average American is now more likely to be taught the story of Leif Ericsson than that of Christopher Columbus, most everyone still knows that Columbus sailed on his fateful voyage in 1492. Despite the debate over whether this constitutes the Discovery of America, no one can deny that the history of America is bisected by this event.

It was only during the subsequent period of Spanish, French, Dutch, and English exploration and colonization known as the “Age of Discovery” that European traders and merchants, priests and farmers, began the taming of North America, previously barren of any significant civilization. 

The “Pre-Columbian Era” was over. The Modern World had begun. American history was truly underway.

This connection between America and Europe is well recognized, but how many Americans are as familiar with other equally important ties between the two hubs of Western civilization?

For instance, how many adults can even date the signing of the Magna Carta—one of the pivotal events in the development of English politics that precedes and underlies the emergence of the American way of government?  How many understand the roots of religious freedom in the United States in the violent struggles of the Reformation? 

These are but two of the vital links to European history that condition our lives here and now.

America’s connection to Europe is real, and deserving of attention.

When America’s Founders announced their rebellion with the resounding cry “No taxation without representation!” it was the English tradition of limited or constitutional monarchy they were relying on.  It was the heritage of the Magna Carta (of 1215), and related developments in Common Law and Parliamentary government, which underpinned much of their thinking and made the American Revolution possible.

The institutions of the new nation were also shaped by lessons learned from European political history.  It was the Founding Fathers’ understanding of both the dangers of religious tyranny and benefits of toleration—afforded by a range of examples from the Old World, which animated the creation of unique laws safeguarding religious and intellectual freedom.

America’s very identity is derived from a European context.  Even when Americans have rebelled against their “mother continent,” it was thanks to ideas made possible by a European parentage.

To understand this persistent historical bond, one must understand the irreplaceable chapters of man’s development in Europe, and one must trace the parallel development of America and its parent Civilization.  In other words, one must investigate the “Eur-Am Connection.”

Be sure to join the…

Powell History Mailing List

…for Part 2 of “Why Study European History?” and find out more about Powell History’s upcoming 20-lecture teleseminar and iHistory series on the story of Europe.

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Hi folks!  I’m in Houston, scouting out a new home base for Powell History.

Anyone who has ever moved their family knows what a big undertaking it is, but those who take my classes will especially appreciate what it means to say that a new period is beginning in my life.  And it’s connected to the most exciting product I’ve ever developed–a veritable revolution in education–to be announced here, at PHR, very soon.

I always remembered Houston as a beautiful city, having visited back in 1996, but now that I’ve returned and had a chance to take a closer look around, I’m even more excited that Powell History will soon call Houston home!

For one thing, coming from Orange County, where real estate prices are simply outrageous, it’s amazing to face the prospect of moving out of a tiny aparment into a 4BDRM house–and know that I will pay LESS for it! Also, Texas has no state income tax!  So not only have my wife an I been blessed with the addition of Patrick Henry (now seven months old) into our lives, but now we actually have a place we can raise him in style.


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Although my primary focus in PHR will always remain to provide readers with guidance in finding the best history books ever written, I decided that in this first offering of PHR, I want to start by introducing you to a book that will help you find a way to fit more history into your life.  In fact, it will help you fit that much more of anything you can’t seem to make time for yet!

For me as a historian, fitting history in has never been a problem, of course; my issue tends to be fitting life in along side history!  But the basic organizational problem the vast majority of us have in the modern world is the same.  It’s the problem of having too much “stuff” to do.

The solution is a system explained by organizational guru David Allen in his book, Getting Things Done.

Allen defines “stuff” as “anything you have allowed into your psychological world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step.” It’s often this overwhelming amount of “stuff” that we haven’t tamed that reduces our efficiency and saps our motivation, and renders our myriad goals into what one of Allen’s clients called “an amorphous blob of undoability!” 

The answer to this problem is an efficient procedure to capture and process the “stuff” in our lives, remove it all from our consciousness, and put it into an organizational system.  The result is a higher level of clarity and definition. Your mind is freed from the lower-level value tracking that it otherwise insists on performing at the expense of the focus you need to be optimally productive. 

Although there’s nothing easy about the procedure itself, and the system, like any other, requires maintenance, the payoff is very real.  For one, I couldn’t have made the time to start up the PHR blog without it.

Make sure you check out this great resource, at:


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