HISTORY OF CIV.

When I entered college back in the fabled year of 1968, like all freshmen I was confronted with the need to buy armloads of course books and experienced severe sticker shock. Well, in the course of cleaning out the garage at my father’s house (and let me tell you, a lot of stuff builds up in 30-plus years) I ran across a yellowing slip of paper, the receipt for one such armload (dated 22 Sep 68). Here are seven items I marked “Civ” (for the college’s two-year series of courses called “History of Civilization,” one of the reasons I chose to attend):
The Scientific Revolution 2.95
Essay on Man 0.50
Eighteenth-Century Philosophy 1.65
The Anatomy of Revolution 1.95
Classic, Romantic, and Modern 1.45
Phaedra (Racine) 0.65
Hunchback of Notre Dame 0.75
Those were new books, not dogeared discards. The most expensive thing on the receipt is my math text, which set me back $11.50 (I’m sure I swallowed hard before adding it to the pile). I know there’s been a fair amount of inflation since then, but I’ll bet the cost of an equivalent stack of books would be a lot more than would be covered by the changing consumer price index.
As for History of Civ (as we called it), it taught me an amazing amount about the world, and I’m grateful to it to this day. Unfortunately, my class was the last to get the benefit of it, because the lefties bullied the administration into dropping it from the curriculum—it was “Eurocentric” and insufficiently “relevant.” I haven’t given the college a dime since I graduated for that very reason. You know what they say about those who forget the past.

Comments

  1. I’m surprised at you. Do you really mean to say that a course in, say, the history of China could not possibly offer similar benefits?

  2. This takes me back even further. When the Botanical Gardens U.S. Army base closed in Kyoto after my 2nd-grade year (1957, I think), a bunch of missionary parents got together and started Kyoto Christian Day School (now Kyoto International School), using the Calvert curriculum. The only things I really remember of that curriculum were: (1) weird penmanship; (2) a whole semester (maybe year) spent on Greek mythology; and (3) the book that probably got me hooked on history, A Child’s History of the World. It covered England and France (starting from Rollo and the Normans) pretty well, but mentioned the rest of the world only insofar as it affected (or, more accurately, was affected by) England and France. But perfect for a 4th-grader of Anglo-American heritage.
    Of course, Japanese history was all around us. It was Kyoto, after all, and not far from the former Imperial Palace. The kamishibai man came down the street beside the school, selling us his powdered seaweed gumsticks and sugarwater taffee on two sticks. The Silver Pavilion was just a short way up the mountain above our house. It doesn’t matter whose history you study, so long as you can picture yourself in the flow of events. You need some hook to hang onto. I don’t think Burmese history, or Indian history, or Indonesian history would have been as effective for me in that place at that time. In high school, for instance, I had to take Canadian history (the teacher was the only Canadian in the classroom), and it didn’t do anything for me–well, except sharpen my ability to trade barbs with Canadians. (Come to think of it, that’s pretty useful.)
    Now, more Scandinavian history would have had some appeal at the time. My first crush was Eva Kekkonen (a Finnish name as common as Mary Johnson was in English at the time, I suspect). She was the daughter of Finnish Lutheran missionaries in Kyoto. She taught us a version of Red Rover where you didn’t break through opposing handclasps, but instead ran back and forth between end zones without getting tagged in between. If you were tagged, you had to help tag the other intruders. We used to call it Finnish Red Rover, a name I have never heard since. (Maybe Turncoat Rover would have been a better name.)

  3. No, a course on Chinese history wouldn’t offer the same benefits in the slightest. Of course not.
    Not because Western history is richer, and certainly not because it’s longer, but because it can’t speak to American youth in the way that the history of their own civilization can. That we’re a nation of immigrants, more and more often not of Western extraction, doesn’t make a difference. America definitively remains a Western country, whatever races people her shores and her classrooms. To foster a sense of the grander scale of human civilization we have to give students a sense of where they stand in it all. And for that, for the children raised and educated in a system behind which lie two thousand years of Western Cultural development what else could be relevant but just the sort of course that never should have been cancelled at Hat’s university?
    Don’t get me wrong, I live in Japan and speak Chinese and plan to go to grad school for East Asian Studies. I hope we see a boom in Chinese history courses. But not if they catch the attention of students too ignorant of their own place in history to meaningfully understand that of country so foreign to them.

  4. Not to disagree with what you say (although when I went to university in London in 1965 we didn’t have anything as interesting) but to compare notes on clearing out garages! I spent about five weeks doing such things for my brothers in England in December and January, and I bet your garage hadn’t got as much rubbish in it as ours! Mind you, none of it was personal – it was all piles of tools and sacks and wood and mouse droppings and cat poop and saws and paint.

  5. I had “intellectual and cultural sources” in the first year of my degree. It was basically an excuse for all the staff in the department to talk about their own particular passion. It was eccentric, eclectic and the best series of lectures I’ve ever attended.

  6. Do you really mean to say that a course in, say, the history of China could not possibly offer similar benefits?
    Ah, I see I didn’t make myself clear — I guess I should amend the entry. It wasn’t just a history of Western civilization (as one would be perfectly justified in assuming from the list of books and the anecdote about lefties); it covered the entire world. We spent a whole semester on China and Japan, and quite a lot of time on Africa (I still have my treasured copy of Du Bois’s The World and Africa). The lefties claimed it was still too Eurocentric (it had been significantly broadened in the previous couple of years), and probably (I frankly don’t remember the fine points of their complaints) that it was inherently Eurocentric because the faculty was largely of European origin. Let’s face it, they were power-tripping young fools who enjoyed throwing their weight around; it still appals and amazes me that the administration was so cowed by them. I self-identified as a lefty, but people like them and the poli sci professor who gave you bad marks if you disagreed with his Marxist views did a lot to open my eyes about the dangers of ideology.

  7. Frankly I feel the idea of a college student taking survey courses like “History of Civilization” is pathetic. It seems fairly remedial. In any decent educational system, say Germany, you would have covered this material by the end of high school. But in America too often education is only valued for its immediate practical application so even college-bound high school students end up taking things like business, journalism, psychology, and in my day even typing, instead of getting a solid grounding in history, mathematics and science. Of course, as LH points out, now they’re not even getting a solid grounding in college.

    And on a different note, I too would have fought any core curriculum that included Racine. All the great writers in history, and you had to read him? Sorry, 17th century French literature always left me cold.

  8. There was a time in America when lefties were opposed to “Eurocentrism”? Boy oh boy,times there a’changin.
    Textbook costs: if I provide similar list that my son bought for his sophomore engineering classes (on my money, naturally) I’m afraid you’ll have a heart attack; I almost had. Non-organic chemistry for $180, anyone? And those are subjects that get you at least some feedback in life, unlike 18th century philosophy, not exactly a sound investment, in my view.
    I have to agree with Vanya (expect the earthquakes in Antarctica) on this point: the only age you might’ve overlook inflated sentimentality and logorrhea of Hugo for the story itself is 15 yo. Four years later it could only trigger bouts of laughter.

  9. I’d love to see the results of giving our History of Civ final to a collection of randomly chosen Russian high school students; I’m sure they’d all do brilliantly, showing the tremendous superiority of the Russian educational system. Quickly now, Vanya and Tatyana: what were the basic features of the Heian period? What’s so interesting about the Congo Kingdom of the early 16th century? What was the impact of Mo Tzu on Chinese philosphy? For that matter, who was Mo Tzu? These are all things we had to know, and I’ll bet money neither of you do. Spare me the snotty anti-Americanism and take my word for it that this was an excellent college-level course.
    And Vanya, if you don’t read French you have no business pronouncing on Racine; if you do and he “leaves you cold,” then you have no feeling for poetry.

  10. Geez, LH, why so defensive this morning? I am American by the way, and note that I proposed Germany, not Russia as the model. When it comes to breadth, as opposed to depth, the German/Swiss Gymnasia do a much better job than any other schools I’ve seen. I’m sure History of Civ was truly an excellent course, but that does not mean a bright high school student shouldn’t be expected to know many of these things. Maybe I just have higher expectations of high school students than you do.
    How much do you want to bet by the way? I studied Chinese history at Stanford and will take you on in Heian history mano-a-mano any day. You shouldn’t make generalizations about people you don’t know, it’s often considered rude. I never attacked YOUR education, just the idea of a survey course being regarded as fit for a college education when one could profitably do it sooner. This is why so many Americans have started home schooling, because bright kids in high school are forced to watch videos and read “To Kill a Mockingbird” (yes, a fine book but do you need school to force you to read it?) when they could be learning about Congolese kingdoms or “bo-ai”.
    Je parle français et j’ai lu Racine en la langue originale. Qu’est-ce que je peux repondre? Evidemment, vous etes l’expert. Mois, je prefere les poètes anglais, italiens et russes. En général je trouve que la poesie française soit inférieure à sa réputation. Il n’y a personne au niveau de Dante, Shakespeare, ou Pouchkine. Mais qu’est-ce que je sais, mois? Ici, il faut s’accorder avec LH, ou on n’a pas de sensibilité pour aucune poésie, c’est tout.

  11. Your experiment is not lab-clean: it’s not random American kids your quiz was given either; they are humanities students of 2nd year’ college who selected their major and their courses freely, not as part of mandatory country-wide curriculum, regardless of personal preferences.
    If you really want to compare the averages, you should start with either:
    1) random HS kids of 30 yrs ago in, say, Montana and Kazakhstan,
    or
    2) 2nd-year humanities students in public Universities of same states.
    And make adjustments for the fact that Russian/Soviet society suffered great loss of population (and therefore high-IQ gene pool) in 2 major wars happening on country’s territory, besides revolutions, artificially-induced hunger and concentration camps.
    I know it will shock you, but I don’t feel any discomfort in admitting I have no idea who the Mo Tzu was and what was so interesting about Congoleese Kingdom; as much as I’m sure you wouldn’t if I expose your disregard for Mn’enhanced steel’composition or 3-projection drafting principles (random example; you might be fluent in these subjects from your college’courses of 30+ years ago, but I doubt it)- those were random 2 of what I have studied, and they indeed prooved to be very helpful to me since.

  12. I apologise for any spelling errors which I’m sure are plenty; my lunch hour is over and I have no time to spell-check.

  13. Richard Hershberger says:

    That list of prices comes to about $10. I ran that through the inflation calculator on the Bureau of Labor Statistic website and it comes to about $56 in modern dollars. Scary.
    The real heck of it is that frequently those older texts are better than modern ones. As an undergraduate I found myself bewildered by differential equations. I went to a second-hand bookshop and found a used textbook on the subject from several decades before. It was clear and concise: much better than the assigned text, though with fewer pretty pictures.
    It dawned on me that the publishing imperative is to produce new texts which are different from the old ones: not necessarily better, but different.
    Of course math is peculiar in that any undergrad course is going to be on material that hasn’t really changed in a century or two. But there is a moral there nonetheless.

  14. Textbooks are a racket. Squeeze as much money as you can out of students with new editions every 2-3 years — and with internet links that can be only used by the original purchaser. It’s especially fraudulent in cases like intro calculus, which I doubt has changed much in the last 15 years. (And if it has, for example because different things are needed in the first year, a $10 supplement should handle it fine.)
    The American system leaves people worse off at age 18, but a lot of people catch up by the time they’re 30 — especially in sciences. American grad schools are the best, and no, they’re not only for foreign students.
    The weakness in language study seldom is remediated, though. A lot of American college-track HS grads have 3-4 years of very weak FL study.

  15. As a student in the humanities, I’m looking at your list and weeping, since I spent $300 on 5 books this semester (granted, 150 of that was GenBio, but…)
    For reference, Amazon pricing
    The Scientific Revolution 2.95 (current price-37.95)
    Essay on Man 0.50 (2.50)
    Eighteenth-Century Philosophy 1.65 (20.95)
    The Anatomy of Revolution 1.95 (11.95)
    Classic, Romantic, and Modern 1.45 (4.95)
    Phaedra (Racine) 0.65 (11.00)
    Hunchback of Notre Dame 0.75 (6.99)
    You come out a whole lot better than I would have. Granted, I’m a geek and the medieval history texts and the transcriptions of the primary sources are not cheap. Very limited audience, there.

  16. Geez, LH, why so defensive this morning?
    Well, I had to vacuum the house… Sorry if I was over the top, and I definitely apologize for the unwarranted assumptions about ignorance of Heian and Racine (vraiment, je suis désolé), but I really get tired of lazy attacks on American education. Not that there aren’t perfectly reasonable attacks on it, and I make them myself frequently, but there was nothing in what I said in the post to justify the blanket condemnations.
    it’s not random American kids your quiz was given either; they are humanities students of 2nd year’ college
    Ah, but you’re wrong. All students had to take Civ in their first and second years; when I entered, I was a math major (who foolishly took regular physics instead of Physics for Math Majors and barely escaped with a C), but I had to learn all that stuff anyway. That’s exactly the point: the assumption was that any well-informed citizen should have a broad base of cultural knowledge, and sure, some lucky kids got a lot of it in high school, but most don’t (in the US or elsewhere), and the splintering of higher education in the last few decades, so that science majors have to know less and less about anything else and lit majors have to take very little (any?) math and nobody has to study foreign languages, is a damn shame.

  17. I went to high school in Northern Virginia in the 1980s, and the school I went to had an excellent two-year two-period multidisciplinary course in “World Civilization”–given in the first two years of high school. Naturally it was not at a college level, but I feel strongly that this was the appropriate time for such a foundational survey course. It was, of course, biased toward European history–Asia and Africa each were given about as much time as, say, the Enlightenment–but I don’t consider that inappropriate under the circumstances. I wish more high schools would consider this model.

  18. Have any of you played Civilisation II, the computer game?
    It’s ridiculously addictive and allows you to take a civilisation, like the Greeks, the Germans or the Zulu, and conquer the world with them.
    Sid Meier, the game’s inventor, is a genius.

  19. But the bigger point about the computer game that I want to make is that the only way anyone really begins to understand something is through their own disinterested interest.
    Regardless of what gets taught in the classroom, people will only learn and understand what they have an interest in.
    I’m sure the Civilisation course would have been useless for people who had no interest whatsoever in history and culture.
    And the reason I keep coming back to a place like Language Hat is because it’s being run by someone who just loves his stuff – it’s the Otaku phenomenon on the web that makes the internet so exciting.

  20. Antonios took it out of my mouth; thanks.
    LH, I wonder how many participants in History of Civ’ class, if that was a mandatory one for all college students, did “brilliantly” on the test – all those athletics, engineering, economics majors?
    If you have no particular interest in the subject and only driven to lectures by average grade you’ll get at your finals – do you think you’ll remember who Mo Tzu was 2 days after the quiz? Exactly like I have no recollection of matrix theory even though my diploma transcript assures me I spent entire 5th semester studying it.
    Your comparison is still not valid, by all other reasons I talked about; it’s simply not apples to apples.
    Actually, I think American multi-tiered educational system makes much more sense than Russian: why would you waste time and resources teaching intricacies of Greek Theater to a future plumber? The main reason I enjoyed my second arty college in NY is that wide range of fascinating classes that were on the menu; my only regret was inability to pack 50% of what was avilable into my schedule – exactly because I was finally studying things I always dreamed of learning. Yeah, I was greedy, I wanted all of it.
    You’re right about necessity of “broad-based cultural knowledge”, the question is – when the person is most absorbent, receptive of this task? I say, 19 or 20 yo is too late; in this sense, I’m glad my 5th grade curriculum included “History of Ancient World” (a year-long class) and 6th grade – “medieval history”. I still remember the covers of the textbook, even if barely – 50% of the content. The point was to get those inclined to get interested – and to provide understanding of general context of history. Those who wanted to know more, got the first push in the right direction; the rest – glazed over; isn’t it a natural way?
    Looks like the current educational system in Russia is trying to adopt the American method; look at this “program for teaching geography in middle school”; good for them.
    About your physics: are you saying regular physics were more difficult than advanced class for math majors? Sounds counterproductive to me.
    [also: pardon my laughing, but you and Vanya, both of you, are such snobs! So if I knew French and happened to read Racine in original, you would immediately apologise? What if I still found him overly melodramatic? And Vanya, I'm sorry, but that "I studied Chinese history at Stanford" was a textbook example of "mine is bigger than yours". Not to make you mad, but it WAS funny - and I luv'ya for this].

  21. are you saying regular physics were more difficult than advanced class for math majors?
    Sorry, by “regular physics” I meant physics for physics majors. It was very, very hard. I had breezed through the physics courses in high school, and this was a good illustration of the concept of “hubris” we were learning in History of Civ.
    You and Antonios make excellent points, and I’m afraid I’m just as guilty as Vanya of showing off. “Life is a comedy to those who think”—and even more so to those who watch them trying to do it!

  22. When I was in school there were three tracks of physics courses. The hardest were those for physics majors. The next tier was intended for engineering majors and majors in other sciences. The final tier was intended for non-science majors and in general for students without as much mathematics experience. There may also have been a single-semester survey course for “poets” (an appellation I like in such courses, though it seems a little unfair). By the way, in addition to the regular coursework in the physics-major track you could opt for the “honors” version of most courses, adding a fourth academic credit, extra weekly homework problems, and an additional weekly meeting of participating students. </physics-derail>

  23. Now it’s showing off to mention you took a Chinese History course? I didn’t think it was that uncommon. And my excuse is that I was baited into it – in these Sinophilic times to accuse someone of being ignorant of the Heian period is a true insult, probably equivalent to accusing someone of being ignorant of Sartre back in the 1960s.

  24. Richard Hershberger says:

    By way of comparison, at my university the freshman physics for engineers (taught by the College of Engineering, not the Physics Department) was considerably harder than that for physics majors. This is counter-intuitive, but the College of Engineering had a nearly-explicit policy of weeding out freshmen, and this course was the scythe (or should that be ‘herbicide’?) used to do this. The two courses covered the same material, and indeed used the same textbook, but the engineers moved through it nearly twice as fast. The trick was that the Physics Department course could be used to meet the engineering course requirement, but the College of Engineering didn’t tell the students that. You had to read the catalog very carefully to discover it.

  25. Now it’s showing off to mention you took a Chinese History course? I didn’t think it was that uncommon. And my excuse is that I was baited into it – in these Sinophilic times to accuse someone of being ignorant of the Heian period is a true insult
    Again, sorry about the baiting, but… you do realize that the Heian period is part of Japanese, not Chinese, history, right? (Though one of the main characteristics of the Heian period was massive absorption of T’ang culture.)

  26. Richard, that “weeding out freshmen” reason might very well be true, but I thought of other one.
    Engineers usually have “pure academic disciplines”, like physics or chemistry, only for 1 or 2 semesters and so they don’t have the time to get into detailed studies in the subject (like described by Songdog above) and so departments being what they are (motto of one of my professors: “no time you say? but you have the whole night!”) they try to pack material that’s nearly impossible to process in the timeframe.
    The staff really have to learn how to edit their courses… Another favorite quote, from Mr.Pak, the math professor: “This is elementary; how you’re going to be an engineer and get bored with game theory!”

  27. Soo desu, ne. Guess I am pretty rusty on Chinese history. For some reason I was thinking it was one of the 10 Kingdoms. Just goes to show why it would be better to study this material in high school, when it would stick, rather than college. Oh well, as long as it provides Tatyana with entertainment…

  28. That’s an excellent follow-up, thanks!
    Actually, I thought the same thing, about Hejan being Japanese, not Chinese, reign, but having NOT studied Chinese or Japanese history – my source is commentary to Sei Senagon – I bowed before superior Stanford’s learning and shut up.

  29. Heh. Well, I guess we’ve all learned something here… And this reminded me of why I hated grad school so much:
    “no time you say? but you have the whole night!”

  30. Dear Hat,
    Please do tell about your time in grad school, if you don’t mind. I don’t believe I’ve heard the story yet. Our early academic trajectories are similar enough (even in minor details like taking physics for physics majors) that I’m sure I stand to learn lots from your experience.

  31. Isn’t Civilization a computer game? It’s history must be fairly short. :-)

  32. In my humble opinion, American college education is excellent. Granted, I’ve only experienced it in depth at UC Berkeley and Middlebury College.
    Honestly, I would love to have been able to take math and statistics classes (though not physics, thanks) in addition to my two chosen tracks of Linguistics and History at Hebrew U. Having to specialize early has its merits and as well as inevitable drawbacks.
    As for school education, again, in my experience, Russian education was no better than its Israeli equivalent, though common opinion begs to differ. Whatever edge I had (in math and humanities) came from my parents’ and grandparents’ tutoring. That, and reading under the blanket and other similar hobbies. Is our shared love of knowledge a product of the school system? I doubt it.

  33. *sigh*
    ok, LH, I know I have been looking at liberal arts colleges, but at every school I’ve looked at, applied for, or gone to, we’ve had to take 2 yrs of a foreign language or pass the equivelient Language Proficency Exam. I chose German, which has had an interesting effect on my Noun capitalization habits.
    See, I know Heian as the time period where the Japanese court managed to wear more layers of fabric and more yards than the Elizabethans. Reconstructing them is a pain, esp. with the dye techniques.
    I am all about teaching earlier, and teaching *concepts* earlier. There are very few exact dates that are of major importance in history, and the dedication to exact dates drives me up a tree. Teach why the hell these things are important. It’ll help the university bound and the not.

  34. I believe you were joking, Janet, but in case you weren’t: yes, Civilization is a computer game, and a mavelous one, and it is played over an historical span of more than six thousand years. I missed Civ II but I’ve enjoyed Civ III and will be picking up IV any day now. More to the point my memories of the original Civilization are closely tied to my memories of college physics, as the two had to compete for my attention.
    Richard, it’s interesting to me that your engineering program used physics classes to weed people out. Were these classes offered through the physics department or the engineering department? And if the former, what interest did the physics department have in weeding out engineers? Very perplexing.
    In my experience the first semester of physics went smoothly enough. It felt difficult because the professor liked to design his exams so that the average grade was around 50% correct in order, he said, to get a useful idea of how people were doing (because if people are getting perfect scores then you aren’t really discovering where the limits of their knowledge lie). But then he would then assign letter grades after seeing how we all fared. So you might pass with only 25% right if the test was particularly difficult. It was the second semester that felt like a weeding out, for the class was still averaging about 50% on the tests, but now you needed 70% to pass.

  35. Huh, two books about revolution on the list, and still not satisfied? Those 1968 lefies were insatiable.

  36. As for discussing ‘educational systems’, I really don’t see why it draws so much interest. First-class grad schools have become totally globalized; as for elementary education, I suspect you can find wider gaps and more striking differences inside, say, Philly that between Philly and Saint-Petersburg.

  37. I meant national educational systems, of course. Generally, discussing educational approaches is tremendously interesting.

  38. Bryce Norton says:

    I would like to ask Joel a question, the one who attended KIS, formerly Kyoto Christian Day School. How many years did you attend there? Were you an mk (missionary kid), or a military kid?
    The last several years I have been tracking down former friends from Kyoto International School, due to sentiment. I especially would like to find two teacheres, Dora Felcher and Sharon Brown. Please write back if you don’t mind. brycemnoratyahoodotcom

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