“History is a vast early warning system.” – Norman Cousins
History is powerful. Know what happened in the past, and you’ll be better prepared to interpret your world, avoid repeating mistakes, and influence the future of your nation.
When you get past dry descriptions and delve into the stories, history can also be rather pleasurable. There are thousands of remarkable, surprising, and significant accounts to consider.
In this week’s lesson, we’ll take a look at three ways you can give yourself a liberal education on the history of Western civilization and the world.
Assignment 1: Get a Textbook (But Don’t Use It Too Much)
History is one of two subjects where I find an actual textbook to be useful. Why? Because history must be understood in context. Many people pick up bits of history and study particular parts of history in isolation. However, knowing where these pieces fit in the larger puzzle of world events is essential to a complete liberal education.
Any basic, college-level textbook will do. You may be able to find one at the library or pick one up at a local used bookstore. You can’t get a complete understanding of history by reading a textbook; just use it to help yourself visualize the “big picture.”
Assignment 2: Understand the Three Defining Periods of Western Civilization
History is expansive. College grads, even those from the Ivy League, are nowhere close to recognizing all of the important events / people / places / periods of world history by the time they graduate.
However, Ivy League students do develop a familiarity with the time periods and movements that were essential to the development of Western civilization and the culture we know now.
By understanding the history that shaped our society, you’ll recognize how our government, policies, and beliefs have been influenced. You’ll be able to learn from the mistakes of our past, and become a better citizen.
Start by studying the three major forces that shaped Western culture: The classicalism of Ancient Greece and Rome, the Christianity of the Middle Ages, and the enlightenment of the Modern Era. I’ve provided no-cost resources that can help you research the history of these periods and links to out-of-copyright books that can help you understand the ideas that were prevalent.
Classicism of Ancient Greece & Rome
America was founded on many of the principles that came from ancient Greece and Rome. From their history, we gained appreciation for the republic, adopted the idea of a free society, and learned how to organize a government through the formation of a congress.
- Ancient Rome & Ancient Greece on Wikipedia – Through overviews of these two great empires.
- About.com Ancient History – A variety of historic resources including an section that compares ancient Greece and Rome.
- AncientGreece.com – Dozens of pages on the events, people, and places that shaped Greece.
- Lost Treasures of The Ancient World: Greece – A two-part video exploring the remains of this ancient world and their connections to its historical past.
- The Roman Empire – An illustrated history of Rome’s rise and fall.
- History of Rome Podcast – Regular recordings about the ancient history of Rome.
- The Iliad and The Odyssey – These epic poems set the foundation for a rich literary tradition and were read widely in ancient Greece and Rome, as well as in the following periods.
- Writings of Plato – This classical Greek philosopher set the groundwork for many of the ideas discussed throughout Western civilization.
- Writings of Aristotle – A student of Plato, Aristotle continued the philosopher’s tradition.
- The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans – Plutarch’s famous book memorializes the key figures in the classical period and explains their role in history.
Christianity of the Middle Ages
As Christianity spread through the ancient world, new ideas emerged. People began expressing loyalty to a higher power, more influential than any governing authority. This ultimately created conflict and the need to separate religion from the state. Today, people still argue over with the way this separation affects our society and laws.
- The Middle Ages on Wikipedia – A walk through the significant periods of medieval times.
- Internet Medieval Sourcebook – A collection of primary sources from the Middle Ages including artifacts from the crusades and influential popes.
- NetSERF – A massive collection of links to Medieval resources.
- Confessions – St. Augustine’s book is the first known Western autobiography. He details his live in the Middle Ages and his conversion to Christianity.
- Summa Theologica – This massive work by St. Thomas Aquinas was designed to cover all of the theological teachings during this the time period.
- The Divine Comedy – Dante’s epic poem best illustrates how Medieval Christians saw society and the afterlife.
- The Canterbury Tales – Chaucer’s brief stories are a more humorous look at the way religion has affected the lives of travelers.
Enlightenment of the Modern Era
Science and reason gained respect in the Enlightenment period. Instead of (or in addition to) religion, people began to decipher the world with logic, experimentation, and critical thinking. They put individual rights and deism over submission to a higher religious figure. Even in our modern society, the values of the Enlightenment and the values of Christianity continue to clash.
- Age of Enlightenment on Wikipedia – A brief overview of the major events and figures in the Enlightenment era.
- The Enlightenment – An article that lays out the basic arguments and disagreements of the Enlightenment.
- The Age of Enlightenment – A discussion of the movements within the Age of Enlightenment.
- An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding – Philosopher David Hume explores human thought, ideas, understanding, and doubt.
- Critique of Practical Reason – Immanuel Kant shares his philosophy for coming to conclusions about what is true and knowable in the world.
- The Age of Reason – Thomas Pain’s famous deist work argued for a more reasoning, logical approach to religion and challenged the inerrancy of the Bible.
Studying Western civilization through these three themes will give you a framework for adding more in-depth knowledge.
Assignment 3: Expand your Studies
Once you have a basic understanding of the history that most directly affects your world, it’s time to branch out. History can be studied in so many ways: reading primary sources, watching movies, browsing through history books, or exploring the many sites dedicated to niche historical topics.
Choose a segment of world history you want to know more about and make reading / studying a habit. Here are some virtual resources to get you started:
Hyper History – Extensive collection of timelines, mini-biographies, and more.
PBS History – Biographies of important people organized by period.
Eye Witness History – Accounts of history straight from the source.
Timelines of History – Dozens of timelines from many historical periods.
Wrapping it Up
Keep pursuing history and you’ll gain an in-depth understanding of how our culture, and other cultures, came to be. Whether or not you enjoy history now, you’ll probably develop a taste for it as you continue your readings. Most people who get past the simplistic high school textbook find that they love reading the story of the way the world has changed.
Know of a useful history resource I missed? Have a learning tip to share on this subject? Please leave your suggestions in the comments section. The more resources and ideas we have, the better.
Next Week: Literature