Osama bin Laden & frameworks for understanding history

What has Osama bin Laden got to do with the proper study of history, you are asking…

For one thing, since the 9/11 incident a few years the infamous Osama bin Laden has had historians everywhere scrambling to rewrite all our history books.

For another, after some thought, I had arrived at the conclusion that there was something terribly inadequate or backward in nearly every history curriculum, program available on the homeschooling market that I had examined. And after September 11th, I am even more convinced of it.

A third reason for the way that I have framed this issue is that, September 11th brought email questions such as “what do we tell our children?” or “how do we (help our children) make sense of what’s happening in the world?” to my desktop. I would like make a case today that any child in his teens who has been studying history (or social studies) in a logical and critically thoughtful manner will not need a great leap of intellect to understand the ongoing discussions in the daily news to make sense of today’s events.

The State of History Education Today

The most-acclaimed and popular homeschooling history programs, have stated a hodge-podge of objectives and guidelines for their scope and sequences, usually one or a combination of the guiding objectives:

  • history should be chronological
  • history should be biographical or literature-based
  • history should be patriotic and elements which form one’s cultural heritage alone should be emphasized
  • history should incorporate a worldview (usually this means looking at historical events through a pre-determined set of Christian values and imputing a divine design)
  • history should be filtered so children learn only of beauty and truth, or courage and multicultural values, or other values determined as worthy by the author
  • history should be hands-on because hands-on is the best way for kids to retain the information

Maybe you can see where I am headed … I have some doubt about the academic and practical value of teaching programs guided by such a narrow basket of objectives. These are my criticisms:

  • While the function of literature studies (among others) may be beauty and truth, that is not the key function of learning history;
  • Though it may be helpful for the child to see the sequence of historical events sequentially, just because a program rigidly teaches history chronologically does not necessarily make it a superior program. Some other programs may teach history civilization by civilization, and they may deliver learning objectives better;
  • That history should be taught only through literature or biographies is neither here nor there in giving children a better overview of factual history nor of the important events in history. Recorded history contains inherent bias and is selective. Much of significant history is not recorded in biographies, some literature are in fact records of myths or are written for specific political purposes
  • A worldview program is often a highly selective set of readings made to fit the author’s own highly biased “worldview” and the child will be led by a nose-ring into adopting such as worldview. Such a “worldview” borders upon indoctrination, and will not help the student derive an objective view of history. I have actually read the writings of one highly respected classical educator who made an argument to the effect that the Western Judeo-Christian civilization is superior to all others and as such as is the only one that needs to be studied in depth.
  • That history should be studied based on the foundational characteristics of one’s own cultural heritage is currently the guiding philosophy for social studies curricula used in both US and Japanese public schools. This approach suffers the disadvantages of “exceptionalism” and of “ethnocentricism” (usually Eurocentricism, in the case of homeschooling educational materials since the majority of these originate from the US). Witness the controversy with revisionist and nationalistic textbooks in Japan: at the heart of the problem has been the tendency of Japanese historians to characterize as exceptional the historical experience of Western experience while emphasizing claims of the unique attributes of Japanese peoples as a whole with its starting heritage as linked to the gods, its unique character and culture in anthropological terms. This same propensity is also present in Marxist, Zionist, Nazi, patriotic writings or Fundamentalist Christian or Islamic writers to identify and explicate historical events and achievements in terms of unique set of conditions, characteristics or principles. Such a perspective may serve the citizen who intends to stay within his/her own provincial borders forever, but will not breed understanding of today’s current affairs, nor will it yield future diplomats, businessmen who can acutely appraise the state of global affairs etc.

Although educators have spent the past decade levelling their criticism at the state of math and science studies, history education in public schools is in my opinion the worst-taught subject and its pedagogy the most backward in the light of the progressive methods used by today’s serious historians. R.I. Moore, the editor of the scholarly and distinguished Blackwell History of the World publications gives us a clue as to the reasons behind the poor state of history studies.

“There is nothing new in the attempt to understand history as a whole. To know how humanity began and how it has come to its present condition is one of the oldest and most universal of human needs, expressed in the religious and philosophical systems of every civilization. But only in the last few decades has it begun to appear both necessary and possible to meet that need by means of a rational and systematic appraisal of current knowledge. History claimed its independence as a field of scholarship with its own subject matter and its rules and methods, not simply a branch of literature, rhetoric, law, philosophy or religion, in the second half of the nineteenth century. World History has begun to do so only in the second half of the twentieth. Its emergence has been delayed on the one hand by simple ignorance – for the history of enormous stretches of space and time has not been known at all, or so patchily and superficially as not to be worth revisiting and on the other by the lack of a widely acceptable basis upon which to organize and discuss what is nevertheless the enormous and enormously diverse knowledge that we have. Both obstacles are now being overcome. There is almost no part of the world or period of its history that is not the subject of vigorous and sophisticated investigation by archaeologists and historians. It is truer than it has ever been that knowledge is growing and perspectives changing and multiplying more quickly than it is possible to assimilate and record them in synthetic form. Nevertheless, it is possible to grasp the human past as a whole can and must be made….There is a growing wealth of ways in which world history can be written.”[italics mine]

This essay is essentially an expansion of the last line. This is an attempt to provide a framework culling together the “growing wealth of ways in which world history” can be understood, the ultimate objective being the “rational and systematic appraisal of historical facts”. This framework comprises a variety of perspectives, methods or approaches. Some of these have been traditionally used by historians; some are more recent and interdisciplinary approaches; some are time-tested methods used by teaching professionals in the humanities bastions (Oxford and Cambridge); some are pragmatic approaches used by people in the business of interpreting history (eg., policy or intelligence analysts, archaeologists or anthropologists). They are a basket of tools or “lenses” if you like, through which history might be viewed, with each different lens you try on, the view of things may differ slightly different.

A Framework of Approaches

1. The System Approach:

This is the oldest and simplest way in which history has been recorded. Many historians present history as a record of the history of contacts between peoples previously isolated from another, from which (they perceive) all change arises. This approach asks the questions: What was the impact of Assyrian or Persian rule upon the conquered or subjugated peoples? What was the extent of Chinese and Korean influence upon Japanese civilization? More currently…is the attack of September 11th due to the culmination of stresses resulting from encroachments upon Middle Eastern civilization by Western globalization (a question debated by media, especially in France and left-wingers in the US)

2. Historiography (the study of historical writings, chronicles, literature or biographies) Approach:

This method most popular in the upper grades with classical schools that offer humanities studies as their core program. It involves the serious study of primary source historical records, writings or biographies, such as Herodotus’ The Histories, Homer’s Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, the earliest Japanese historical chronicles Nihon shoki and Kojiki. This method has great value since it offers insight into the major ideologies or philosophies of people who have had great influence upon their societies and those that followed. It poses the questions: What light upon the life and times of the people does the written record throw? Why was a particular historical personality (eg., Plato or Confucius) important – what were his ideas and what impact do they have upon civilization(s) then and what relevance for society today? What light can a reading of the Jewish religious books or Koran throw upon the Middle Eastern people’s perception of their right to the land of Israel / a Palestinian state? What light can a reading of the Koran throw upon the events of today, specifically bin Laden’s characterization of the war against America as holy jihad as opposed to the viewpoint of moderate Islamic peoples with respect to evil oppression or violence? (One of the rallying points of Osama bin Laden being sold to the Islamic world, is that he was merely giving America a taste of its bullying oppressor tactics previously used in the Gulf)

Useful as this approach to history is, it should nevertheless not be used as the sole method in isolation from other approaches, and we need to heed the Conrad Totman’s warning of the pitfalls of this approach:

“[History] has been told mainly as a story of the favored few, their politics, thought, and culture, with the masses consigned to oblivion and the broader ecological context ignored. [This] reflects human hubris, the desire of tale teller and hearer alike to associate with people of weight, the winners in life, as though those who carried the water were of no consequence. And in part it reflects the common wish to give our own lives meaning and worth by finding in the historical record “proof” that the ideas ad actions of individuals do indeed have meaning and consequence and that we are not merely creatures of our “context”.” Pitfalls of this approach lie with the problems of bias, parochialism and human ethnocentrism as well as “exceptionalism”: the tendency of historians to focus on the exceptional qualities of their subject society.” — Conrad Totman, A History of Japan

(Note: History programs guided by the principle and worldview approaches rely heavily upon this method almost to the exclusion of all others)

3. Economic Theory:

In a nutshell this theory may be summarized as the tendency of economic exchanges to create self-sufficient but ever expanding worlds which sustain successive systems of power and culture. A popular theory with many contemporaries who view historical and political events, wars and world conflicts, social ills and inequalities, as capable of being understood entirely in terms of economic factors and inequalities. Issues such as imperialism, colonialism, the perennial North-South divide, poverty in the world and the unequal distributions of economic wealth among the nations, are notable examples of history analysed from the economic perspective. This approach asks questions such as: What economic interest was served by such an invasion? Was the movement of immigrants to the New World motivated by economic push factors? Was the American Revolution or civil war fought over economic interests? Was US foreign policy of intervention in Kuwait-Iraqi politics motivated by or served by its own economic interests?

4. Cultural Perspective:

This approach focuses on the differences between societies and cultures, and the particular ethnic/racial/cultural characteristics of each, by comparing the ways in which they have developed their values, social relationships and structures of power. This perspective is extremely valuable because culture is a strong factor determining actions and outcomes in so many historical situations. History guides examine issues such as the cultural characteristics of the Puritan pilgrims in colonising America or immigrants in nation-building.

The cultural and ethical experiences of many individuals also coalesce over time into customs, norms, and institutions that govern economic and social life. Major cultural institutions, eg the role of the church institution, the Emperor of Japan, the justice system or electoral systems, all need to be studied as the cultural forces which deeply impact the nation’s or country’s course of history in the relevant period.

Culture is often a determining factor why some wars are started and why some wars are won. Were there cultural characteristics of the Afghan soldiers that enabled them to defeat the Russian armies over a decade, and those that came before them? What is the cultural crucible out of which emerged the modern day terrorist and the irregular violence and wars of the past two decades? Can the long history of the holy crusaders’ presence in the Middle East in some way explain the propensity amongst some to characterize the recent conflicts as a holy war or a clash between the Judeo-Christian and Islamic civilizations?

5. Ideological

Not all wars, or events can be explained in economic or cultural terms. If not, ideological elements may offer alternative explanations. Although the governing popular theory for the immigrant waves to the New World is the economic perspective, historical accounts show some of the pilgrims had already achieved economic security but had been motivated to leave sail for the New World in order to leave behind the corruption and decadence of their societies.

Here are some illustrations of the usefulness of ideological perspectives at work: What were ideas of Karl Marx took the world by storm and separated countries with the Iron Curtain for so long? When you consider that the most populous nations of the world are China and Indonesia and the Islamic world, just how universal are the democratic ideals of the UN and those characterized by Western nations (there is ongoing debate in the UN on the need to re-write the UN Declaration on Human Rights as well as the need to revamp the power structure of the UN for a more democratic UN? Are those conflicting ideologies creating the Clash of the Civilizations? Who is Osama bin Laden and why are his ideas so widely believed by significant enough numbers of the populations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia and the Palestine? How do you correctly characterize the current conflict – a war for Justice; a holy war; a retaliatory war in self-defense, or a war for security of the nation?

6. Geography / Geopolitical / Ecological Perspectives:

This approach to history examines the key role of geography, geology, climate and biota in shaping patterns of production and distribution, eg. fertile river valleys supported the growth of dense populations in all the first ancient civilizations. The extent of wealth of biodiversity of a particular land has been important in the development and support of large populations of a civilization. It asks the questions: What is the significance of geographical and geological conditions?. Whether the stresses upon the land through changes of climate or ecological environment affected its populations triggering historical processes like immigration or colonization? Is the fact that the state is landlocked (such as Afghanistan) a reason why it is prone to strategic war tussles between the neighbouring powers?

A sophisticated variant of the above is Ecological history, the more culturally, chronologically and geographically comprehensive approach that has gained ground with distinguished historians today. This approach sees interaction with the physical environment, and with animals at the center of human predicament. This approach frames the larger story of human development within the bounded biome from hunger-gatherer (forager in history terminology) to agricultural society and to the early stage of industrialism that characterizes our modern day society. It focuses on the distribution of resources; the changes or stresses in man’s ecological condition; the rhythms of population growth and space utilization and the diverse strategies for coping with growth within geographical constraints by human communities; the changes in technology and techniques related to resource usage that govern agricultural and industrial society..

Armed with an Ecological Perspective, we would ask the questions:

  • What and how much is produced, how the activity of production relates to geography and environment. What are the arrangements of society, i.e. social, economic and political organization of civilizations and societies and examine how these determine the distribution and allocation of resources, goods, services, power and privilege.
  • What are the common solutions or responses to the weakening of biosystems and the depletion of resources:

1. Imperialism (displacement or subordination of weaker by more powerful communities for the purpose of appropriating resources or terrain previously sustained by the former),

2. Agricultural intensification (devising of means of means to exploit more efficiently the productive capacity of land and resources),

3. Industrialization (the development of techniques for exploiting production) and;

4. (More recently)The reduction of demand by decreasing population numbers and through restrained economic production and sustainable development.

7. The Strategic Culture Factor

It is often helpful to examine how a nation’s rulers make the strategic choices that affect the nation’s course of history. Strategy-making processes, often products of the country’s strategic culture, may in turn be understood by looking at the geographic, political, cultural, social, economic, organizational, and technical forces that influenced them. Strategy-making processes can go awry when cultural customs of decision-making or of the institution hamper or blinker decision-makers in their understanding of their situation causing them to occasionally act in perverse short-sighted ways.

Questions to ask include: What were the strategic planning errors made in the world wars, in the Vietnam War? Does the Way of the Bushido warrior shed light on the way World War II was fought by the Japanese army? Has the U.S. global strategy been made ineffective by rogue states and terrorists with access to weapons of mass destruction? What is the difference to final outcomes of war of the following differing strategies: A limited war; Guerrilla style warfare by small states or stateless entities to harass the giant oppressor army? A war to end all wars? A war till victory; A jihad (holy) war? A war using justified force? What is the strategic theory of alliances at play, that is resulting in the instant overhaul of decades of Japanese pacificism (the legacy of World War II) to allow Japan to go to America’s aid during this time of crisis? Have the governments going to war against terrorism accurately assessed the costs of this war against terrorism/Afghanistan for themselves or for their weaker allies who are less able to defend themselves … or the probability that the current conflict may escalate into a full-scale war of Islamic nations vs Western civilized societies?

Concluding Remarks

There are many readers who will question my criticism of history programs and resources from Christian resources that are so pervasive in the homeschooling market. All I am saying, is keep the faith by all means, but intellectual honesty or integrity requires that we first view historical evidence and facts from all angles, not just through selective religious or other value-laden filters. That intellectual process also requires we ask all the right questions, which among them, of course includes the theological/philosophical one, is there a divine design to the human course of history and arguably how will the history of man end. A religious faith should be defensible to our children without our having to cloud their faculties of logic and objective judgement with unnecessary religious-speak throughout the history text. Nor should we insult a child’s intelligence in assuming that they are not able to read the original religious books and make the necessary historical connections themselves.

Home-educators or teachers for some reason, apply stricter standards to science studies than to social studies in terms of critical and analytical thinking when it comes to social studies. Many home-educators get by just giving children a range of historical literature, even fiction that correspond roughly to the topics to be studied. Unit studies or hands-on history products are used because they keep students entertained and retain the interest of the students, not because of the accuracy or quality of the content being taught. My only quarrel with these curricula is the neglect to give children the most important tools – the thinking toolkit to deal with historical facts.

So it may be helpful to bear in mind the list of skills that a college-ready student is expected to have acquired through the study of history. These include the abilities to: analyze information; develop criteria for making judgments; distinguish fact from opinion; draw inferences; make generalizations; draw conclusions; observe for detail; organize and express ideas in written form; perceive cause-effect relationships; sequence historical data and information; synthesize information; translate information from one medium to another; use problem solving skills.

It will not pose any great difficulty to any home-educating parent or school educator to use the framework of approaches I have suggested. All it takes is a conscious effort to get the logic-rhetoric stage student (and teacher as well) into the habit of asking the right questions and thinking about issues and historical facts using the suggested framework of perspectives.

Acquiring the critical skills has more uses than we think. Clear-thinking is essential not only for writers, businessmen with global interests, or persons in political office, analysts, or tacticians who have make weighty decisions such as the cost of waging war. But this set of skills is also important for the average citizen if harmony and security in an ethnically diverse society or world is to be attained. Let us make a note of R. I. Moore’s words: “A frame imparts perspective. Comparison implies respect for difference. That is the beginning of what the past has to offer the future.”

2 thoughts on “Osama bin Laden & frameworks for understanding history”

  1. I was delighted and flattered to find myself quoted in your thoughtful and excellent essay on how we should now be teaching history. I am glad that anything I have written has been helpful to you.

    Your first quotation, from the introduction to the Blackwell History of the World, of course, and you understand it exactly as I would hope.

    On Conrad Totman’s statement,

    “[History] has been told mainly as a story of the favored few, their politics, thought, and culture, with the masses consigned to oblivion and the broader ecological context ignored. [This] reflects human hubris, the desire of tale teller and hearer alike to associate with people of weight, the winners in life, as though those who carried the water were of no consequence. And in part it reflects the common wish to give our own lives
    meaning and worth by finding in the historical record “proof” that the ideas and actions of individuals do indeed have meaning and consequence and that we are not merely creatures of our “context”.” Pitfalls of this approach lie with the problems of bias, parochialism and human ethnocentrism as well as “exceptionalism”: the tendency of historians to focus on the exceptional
    qualities of their subject society.” I entirely agree with it.

    With best wishes,


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