Lecture: Studying Western Civ

You should see a button for audio below. If you do not, please use another browser. The audio is me reading the lecture.

In every field of human endeavor, there are tools. Whether it's a hammer, knitting needles, or a computer, tools help us understand and get the most out of an activity. hammerThat's true in history too. Some people think of history as "just one damn thing after another" (a quotation attributed to everyone from Harry S. Truman Harry S. Truman was the 33rd President of the United States. As the final running mate of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, Truman succeeded to the presidency on April 12, 1945, when Roosevelt died after months of declining health. Wikipedia to Winston Churchill). But there's a big difference between reading history and doing history.

In this class, we'll do both, but doing is a lot more fun than reading. Of course, to do history, you need tools. History is constructed by people in the time and place they live. It is informed (some people say biased) by the circumstances where it emerges. So the history we'll be doing will have a peculiarly early 21st century, developed country, American nationalistic kind of flavor.

But before we can start, I have to introduce you to some tools.

Tool 1: Context

Context means the events and environment surrounding what you do. Every event that happens today, whether it's a war, an election, or a celebration, has a historical context.

This class, college Western Civilization, even has a context. It has become a controversial class. Some people think universities should stop offering it all together. This is because the course is "Eurocentric", focusing on the development of European (and later United States) culture to the exclusion of the rest of the world.

I teach World History also, so I'm very close to the middle of this argument. Like those who oppose Western Civ, I think all students should be exposed to knowledge about the whole world. With today's electronics and global marketplace, to not know about the world is to not know anything. But I also think there is a need for an in-depth understanding of ones own culture, and ours is heavily influenced by the development of what we call "The West".

So even just taking this class, you are involved in a context you might not have known about before.

Tool 2: Types of history

Unless you've been to college before, or were lucky enough to be enrolled at a progressive high school or with a progressive teacher, you may only know one type of history: political history. That's where you learn names, dates, and lots of facts about what happened with governments. Some people find that exciting. I don't. I think political events are useful as a framework, and many can be fun to study in depth, but memorizing is not my idea of a good time.

There are many different types of history:

political economic social
intellectual military technological
biological gender women's
environmental demographicof or relating to the study of changes that occur in large groups of people over a period of time (Merriam-Webster) racial

Social history focuses on people and what they do, even people who aren't rich or important. Economic history (the area of my own training) "follows the money", tracing actions pertaining to trade, goods, the exchange of wealth. You can tell from the list that each has a different focus, and the development of each kind has led us to a better understanding of the past.

Let me give you one example. Let's say a political historian looked at a battle during the Middle Ages. CastleThe castle of Leoch was under siege, the siege was going well, then all of a sudden the Campbells, who were besieging the castle, gave up and went away. Using letters written from the combatants to each other, the political historian concluded that the commanders of Leoch were superior in leadership, which accounted for their "victory". But an economic historian, using the list of supplies at Leoch compared to the supplies of the Campbells, concluded that that the victory resulted from the castle's better supplies and resource management. Then a biological historian examining the diaries of the commanders on each side, concluded that the result was due to a disease that spread through the water supply outside the castle but did not affect Leoch itself, which had a deeper well.

Each historian had a different interpretation, and each contributes to our understanding of what really happened.

Tool 3: Geography

If this course is Western Civilization, and west is a direction on the compass, then where is "The West"?

Take a look at a map:

world map with Europe and Africa in the middle

Where would you draw a line separating "The West" from "The East"? Traditionally, some would draw that line at Jerusalem, because the concepts of West and East come from the time of the Crusades, when European knights went east to fight the Arabs. But what about the United States? And is Latin America "the West"? What about "westernized" areas, like Australia?

The problem is that "The West" is an intellectual concept, not an actual location. That doesn't mean it's not important to know the physical geography of Europe or the United States, where most of this concept developed. It is! Mountains, rivers, climate systems, can all affect history. But The West in historical context (there's that word again!) is a set of cultural traditions and values based on a common set of historical circumstances. It includes concepts like democracy, private property, and individual rights. It includes common traditions in the development of art, literature, and religion. But it can't be drawn on a map.

Tool 4: The Timeline

Since Western Civ starts in a time we call "B.C" but we currently live in "A.D.", it 's important to understand the timeline. The Western conception of linear, progressive time was developed into two eras by the Catholic Church. Both ends of the timeline, the end going back in time (the past) and the end going forward (the future), are infinite.

Historians also refer to centuries: they'll write "in the 5th century B.C., Greece was in a golden age". When the heck is the 5th century B.C.? If the Peloponnesian War took place in 431 B.C., was that during the Greek Golden Age? (Yes, it was.) Take a look at and play with the timeline, and just close the pop-up window to come on back.

See and play with The Timeline in popup window Click here to open document in new window

(if you don't get a pop-up window, be sure to make sure you aren't running a "pop-up blocker" inside your browser!)
Text description

Tool 5: Primary and secondary sources

Historians have several tools we use to analyze the past, and archaeological and written sources are the most important. A primary source is written or created at the time you are studying (what I call "documents" are just written primary sources). For example, if you are studying the 16th century, and you are examining a letter, diary, legal document, artwork, building, clay pot or anything that was actually written or created during the 16th century, then it's a primary source. We will be working with and analyzing many primary source documents, because to do so is really "doing history". Interpreting primary sources is the main task of any historian.

The sources with which you may be most familiar, however, are called "secondary" sources. These include your textbook and most popular books and websites about history. A secondary source is written, often as a narrative or story, by people who have examined primary sources and created a story based on that evidence. Secondary sources occasionally cite their primary sources, but this is rare in a textbook or popular history book (it's usual only in publications intended for professional historians, or term papers for history classes).

The reason that history is not a "dead" subject, and the reason that history books are perpetually in need of revision, is that any discovery of new primary sources (like a letter from the destroyed city of Pompeii, for example) or any reinterpretation of the old sources, can completely change the accepted story of what happened in the past. If one declares a certain archaeological dig to be "the oldest inhabited site in the West", this will change if an older site is discovered. Re-analysis and re-evalution is what history is all about. Today's "truth" is tomorrow's misinformation.

See of you can tell which of these sources are primary and which secondary:

Statue of Akhenaton1. Statue of Akhenaton, Egyptian king, from the time of his reign Primary or secondary?

2. From The Satires, by Juvenal (~A.D. 130)

"There never was a case in court in which the quarrel was not started by a woman...."

Primary or secondary?

3. From Noble et al, Western Civilization, the Continuing Experiment (1999).

"Europe in 1500 was profoundly different from the Europe of 1300."

Primary or secondary?

4. Herodotus, Histories (~440 BC) on events after Cyrus (a Persian king who died in the 6th century BC)

On the death of Cyrus, Cambyses his son by Cassandane daughter of Pharnaspes took the kingdom. Cassandane had died in the lifetime of Cyrus, who had made a great mourning for her at her death, and had commanded all the subjects of his empire to observe the like.

Primary or secondary?

Check your learning

This doesn't count for points, but you get feedback immediately on how you did.


Creative Commons License
The text by Lisa M. Lane is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Creative Commons License
The voice audio by Lisa M. Lane is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.
Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002. This page has been checked for web accessibility using WAVE.