Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. and Christe A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2016-17: Mondays and Wednesdays, 3:00 - 4:30 p.m. Eastern Time
Most of what people initially recognize as history is narrative history. That is, it tells a story, with events that start at a beginning and lead on to other events and then perhaps to a conclusion. There are characters and motivations, means and purposes, goals and objectives. Conclusions, of course, are partial: life goes on. We’re still in the midst of it all.
Narrative is fundamentally complex, and whether factual or fictional, it has the curious property that the longer you look at it, the more concentric implications you begin to see. Even a relatively trivial story (in terms of number of events or characters) like one of the fables of Aesop is, in an important sense, open-ended. There are no absolute boundaries around what it can mean. There may be some limitations to what most people will see, but the same tale, told again, or told slightly differently, or perhaps merely just heard again from a slightly different point of view, will yield markedly different results for the hearer. Narrative is pregnant: it is always giving birth to new meaning. That never stops; that’s part of the reason that old stories, be they historical or fictional, can still strike us as timeless or eternal. Narrative cannot be controlled and it cannot be silenced. Neither can it ever be rendered completely objective.
Nevertheless, narrative is one of the most powerful tools people have ever discovered for understanding who and what they are. Most of the world’s religions are rooted in stories. If they are your stories, you are likely to consider them holy writ or a compendium of sacred tradition; if they are someone else’s, you’re likely to call them myths. However you label them, though, they operate in a fundamentally similar way. This is not confined to religion. Most of the moves of various characters in the political world even today are described in terms of their narratives; people talk about accepting or changing or controlling the narratives of others — in other words, their explanations about what has gone on, and why. As Pixar Studios has proclaimed, “Story is King.” It’s a profound perception, even beyond their overt agenda.
This is a powerful truth, and we mustn’t ignore it. But it is incomplete, and it certainly does not really reflect the state of the historian’s discipline today. Most professional historians of the last several generations have taken a more thematic and analytic approach to historical reality, often infused (to a greater or lesser degree) with the positivistic views implicit in the historiography of the nineteenth century.
This is neither better nor worse than narrative. It’s just something different. It claims and appears to be objective in ways that narrative (with its capacity to engender and bear new meanings) never can be. One can legitimately question whether it’s really objective, but it conveys what it does in a way different from the storyteller’s approach.
The truth, as so often, is mixed. Ultimately neither the narrative nor the more objective-seeming analytical historiography is really meaningful without the other. No event, no statistic, and no historical datum of any other sort can be understood outside the flow of time and events — the causal chain or chains of which it forms a part. Themes are a way (one way) in which we can sort and compare different events, single out different strands of causation, and analyze purposes and ideas from different times and places. They help us keep our terms clear and our measurements calibrated — helping us apply the same standards to this part of the story as we’re applying to that part.
Like all such tools, they come with a cost. The fact is that, though it may be possible to look through every human society through the same set of lenses — to analyze every political structure, for example, through Aristotle’s categories — we live in universe where one size really doesn’t fit all. There are always reasons to question the applicability of categories of thought that we’ve carried over from one time and place to another. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use these tools. What it does mean is that we should use them carefully, thoughtfully, and skeptically. We should not hasten to accept one set of terms as if it fit all situations. It won’t. We should also not be too hasty to reject a set of terms that doesn’t initially seem to fit a given situation. It might really be quite useful in understanding a different one.
We have designed our World History course partly to engage the student in both these angles of approach, since they are genuinely complementary ways of looking at the events of the past. When we see the same things popping up over and over again in different societies and cultures, we draw from that repetition some synthetic conclusions. This is good; indeed, it’s why history gives us tools that are useful as a way of viewing our own society. But they are useful precisely because they fit into the narratives by which we apprehend the past as a whole.
We attempt to plot the work of the course on these two axes. On the vertical axis, we might say, is the narrative flow of historical events. For the horizontal axis, we have selected and tried to elaborate a partial catalogue of the ideas and themes that seem to occur repeatedly — nearly universally — throughout the course. Obviously not every piece comes into play at every juncture in the long historical narrative. But the biggest issues show up almost everywhere.
The narrative we’ve taken as our “vertical” axis is in many ways laid out for us, but it’s so vast that we cannot pretend objectivity. We all select the narratives that make sense to us, and we build from there. Part of our purpose of having two teachers for the class is to suggest the plasticity of the ideas that come out of these intersections. The story is largely out there; but it’s a tangle of millions or billions of separate strands. Most of what we can do about making it our own is a matter of selection.
The categories we’ve taken as our “horizontal” axis — those things that seem most meaningful to us in terms of how we grasp each piece of the puzzle — are somewhat arbitrary, but they are the distillation of some fairly lengthy thought on the matter. We think they’re organic to the material at hand. The chief issues we’ve identified that undergird the story of all societies in all places are those of resources, community, and power. These interact among themselves as well, of course. Hence, we can ask, according to context, what roles do the realities of the environment — a kind of limited geographical determinism — play in shaping the civilizations that grow up in the Nile, on the Indus, or on the Yellow River? What happens when there aren’t rivers? Does that kind of thing matter as much now as it once did? How does the individual identify his or her own personal role amidst the various communities of which he or she is a part? What claims do our communities have upon us, and what do we have upon them? What do concepts of law or power — de facto or de jure — mean among the Greeks of the fifth century BC, or among the Chinese of the twelfth century AD, or among the people of Subsaharan Africa today? If you see other themes emerging from your studies, let us know. History is a matter of perspective, and it’s a perspective that continues to grow, the more we deal into it. Yours is as much a part of that process as anyone’s.
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