Prologue: Three Limiting Terms: “Modern” “Western” “History”
What is “history”?
Welcome to a story of the modern (Western) world. What makes this story “history”? The word “history” comes from the classical Greek for “inquiry.” So, it does not really help us come up with a good definition.
How is history different than story? How is it the same?
Among the biggest differences between history and story is the source material. While stories can be “based on” fact, they also can be expected to contain a lot of exaggeration, bias, and outright falsehood. History has traditionally focused on “the” unbiased historical truth, aided by a wealth of primary sources.
Question: Why is the “the” above in quotation marks?
More recently, in the past half-century or so, historians have come to the conclusion that history represents just as much about the present as about the past. How we frame history, what we choose as “important,” and what we ignore in consequence—this is just as significant as the stories of the past we tell.
This more nuanced perspective certainly applies to studying this course, especially when we look at the loaded terms “modern” and “Western.”
What is “modern”?
Before humans wrote records, the field is called “prehistory.” Prehistory relies mainly on archaeological evidence. “Ancient” history then comes next: it relies on texts written in old languages no longer spoken. These texts were all made before the printing press. So, they are very fragile and some only exist in fragments today. Therefore, there is a lot of guesswork required for ancient history in order to fill in the “gaps” of incomplete sources. Some historians therefore use the era of the printing press as the cutoff between “ancient” and “modern.”
The problem with this cutoff is that it skips over an entire millennium (one thousand years). What is known as the “Middle Ages” is ignored: the time period from the collapse of the Roman Empire until the beginnings of the Renaissance. This time has been called the “Dark Ages.” As with ancient history, only a very small percentage of society was literate at this time. Therefore, historians are left “in the dark” about many aspects of everyday life.
After the printing press, in the “modern era,” the number of texts multiplied several times over. This multiplication would only continue as more and more people became literate. So, if you look at the history of the 20th century in most any textbook, it will cover several chapters, perhaps even a quarter of the book. However, earlier centuries get smaller coverage. Who knows how the ever-multiplying number of txts after the digital revolution will change the way historians will later document the 21st century? Perhaps we are living in the “post-modern” historical era and don’t even know it…
What is “Western”?
So, both the terms “modern” and “history,” as we have seen, are limited by how they tell stories (based on historical sources) and how they frame the stories that are told (based on eras).
However, probably the biggest limit to this course is the third: the focus on the rise of “Western” civilization. We limit the scope of the course predominantly to Europe, because we are learning this history inside a country based in the Western tradition and that tradition has been spread over the world (as we’ll see). We will discuss the Americas, Africa, and Asia, but only when Europeans “discovered” and interacted with these continents.
So, the “Modern World History” title of the course needs some revision…
Nonetheless, this year, hopefully your eyes will be opened to the humanity of history and the humanity of historians. We’ll see how human societies, especially of the West, had strengths and weaknesses. We’ll see how these people knew as little about what would happen in the next generation as we know about what will happen in the 22nd century. Perhaps more importantly, we’ll see how historians shape history and how we can shape it to focus on what is significant for us today.
Your turn: What else should we focus on? What else would you like to learn about within or without the confines of “Modern” “Western” “History”?