Archive for April, 2008

The HistoryAtOurHouse blog, home to news about the world’s premier homeschooling history curriculum for children, features the following recent articles:

A Classic Tribute to the American Sense of LifeRuggles of Red Gap: a “must see” movie from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

In Defense of Heroification: Leutze’s “Crossing the Delaware” — Modern critic James Loewen claims history is subject to a degenerative process called “heroification.” Leutze’s Crossing, however, is entirely justified hero worship.

Jefferson Outsmarts Napoleon — HistoryAtOurHouse students Dane and Hayden van Slooten present “Kid Komics.” There first rendering offers a new take on the negotiation of the Louisiana Purchase!

Secular Homeschooling — What is it exactly? And what does secular history instruction look like?


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What if your personal library could contain the best history books ever written?

Thomas Jefferson’s library at Monticello once numbered perhaps as many as 10,000 volumes. It was the largest personal collection of books in the United States of the Founding Era.

When the British burned the Capitol in 1814, Jefferson offered to sell his library to the government, providing a core of new reference materials for the representatives of the still young republic. Concerning the scope of the materials offered, of which 6500 volumes were eventually purchased, Jefferson commented, “there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.” (Read more about Jefferson’s library here: Library of Congress.)

Of course, most of us do not have reason or occasion to amass a library of 6500, let alone 10,000 volumes. But wouldn’t it be great to have the books your really need?

What if you could build a history library of only the most essential texts, which would allow you to research any important historical topic and provide you with a gateway into the vast store of human knowledge about the past?

As my own collection of history books approaches the 2000-volume mark, I’ve decided to share my list of top ten books on four different crucial historical topics, for a total of only 40 books.

This includes my top ten books on each of these four topics:

  1. History of America
  2. History of Europe
  3. Ancient History
  4. The History of the Middle East

You don’t have to scour libraries and bookstores, and spend thousands. I’ve done that! Take advantage of my groundwork, and build a great library with only forty. Over the next weeks, I’ll be sharing with my mailing list subscribers which 40 books out of my 2000 book library I would save if there were a fire in my house!

Don’t miss it! The first issue of this four-part series, I cannot live without books!–an exclusive e-zine series for Powell History mailing list subscribers, comes out this weekend. Be sure to join the Powell History Mailing List to get your recommendations, learn about Powell History products, and receive special offers for current and upcoming courses.

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“If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.”–James Madison

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Although I am usually loath to recommend any history book written after 1920, when the subject matter itself postdates WWI, you simply have no choice. And, truth be told, I have read more than a handful of quite excellent histories from modern writers, despite the dreadful state of the profession, so I’m willing to give credit where credit is due.

When it comes to the topic of European Union, the title I recommend is The Community of Europe by Derek Urwin. Although not quite fitting in the category of “excellent histories,” this work has many virtues.

The theme of this work is European integration. No historical topic can be more relevant to anyone wanting to understand Europe’s current course.

Ever since the disaster of WWII, Europeans have been trying to fashion a non-belligerent way of life amongst themselves, to create a “community” of nations. Their answer to this challenge has been the concept of “supranationalism.” In recent weeks, I have posted some of my thoughts on this topic in my essay on Europism (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 coming soon). In simple terms, supranationalism is the attempt to assert a broader collective self-identification in order to justify the creation of a “United States of Europe.”

Urwin looks mostly to the bleak years of post-WWII Europe when presenting his thesis. This is a reasonable approach, because it highlights the first tentative steps of the supranationalist agenda and shows how the European Union was formed in the period of European subordinacy to the Cold War superpowers. (Especially interesting is the role of Charles de Gaulle’s anti-Americanism in directing the early progress of the Union.)

The most important value of Urwin’s book is that it presents the basic progression–the story–of European integration from the European Coal and Steel Community (1951) and European Economic Community (1957) to the Maastricht Treaty of European Union (ratified in 1993).

Two things are missing in this presentation: 1) The advent of supranationalism in the context of nationalism and internationalism is not sufficiently treated. To truly understand the genesis of the new approach one must understand the failure of its predecessors and how the former is derived from the latter. 2) A philosophical evaluation of supranationalism is also wanting. What the modern student of Europe needs to understand is the collectivist roots and nature of supranationalism and the collectivist responses of its opponents. Urwin provides the material for the student of political philosophy to work with, but he does not aid in the integration himself. That is up to the reader.

Still, the treatment is brief and relatively accessible. Consequently, you won’t too often find that the details are distracting or discouragingly complex–especially if you have the benefit of an initial orientation through my two-lecture history of Europe in the Twentieth Century, coming soon (part of “A First History for Adults,” Part 2). [Get the full course here!]

Also coming soon: Thomas Jefferson’s library had 6500 volumes it. Find out how you can be fully informed with just 40!I cannot live without books!–an exclusive e-zine series for Powell History mailing list subscribers– will help you create the ultimate history library. Be sure to join the Powell History Mailing List to get your recommendations.

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Cut through the clutter in the news concerning developments in the Middle East. Find out what really matters. Tune in to Powell History Recommends Middle East Watch. Each week, I’ll be monitoring the news for historically significant events in the region’s major countries, and passing them on to you, with brief commentary about why these events deserve your attention.

Noted Reformist Cleric Jailed in Iran (Associated Press)

Much attention continues to be focused on Iran’s influence over the Iraqi insurgency and to its posturing over its nuclear program. Certainly these deserve attention, but any treatment of these topics has to be informed by a proper assessment of what Iran is. It is an oppressive Islamist theocracy that continually violates the rights of its own citizens by denying a fundamental principle of moral civilizations: the separation of church and state.

Turkey Court Takes Politically Explosive Case (NY Times)

PHR will be following developments in Turkey closely in the months to come, because Turkey’s supreme court has accepted a case that could lead to a ban on the ruling party. The AKP party, led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, though democratically elected, has a platform that contradicts the secularist tenets of Turkey’s constitution. If it isn’t stopped by the court, another military coup is likely to occur.

Egypt: Elections and Future of the Muslim Brotherhood (RightSideNews)

This article runs down the current political situation in Egypt, and points to problems that are likely to occur when Mubarak kicks the bucket. Egypt’s biggest problem is that Nasserism was ideologically vacuous. The country’s run-of-the-mill state socialism is economically destructive and may very well produce the kind of widespread discontent that Truman era thinkers worried would lead to world communism. In this case, however, it’s Islamism that will profit.

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Imagine a conversation that goes something like this:

Person A: “Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett — at the Alamo, after twelve days.”

Person B: “Washington crossed the Delaware; the Hessians, the long sleep.”

Person A: “Napoleon…Waterloo.”

Person B: “Napoleon — at Lodi, the Little Corporal!”

In case you need to brush up on your history, the conversation went as follows:

Person A: “I think I have an insurmountable problem. It’s going to be the death of me.”

Person B: “When things are at their worse, you have to make a bold move.”

Person A: “Honestly, I think I’m out of options this time.”

Person B: “Don’t give up just yet, this could be an opportunity to make a name for yourself.”

The two conversations are the same; only the latter is expressed in fully generalized terms — “universals,” whereas the former is expressed almost entirely in historical concepts.

I imagine that while reading this some of my readers will immediately have been reminded of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which the crew of the enterprise attempts to communicate with an alien species called the Tamarians that uses historical concepts exclusively.

In this story, when the Captain of the Enterprise, Jean-Luc Picard, greets his counterpart, he says something to the effect of “I come in Peace”–i.e. the usual Federation protocol.

The answer, however, is not expressed in universal terms. His opposite number responds, “Rai and Jiri at Lungha, Rai of Lowani. Lowani under two moons…”

This and subsequent exchanges are, of course, extremely frustrating for both sides.

The reason is that the aliens are in effect handicapped by permanently operating on a lower level of abstraction that the humans. The only solution to the problem, orchestrated by the alien captain, is to try to forge a bond of common experiences, and thus build up a common vocabulary of historical terms around them. (The two captains are forced to work together to fight a strange creature that inhabits the planet where their ships have met.) When the individual that operates on the higher level of abstraction—Picard—is able to understand the basic mode of communication of the less advanced species and determine the universal equivalents of the historical referents the aliens rely on, he can communicate in the alien’s idiom. (The reverse would be impossible.)

In the final exchange, the fact that the two species have come to understand each other is expressed by Picard, in purely historical terms, using his own name and that of the other captain and the location of their shared ordeal:

Picard and Dathon at Eladril.”

The episode itself is wonderfully imaginative and satisfying. It is just one example of the portrayal of human efficacy in the series, which is especially uplifting about Star Trek: The Next Generation in general. If you’re tired of drunks, depressives, terrorists, cheating housewives, and back-stabbing reality show competitors, rent it on DVD. It can reinvigorate you with a sense of the grand and the heroic.

It’s the issue of historical concepts, however, that I really want to look at.

Although the idea that a space-faring culture could possibly communicate on an exclusively historical level is ludicrous, it is interesting to note that people who use general concepts do also use historical concepts in certain instances.

For instance, when someone uses an unorthodox solution to solve a seemingly impossible problem, one might say he cut the Gordian knot. (This refers to an episode in the life of Alexander the Great, in which he literally cuts through a knot, which, as local legend would have it could only be “undone” by the man who would rule the world.)

Another example of a historical concept that people use to this day is that of a Pyrrhic victory. When someone wins a contest or struggle of some sort, but the cost is so high that he emerges with no advantage or so crippled by the victory that he cannot leverage it, then he has won a Pyrrhic victory. He might as well have lost! (This happen to Pyrrhus of Epirus, a Greek king who’s victory over the Romans in southern Italy was crippling to his fortunes in the long run.)

To “cross the Rubicon” is to make a fateful choice, with enormous consequences for yourself and others, as Caesar did when he cast the die and invaded Italy in a bid to become Emperor of Rome.

These types of terms, though few and far between in current usage, represent one of a surprising variety of cognitive tools that people are able to use to grasp reality beyond general concepts. In the next installment of this series I’ll talk about why I think these terms are important, and why the fact that we don’t have more of them in the language today is a symptom of a serious problem in our culture.

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In my recent “roundup” of bloggers tackling history, I missed one who shouldn’t be missed.  He’s one of my keenest and ablest students, “SB”, over at One Reality.

His recent post Digging for Artifacts relates to Egypt’s backward looking culture and a theme I discussed in my fourth lecture of the Islamist Entanglement: Egypt’s “sense of nationhood.”

Ayn Rand coined the term “sense of life.”  By that term she meant “a pre-conceptual equivalent to a metaphysics,” or an implicit sense of one’s place in reality.  In my research on Egypt I’ve become convinced that Egypt exhibits a cultural-historical analog: a “sense of nationhood.”

Simply put, this sense of nationhood is the view that Egyptians are a great historical nation. It is an implicit premise embedded in Egyptian thinking that extends back to its “glorious” pharaonic past, of which the ever present pyramids and temples provide a constant reminder.  This self-identification also involves a 2400 year history of foreign occupation that began with an invasion by the Persians c.600 BC , and lasted through to Ottoman Rule, which ended in 1798.  Egypt’s sense of nationhood is a kind of subconscious estimate of the value of the people and their past which has been a major factor directing them to where they are today.   

Mahmoud Moktar’s sculpture “Egypt’s Awakening” is an allegory of its sense of nationhood.

Interestingly, there is no real philosophy of nationalism in Egypt.  In his essay, “Egypt’s Liberation: The Philosophy of the Revolution,” Nasser explains and exemplifies this fact.  Nationalism — a European ideology — did find a receptive audience among Egypt’s intellectuals starting in the 1870s.  This movement, common to many Middle Eastern countries, culminated in the formation of the Wafd party, which tried to have Egypt’s case for nationhood heard at the peace confereences of Paris in 1919.  But Egypt’s sense of nationhood never took off as an ideology.  The basic reason is that Egypt’s nationalists failed to achieve independence.  They were stymied by a combination of British meddling and monarchical intrigue, and were politically discredited. 

In the wake of that failure, Egypt faced a desparate choice between two alternatives: Islamism and Nasserist military dictatorship.  Although it is true to say that Nasser was more politically astute then the Muslim Brethren of the time, and connived his way into power, I think it’s fair to say that if Egyptians hadn’t felt that he was the great upholder of their “sense of nationhood,” he would not have held on to power.  It was because of Egypt’s emotional baggage about its past that Nasser was able to develop himself as a cultural hero for Egyptians, and why, even after his terrible defeat to Israel in 1967, he had overwhelming popular support.  (Of course, Eisenhower gave Nasser an incalculable boost, by spanking the British over their Suez Crisis response.)

What is interesting about Egypt’s current position is the interplay between its sense of nationhood and Islam, the only explicit metaphysics and code of values its people widely accept. 

The two are incompatible and have been in constant tension since Nasser came to power.  Because the latter is an all-encompassing and explicit system of ideas, and it has no ideological rivals, it’s only a matter of time before it takes over.  In fact, I predict an Islamist takeover within a generation.  That does not mean, however, that Egypt will necessarily succumb to participating in some kind of new Caliphate, even though Islamism is on the rise throughout the Middle East.  Egypt’s sense of nationhood should continue to act on an emotional level to keep Egyptians apart from their fellow Muslims.

Learn more about this topic in my lecture on the emergence of modern Egypt.

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