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Miseducation of the Westerner

by Robert Burton about a month ago in courses
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Musings on how we teach History in the West

As a history buff and avid student of humanity’s procession towards our present moment, I have come to the conclusion, the sudden realization, that the way we’ve been going about teaching the subject of History is all wrong. To be very specific, I’m speaking as a Westerner and to the Western world. As an American, I am a member of what we call “Western Civilization”, which consists of a group of highly industrialized countries that are clustered around the Northern part of the Atlantic Ocean. These countries are the wealthiest, most infrastructurally developed, most economically developed and tend to work together militarily. I’m speaking of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Canada and others. Together, these countries, which tend to be seen as the powerhouses of the globe, the monied countries and are known as the Great Eight are arbitrarily called “The West.” These countries aren’t really west of anything, since we live on a globe, they simply are farther west than what has been traditionally called the “old world.” Since The West has more international influence, maps of the globe tend to be made by them and with them in mind so they tend to geometrically center Europe on those maps because of historical perspective, these countries are seen as west of the “old world.” Yet, much of what is previously stated is the crux of my issue. The Western world, also called Euro-America, tends to be centered in everything and is seen as the main focal point of all historical, economic and cultural analyses. This has done westerners a huge disservice by rendering us extremely ignorant of the rest of the world and its cultures which causes us to implement our bias in our global institutions. We tend to see ourselves as “The West” which is the best and our presence and way of life blesses the rest, who tend to be browner and poorer. This bias is a product of an education system that renders us so ignorant of other people’s histories and cultures that we often assume that they don’t have any. Thus, this essay is a critique of how we teach History in schools and on the collegiate level. How we have studied and taught this history in our educational systems has imbued many westerners with a shallow sense of humanity that makes it difficult for them to connect and empathize with humans of different hues and from foreign cultures due to a lack of understanding, knowledge of and appreciation for those different cultures.

I think part of the problem is in the usage of the word “Primitive.” The word “primitive” simply means “First,” thus when talking about primitive people we are really referring to people and cultures which were the first, the earliest, hence they came before we did. Yet, in the western mind, primitive becomes misconstrued as backwards or barbaric and conjures images of savage, primate-like human beings. In the U.S, I don’t think students are taught about the massive amount of human ingenuity that these early humans possessed and what they were able to accomplish, invent and figure out in order to survive. I would assert that Americans, educationally, are given the sense that they are descended from primitive groups in Europe and had a trajectory of development that is somehow distinct from the rest of humanity. Which is why when they portray “their” ancestors, they portray them as these paler, brown-haired people when the story of how Homo-Sapiens populated our planet is infinitely more complicated than that.

We teach History in very ethnocentric and hyper-focused ways. To change this, I would start with the way we approach the idea of and usage of the word “civilization.” Many American history textbooks are labeled with terms such as “Western Civilization” which are designed to denote “our” way of life and just end up becoming the history of Europe. This is a fallacious approach, being that our textbooks would do a better job of enriching students’ minds and souls by teaching them the history of the whole of humanity, not just the history of their type, family or branch of humanity. We must teach history in a way that shows how civilization is a long-term accumulation of knowledge. It started with Primitive people and has since moved froward—every era building on the accomplishments of the next, all the way down to our modern times. This pedagogical approach embeds students with the idea that humanity is a collaborative effort and eliminates any “Us” versus “Them” mindset and fosters acceptance of the fact that this thing called “civilization” is not and has never been produced in a vacuum. Societies learn from other societies that are close to them or are older than them and then build upon what they learned to pass that knowledge on to the next society.

Imagine two people having a civil discourse. What does this mean, to have a “Civil” discourse? We can imagine these two speaking to each other, exchanging ideas in a polite, peaceful way, devoid of aggression, violence or deceit. This is what “civil” originally meant—being peaceful. Thus, civilization is the art of living together peacefully. Therefore, a civilized people or society is one where people can coexist among and with others in peaceful way, one which denotes harmony, cooperation and mutual benefit. This is very different than how civilization has been defined academically in the past, with certain groups being designated as civilized while others were branded as barbaric—a dichotomized scale of human evolution. Ironically, when asked about the heroes of Western Civilization, many of the names given to you will be of warriors such as Achilles and generals like Julius Caesar, Napoleon or Alexander. While the post Middle Ages of Europe will have its list of scientists and inventors, Western Civilization clearly champions its warriors and takers-of-life. Western Academia seems to have a clear understanding that war is an extension of politics and is a powerful social force in the world. To Western Academia, it seems to be one of the main movers of History and a clear marker of a societies’ civilizational level of progress. I am very disturbed at how much Western Academia determines a societies’ development or “progress” by its ability and capability to destroy, maim, kill or take life. Sticking to the meaning of the word “Civilization” we should measure the progress and level of development of a society not solely by the destructive power of its weapons but by the sophistication of its institutions, the livelihood of the people within that society and their command of science, technology and its depository of knowledge of the natural world. Furthermore, Western Academia has had a tendency to deem a civilization as advanced or developed when its technology reaches a point where it can advance itself militarily and exhibit power in the form of force, yet the same academics who honor these facets of such a civilization will ignore how poorly they treat their women or how unequal their citizens are or how low the quality of life is. Western rubrics for what make a culture civilized have often been skewed, hypocritical or downright lacking in human depth.

Traditionally, we see our civilization as originating in Athens, Greece, then passing on to the Romans, after which we skip over a lot and end up in England and the Industrial Revolution. The problem with this is that Greek civilization is posited on the backend of world history. For example, Alexander the Great didn’t conquer Persia until 333 BC, by that time Egypt was already 2,900 years old and the Pyramids would have seemed as ancient to him as they are to us. There is more time between the building of the Pyramids and Alexander’s birth that there is between Alexander’s birth and us. By the time of the Greek age of the city-state, the majority of the world’s ancient civilizations had come and gone. Much of human history had passed through the ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Persian and Harrapan societies before Greece even came onto the historical picture, but to begin learning history without including these societies gives American students the impression that Europeans created civilization, when many societies had already risen, developed, and passed on great wisdom and knowledge before the Greeks had reached the classical age.

Another issue I have is that Westerners are usually taught that one of the pillars of Western Civilization, and civilization period, is literacy and that societies without literacy aren’t very evolved. Yet, the Ancient Greeks, originally, weren’t a literate people but had to develop writing around 1000 BC. Homer’s Odyssey was originally a story passed on orally before it was later written down in the form of a book. Writing had been developed in the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Harapan and Chinese societies far before it became a Greek development. In fact, the Myceneans initially borrowed a form of ancient script from a Semitic civilization, and then had to further add to that script by borrowing the idea of vowels from the later Phoenician script. Therefore, literacy isn’t and has never been an exclusively European/Western cultural facet. As exemplified by Historical events, literary development for Greece, and then Rome, was a product of the Greeks learning from another civilization and then adapting what they learned to their own cultural needs. I would like to further this by adding that not having a form of writing can create problems—big problems, yet it is in no way, shape or form an indicator of a less developed or evolved people. Like the Greeks, an illiterate people will utilize the human mind to come up with another means of remembering their history and passing it on to progeny. One form of this is lyric oral poetry, such as in the same vein of the Norse Sagas. We must remember that the great Homer, if he existed, was a famous Poet and story teller, who told these stories to groups listening to him recite them in a lyrical, rhythmic format. Also, let’s not forget that Greek literature’s seminal and greatest works, The Odyssey and The Iliad, were products of an illiterate society that used oral history. An illiterate society that borrowed the idea of writing from another literate one. This, in a sense, is the history of humanity, humans learning from other humans and then adapting said wisdom, only to pass it on to another civilization.

Another example I would like to assert is in the realm of philosophy and science. While the idea is not accepted by all scholars, there is some evidence that many Greek philosophers and merchants travelled extensively through the ancient world and learned from several other ancient cultures. Many an ancient Greek philosopher wrote about the “Greatness of Egyptian wisdom” and may have spurred many a Greek to make the journey to acquire greater knowledge. These “schools” were not open to the masses but only educated a select few who had to be initiated into the accepted group that was attached to certain Temples in Ancient Egypt. The students and teachers in these temple-schools were priests of the Egyptian religion, who had absolutely no distinction between science, philosophy, mysticism and metaphysics. Pythagoras, the famous Greek philosopher who haled from the island of Samos, was said to have spent the most time in Egypt, a whopping 23 years, and after he moved to a Greek colony in Italy to set up a school of his own where he passed on knowledge about numerology, math, science and is accredited for inventing the famous Pythagorean theorem. Speaking of this famous theorem, a little research showed me that this Theorem may not have been invented by Pythagoras himself. In fact, it was found in a Chinese mathematical treatise, an Indian Sutra and on a Babylonian tablet. The truth may be that such a geometric gem as the theorem may have been invented in multiple places, separately, by different civilizations—many of them before the Greeks were using it. Yet, with Western students learning that scientific expertise and philosophy were only invented in Europe by Europeans, followed by the educational system outright ignoring the scientific and philosophical contributions of other civilizations, gives said students the impression that Europeans, or more simplistically—white people, created everything and moved humanity forward with invention and curiosity while the rest of humanity simply sat still in stagnation, waiting for Colonialism to come and rouse them from the depths of ignorance and barbarism. If we accept that Ancient Greeks may have learned a thing or two from neighboring cultures, then we may be able to inculcate students with a more robust sense of humanity and eliminate much of the bias, and condescending paternalism that is so rampant in the Western World. Think about it. There are three accepted “3rds” that make up the Mediterranean Sea. One of those 3rds is the whole northern coast of Africa yet Africa and Egypt, to an extent, are taken out of the Mediterranean world and Egypt’s influence on Ancient Greece is heavily downplayed. Whatever was being taught in those Ancient Egyptian temples passed into the heads of Greek travelers and then back to Greece, where it became an influential force on what we call Greek philosophy. Egyptian ideas passed on to Greeks, who changed them to meet their needs. In the Mycenean period and forward, Greeks worshipped Zeus, Hera, Apollo and Hermes. Fast forward to the classical era and Neo-Platonists were writing about the Logos, the indestructible soul and divine archetypes. This was an exchange of ideas that had an indelible effect on the Greek intelligentsia, which affected Western civilization in whole. While what the Greek civilization and people accomplished was great, these accomplishments weren’t made in a vacuum. Knowledge of medicine, geometry and math were borrowed from Egypt while astrology and other wisdom was borrowed from Babylon.

American educational institutions seem to operate on this myth that the Greeks were so phenomenally rational and more reason-oriented than their African and Asian neighbors that that and that alone made it possible for them to create a more sophisticated political process and more evolved society. None of this is true. This myth is buttressed by ignorance of both African and Asian history and forms of civilizations. Instead of leaving space for these societies having the ability to have created sophisticated worldviews and ways of living that we may be ignorant of, our education process is ensconcing in its students the misunderstanding that if they are ignorant of a thing that it must not exist. The point to be stressed and the message missed is that humanity is a work in progress and we are nowhere near the finished product. Yet, the most important issue is that all of humanity has contributed to this ever-forward progression in some way. Where would Western European military supremacy be if the Chinese hadn’t invented gunpowder? What about Italy’s amazing cuisine if the Chinese hadn’t invented pasta. Without Ancient Egypt’s Imhotep, there would be no Greek Asclepius and therefore no western medicine. Westerners are growing tired of the strictly materialist world and are now diving into India’s history, seeking to align their Chakras and trying to awaken their Kundalini energy. Where would American pop culture be without West African music?

All of the branches of the human family have contributed to the evolution of the species; thus, we owe it to ourselves and our children to rid our historical education and wisdom of Western-Eurocentric notions that all that is human started in one corner of the world and then spread to people who had been waiting for centuries for such civilizing saviors while sitting around inventing nothing. Its time for America to adapt a humancentric mode of education.

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About the author

Robert Burton

A world traveler and student of life, people and the human mind. I've been molded by my origins in The American South, six years of life in The People's Republic of China and my passion for life. I live, I learn and then I write about it.

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