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A Syllabus for 'Big History'
The basic strategy of 'Big History' is to tackle historical questions by looking through the other end of the telescope. They look different seen this way, and often it is possible to see new ways of approaching them.
Here is part of the Course Guide that we hand students for the 'Big History' course that we teach at Macquarie Univesity in Sydney. Of course, it is vital on this scale to have some sort of large-scale map of the past. For better or worse, we use Eric Wolf's neo-Marxist scheme. Not all students like it, but it offers an introduction to some of the methodological problems you face when asking questions on this scale.
Anyone interested in getting the full course outline, with detailed tutorial lists, reading lists, etc., can do so by getting to the Macquarie University web page, whose address is http://www.mq.edu.au. They can go straight to the HIST112 Course Guide (which is what I hand out to students) by going to http://www.mq.edu.au/~hpp/hist112.html.
HIST 112 AN INTRODUCTION TO WORLD HISTORY
1st Semester 1997
As for our universities, the fragmentation of knowledge is now so complete that graduates in humanities are not expected to know any science, and science graduates are not expected to be more than arely literate. . . . It is a regrettable consequence of the growth of knowledge that all great topics in the Arts and Sciences have been fragmented, especially in our institutions of tertiary edu tion. As I see it, the remedy is not to try to teach people about science as a separate topic, but to try to teach all subjects, including science, so as to show their relevance to knowledge as a ole and to connect them with everyday life.
[Hanbury Brown, The Wisdom of Science: Its Relevance to Culture & Religion, Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp. 120 & 122]
To be excitingly right in general is better than to be dully accurate in particular. [Gore Vidal, Burr]
Our scientific understanding of the universe, when recounted as story, takes on the role formerly fulfilled by the mythic stories of creatio
[Thomas Berry, Dream of the Earth, 15]
The modern world is increasingly a global world. The ways of thinking needed to live in it must also become global. This means we must learn to think inclusively rather than exclusively. History must become more than the history of particular nations or particular cultures. Eventually, it must become the history of human beings. And even more than that ... it must become the history of the world and the Universe we inhabit. In HIST 112, we make a first attempt to see what a modern global history would look like. Once we start trying to construct such a history, we soon find that, though its details and approaches are those of the twentieth century, its shape and its aims are very similar to those of traditional Creation Myths. This is no accident for, like traditional Creation Myths, the aim of a modern global history is to help us align ourself with the Universe by understanding our place in Time and Place, and in the larger scheme of all things.
Doing this is difficult because of the sheer mass of information we encounter in the modern world. We have so much information about the world that it becomes more and more difficult to see how it all fits together and where we fit in. Despite their achievements, scientific and historical disciplines seem incapable of offering a coherent vision of the past.
In HIST 112, we try to look at the whole of the past. We will survey what our society knows of the history of human beings, human societies, the planet they inhabit, and the universe in which they arose. This means attempting an overview of the entire history of the universe since its birth, fifteen billion years ago. In this way, HIST 112 provides an opportunity for students to see the past in the largest possible context. This should make it easier to raise the large questions that are often overlooked in more specalized units of study.
Within Macquarie University's degree structure, HIST 112 offers a foundation for later units in History and Anthropology. It should help students preserve a coherent sense of the past and present when they study particular human societies in a more detailed way. It will not try to cram information. Instead, it will raise questions about human groups, and their place in the history of nature, the planet and the universe.
The scale of HIST 112 means that we will ask many questions which cannot be answered with certainty. The skills we encourage and test have less to do with fact-gathering, than with question-asking. However, HIST 112 will also explore how different societies have answered large questions, and how they have tested and refined their answers. What is good evidence? What is a valid argument? What makes one answer better than another?
To keep track of where you are as you move through HIST 112, it may be helpful to keep in mind a series of Objectives. So here is a list. In this unit, you should acquire a preliminary understandng of:
- how humans have understood time and change
- the origins of the universe
- the origins of our planet, its landmasses, seas and atmosphere
- the origins and evolution of life on earth
- the evolution of modern primates and human beings
- the lifeways of the earliest 'kin-ordered' societies
- the origins and impact of agriculture
- the emergence and impact of cities and states
- the nature of 'tribute-taking' societies in the classical era
- the origins of modern 'capitalist' societies
- the spread of modern industrial society
- the basic structures of the modern, capitalist, world
- whether or not we can usefully make some predictions about the future
- how the different parts of this modern 'creation story' fit together
STRUCTURE & ASSESSMENT
Textbooks & Reading All students should purchase the booklet of Essential Readings for HIST 112. This is sold through the Coop bookstore. You may also find it useful to buy one or more of the 'Core Books' listed in e General Bibliography, on p. 6. They tackle several of the topics discussed in this unit, and some will be useful in later courses in History and Anthropology. (Unfortunately, several of the cor books are out of print, though you may be able to find second-hand copies.)
Lectures & Tutorials Students should attend two lectures and one one-hour tutorial each week. Attendance at classes is compulsory.
Assessment Each student will be asked to produce two pieces of written work during the semester. There will also be a 2 1/2 hour exam at the end of the semester.
Marks will be allocated as follows: Minor Essay: 1,000 words, 20% of total mark Major Essay: 2,000 words, 40% of total mark Exam (3 questions): 2 1/2 hours, 40% of total mark
1. Minor Essay: Deadline--Monday April 14. For this first essay, all students will be asked to write on the question posed in Tutorial 2: Minor Essay Question: 'Different societies have perceived Time in very different ways. How greatly do perceptions of Time vary, and how have these variations affected the way different peoples have viewed the past, the present and the future There are preliminary readings for this assignment in the booklet of Essential Readings.
2. Major Essay: Deadline--Monday June 2. You may choose any of the Major Essay Questions listed under the tutorial topics for Weeks 3-13. Use the tutorial readings and the general bibliography as the starting point for your own research.
3. Exam: The exam is compulsory. You will be asked to write on three questions in 2 1/2 hours. All questions will be based on material covered in the tutorial discussions.. (You can find a copy of last year's exam paper at the end of this st y guide.)
LECTURES & TUTORIALS
INTRODUCTORY: A SENSE OF TIME
1. Mon 3 Mar--Time: David Christian [History, Macquarie] How have different societies conceived of time? What sort of time-scales have different societies assumed for the history of the universe, he planet, or their own societies?
2. Wed 5 Mar--Creation Myths: Ian Bedford [Anthropology, Macquarie] How have different peoples explained the origins and history of the universe, the earth, human beings and human society? What differences are there between the creation myths of preliterate societies, urban civilizations, and modern capitalist society? Are our 'myths' true
TUTORIAL 1: [Organizational]
PART 1: BEFORE HUMANITY
3. Mon 10 Mar--Origins of the Universe: David Christian Modern accounts of the origins and history of the universe. Big Bang cosmology.
4. Wed 12 Mar--Origin and History of the Galaxies: David Christian Modern accounts of the origins of galaxies, the stars, and the elements of which we are constructed.
TUTORIAL 2: Conceptions of Historical Time
5. Mon 17 Mar--History of the Solar System & Origin of the Earth: Marc Norman [Earth Sciences, Macquarie] Modern accounts of the origins of the solar system and the planet earth
6. Wed 19 Mar--History of the Earth: Richard Flood [Earth Sciences, Macquarie] Formation of the earth, the atmosphere, and the present distribution of land masses. Continental Drift, plate tectonics.
TUTORIAL 3: Origins of the Universe and Stars
7. Mon 24 Mar--The Origins of Life on Earth: David Briscoe [Biology, Macquarie] Modern accounts of the origins of life.
8. Wed 26 Mar--History & Evolution of Life on Earth: David Briscoe The modern theory of evolution and the emergence of modern life forms.
TUTORIAL4: Origin and Formation of the Earth
PART 2: THE FIRST HUMAN SOCIETIES
9. Mon 7 Apr--Evolution of Human Beings: David Briscoe The evolution of human beings and the great apes in the last 5 million years.
10. Wed 9 Apr--Science, History, and Truth: David Christian Can there be a 'scientific' study of our own species and its history? Paradigms and the nature of science. Is there a clear shape to the history of human beings? What are the main stages in human history? Types of Society: Eric Wolf's typology.
TUTORIAL 5: Origins of Life and Evolution of the Species
11. Mon 14 Apr--The Evolution of Modern Hominids: David Christian The Evolution of Homo sapiens sapiens; biological changes,cultural changes, developed forms of hunting and gathering, evidence of gender divisions, social structure; stone age living standards? Wolf's 'kin-ordered' mode.
[****Deadline for 1st Essay****]
12. Wed 16 Apr--Kin-Ordered Societies: Jim Kohen [Biology, Macquarie] Modern analogies to stone age societies? Societies without states; kinship and gender in band societies, ideologies, subsistence; 'original affluent societies'? Australia before European colonisation.
TUTORIAL 6: The Emergence of Human Beings and the first Human Societies
PART 3: AGRICULTURE AND TRIBUTARY SOCIETIES
13. Mon 21 Apr--Gardeners and Agriculturalists: Nick Modjeska [Anthropology, Macquarie] The emergence of agriculture. Hunter Gatherers and Horticulturalists. Attempts to explain the Neolithic. The impact of these changes on the nature of human societies.
14. Wed 23 Apr--The Early Neolithic: David Christian Historiography of the term, 'neolithic'. Domestication. Climatic change at the end of the ice ages. Mesolithic abundance --> sedentism --> population growth --> agricultural villages --> tribal social structures.
TUTORIAL 7: Kin-ordered Societies; hunters, gatherers and gardeners.
15. Mon 28 Apr--Power in Tribal Societies: David Christian Definitions. Chiefly power in the modern world. From 'big men' to 'chiefs'. Chiefly power in prehistory. Ceremonial centres. Exchanges and warfare.
16. Wed 30 Apr--The First Urban Civilizations: David Christian Civilization and the state. Theories of state-formation. Urbanisation, literacy, warfare, trade, Wolf's 'tributary mode'. The fragility of early states.
TUTORIAL 8: An Agricultural Revolution?
17. Mon 5 May--The 'Classical' Civilizations of Eurasia: Sam Lieu [Ancient History, Macquarie] Were the 'classical' Empires of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, India, and Asia 'tributary'?
18. Wed 7 May--The Americas before Columbus: David Christian The neolithic, and urban civilizations of in the new world. Differences between American and Eurasian prehistory.
TUTORIAL 9: Emergence of the First Tribute-taking States
PART 4: CAPITALISM AND THE MODERN WORLD
19. Mon 26 May--Models of the 'Great Transformation': David Christian Distinguishing features of the modern world: sharp increases in productivity to support rapidly growing populations. Historiographical issues: models of the transition from tributary to capitalist societies.
20. Wed 28 May--The European roots of modern Capitalism and the Rise of a European World-System : David Christian In what sense is it true that the roots of the modern capitalist world can be traced to the medieval civilization of Europe? How can we explain the emergence of the first world-Empires dominated by European merchants and European states? Commercial capitalism.
TUTORIAL 10: Tribute-taking Empires of the Classical World
21. Mon 2 June--Industrial Revolution and the Modern World: David Christian The emergence of modern, industrial capitalism. Demographic and technological changes.
[****Deadline for 2nd essay****]
22. Wed 4 June--China and the Modern Revolution: David Christian Why did the modern revolution not occur in China? China as a test of theories of modernisation.
TUTORIAL 11: European Civilization and the Origins of Modern Capitalism
23. Mon 9 June--Tributary and Kin-ordered Societies in a Capitalist world: David Christian Capitalism, and the fate of traditional tributary societies and kin-ordered communities. Can they survive? In what form? What can we learn from them?
24. Wed 11 June--The Future?: David Christian Thinking about the future. The next century. Trends: demographic, ecological, technological. Crisis? or Change? Optimistic or pessimistic scenarios?
TUTORIAL 12: The Emergence of a Capitalist World
25. Mon 16 June--The Shape of the Past (And Shadows of the Future): David Briscoe, David Christian. Is there a shape to the past? 3 time-scales: the human scale (1-4 million years); the planetary or 'Gaian' scale (4-5 billion years); and the scale of the Universe itself, 15 billion years and more. What does the past suggest about the future on each of these time-scale
26. Wed 18 June--[To be decided]
TUTORIAL 13: The Nature of the Modern World Order