About History Books

At the beginning of your studies, you will probably have many general questions, such as:

o How did Europe come to dominate so much of modern history?
o Was North America destined to become a super power?
o Does the past have any bearing on the world today?
o Does history have any bearing on an individual person’s life?

Many people enjoy easing into history and historical questions by reading historical fiction. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is a popular choice and can lead people to further study Renaissance art, culture, and history.

History of War
Many people begin studying history by looking at the history of warfare. Military History and Maritime History can be fascinating subjects. You can study the wars themselves or the political figures who orchestrated the events.

Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord 1940-45 by Sir Max Hastings is a detailed portrait of Winston Churchill. It is a fascinating introduction to England during the modern wars. Learning about the war periods can be disturbing. You might have many questions about the very nature of war.

Some questions might be:

books_1448404co Does war define human history?
o Should you define historical time periods by the wars that were fought?
o If history is written by the victors, can we ever have a truly accurate account of a war?
o Can lessons from history help us prevent future militarized conflicts?

Whispers from the Ancient World

Once you explore modern military history, you might want to learn more about Ancient History and Civilization. Understanding the roots of civilization is key to a broad historical education. For thousands of years, a liberal arts education was based around ancient history and ancient languages such as Latin and Greek. In the modern era, our knowledge of the ancient world has been enhanced by Archaeology. Books that explore the ruins of ancient buildings and villages offer a fascinating glimpse inside the daily life of the ancients.

Another way to see ancient civilization through the eyes of those who lived at that time is by reading accounts recorded by ancient historians. Both The Histories (Oxford World’s Classics) by Herodotus and The Peloponnesian War (Classics) by Thucydides are respected accounts of the ancient world. These accounts, however, are not entirely accurate. Historians in the ancient world were not as concerned with making sure every detail of their histories was factually accurate. They wanted to tell stories; they wanted to flatter the people in power. This former inclination to change history troubles some people. They see remnants of this in modern life and it raises many questions:

o Have people changed since ancient times?
o Were ancient governmental systems better or worse than today’s governments?
o Is it possibly to find an unbiased ancient historian? What does this say about our own modern historians?
o Has the discipline of history improved since the days of Herodotus and Thucydides?
o Do any groups or individuals still try to change history to suit their purposes?

Politics as Usual

The political machinations of the ancient world are just as exciting as the today’s Political History. The history of each political system in the world is a long history. Thousands of small cultural movements contributed to the adoption of each governmental system. It is impossible to study political history without exploring Social & Economic History as well. Academic history studies have only been interested in political history for a short period of time. Of all historical studies, it is the youngest. Political history intersects with Cultural History. The questions you will have will be related to culture as well as politics.

o Will the two party system in America last indefinitely?
o Is democracy the best form of government?
o Is an economically successful communist country possible?

An Entire World of History

Too many people focus exclusively on western history in their studies. There is an entire world of history, be sure you do not focus exclusively on western cultures, such as Britain & Ireland. Make sure that you dedicate at least some of your study time to eastern cultures. There are many excellent World History Texts available. Russia and China are fascinating countries. It is quite easy to get lost in their engrossing histories. Russia and the USSR, 1855-1991: Autocracy and Dictatorship by Stephen J. Lee is a great text to transition your political studies to Eastern cultural studies. You should also investigate some of the faiths of people in the Eastern world. Texts on Buddhism and Hinduism can help you better understand the historical story of people. Religious History Essays are often a source of insight. When you study, you should make note of any questions you might have.

o Why is most history curriculum focused exclusively on Western culture?
o Should you study the history of other cultures or just focus on your own?
o Is it possible to relate to a history about a people from a different cultural background?
o Should people study different religions to better understand the faith and culture of a nation?

The Basics of History Study

It is important to amass a collection of Reference material. Depending on what area of study you want to focus on, there are a few books you should have. If you are studying the British Empire, you should get a copy of The Penguin Historical Atlas of the British Empire (Penguin Reference) by Nigel Dalziel. You should augment your studies with as many Journals, Letters & True Accounts, as possible. Reading texts such as Her Own Life: Autobiographical Writings by Seventeenth Century Englishwomen provide a valuable insight into the real lives of people in history. In the end, that is the true value of history. Getting insight into those from the past, from all Countries & Regions, and learning how their struggles can relate to ours is a valuable lesson from history.

Big Questions About Big History

Many people heard of something called Big History for the first time through an article in the New York Times Magazine in September, 2014. The article introduced David Christian, the leading figure in developing the concept of Big History, but raised the sensationalist question whether Bill Gates and his bundles of money should tell us how to study history. That angle probably got the article published but the approach failed to show the enthusiastic response that is building around the world for an approach that puts the story of science into a historical narrative.

People are used to seeing FAQ these days when they encounter something new. So let’s look at some Big Questions (my version of FAQ) that people naturally want answered when they become interested in Big History. This is only an introduction and does not pretend to answer all questions. There will be more articles to come that deal with many practical questions arising from the spread of Big History.

What is Big History? Professional historians have usually defined history as beginning with the origin of writing and written records. Such artifacts give the stories of rulers and what they considered important or useful. Sometimes they included interesting human stories.

There are problems with this definition of history. It leaves out everything that came before writing. Archaeology has uncovered artifacts that date the origin of our species thousands of years before writing. Those are important, but have been labeled “pre-history.” Also, written records served a small elite that could read and write so that early records are essentially propaganda indicating what ruling elites wanted future generations to think about them. What might be called “people’s history” was not considered important at that time. Traditional histories have mirrored the biased and propagandistic views found in those early records.

Science has opened up a story going all the way back to the Big Bang approximately 3.8 billion years ago. Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg wrote about The First Three Minutes because science can determine physical interactions that far back in history.

Big History pushes the story back to the very beginning by turning the scientific story into a narrative comparable to ordinary histories. The impact is to turn specialized courses on scientific details into a story that allows everyone to comprehend the important developments from the Big Bang through the origin of stars, planetary systems, galaxies, life on earth, and the development of human cultures.

The history of our species and life on earth are a small percentage of time when compared to the overall span of 13.8 billion years. David Christian and his colleagues have identified eight major thresholds at which major developments occurred as the foci around which the story is developed so that one doesn’t get lost in the overwhelming detail. Each threshold represents a major evolutionary stage in the development of complexity in the universe at large and on our planet in particular.

Why talk about complexity? The overall message of Big History is the development of complexity in the universe. This is important, first, because it appears to violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics which tells us the universe is losing complexity and moving toward disorder – yet Big History tells about the emergence of organization and complexity from ultimate chaos at the Big Bang. Second, the eight thresholds tell of leaps in level of complexity, each of which brings what we would call progress along with increasing fragility and a range of problems that were more complicated than those encountered at earlier thresholds. Third, when we get to human history as part of more recent thresholds, the story highlights issues on a bigger scale than ordinarily seen in histories of nations and individuals which have been the major topics studied by professional history.

How is Big History taught? David Christian is a historian, thus it seems natural to view this subject as another offering in the history curriculum. However, the story told by Big History goes beyond normal histories to focus on information from a number of sciences and social sciences. It also has implications for the study of religions and the dynamics of social change seen in political and other current movements.

The first significant effort to teach Big History at the university level in the United States happened at Dominican University in California through the leadership of Cynthia Stokes Brown whose field was education. They developed an interdisciplinary year-long course as the foundation of a common freshman experience on which the university built a culture of interdisciplinary faculty cooperation. Their story has been told in a recent book and, beginning in 2015, is being shared through a summer institute at which other professionals can gain practical experience from those involved in the Dominican experience.

David Christian and Cynthia Brown were among the pioneers in the development of the International Big History Association (IBHA) which includes scientists, historians, and scholars from a wide range of fields intent on developing research and sharing experience to promote development of Big History internationally.

One of the projects promoted by IBHA is one funded by Bill Gates to make instruction in Big History available over the internet to high schools and students. It is the use of funding from Gates and his personal interest that led to the sensational angle of the New York Times Magazine article.

What difference can Big History make? Research on the impact of teaching Big History has focused on a very big word in education – engagement. Turning the story of the scientific development of the universe into a historical narrative supported by modern graphics and technology has been popular with students of many ages and promotes down-to-earth understanding of science. To mention one example, those interested in mathematics are attracted by efforts to solve problems but that does not tend to be true of students who are not inclined to mathematical thinking. Turning mathematical ideas into historical narrative with practical applications can make those concepts easier to understand for those less drawn to the abstract beauty and elegance of mathematics. The same impact can be expected for difficult ideas of physics, chemistry, and biology.

The combination of science and history presents current issues on a large scale so that environmental challenges emerge more clearly. The many dangers posed by industrial society stand out as modern challenges of complexity to our planet and to human cultural evolution and survival.

Another notable impact will be on religious beliefs of students from diverse cultural backgrounds (Christian, Hindu, Islam, for example) as they must adjust traditional religious views of creation and the human role in the universe to the story of the Big Bang and subsequent evolution of life. For example, parents who have demanded that school boards modify teaching of biological evolution will likely protest many of the implications of Big History for similar reasons.

FAQs and Personal Views. This has been an introduction to some basic questions about Big History. I have tried to be neutral in presenting information rather than arguing in favor of this development. No doubt you will detect that I do favor the use of Big History as a step forward in educating the public on science in a very practical way. There will be resistance to various impacts and probably fear of what might come of something so new. I encourage everyone to check out the information mentioned in this article, details of which are provided in the list of references. I will be expressing personal views in other articles.

We live in a democratic society which encourages free expression of views. My hope is that the public will heed solid information rather than be swayed by unsupported assertions of personal views