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A Call to Action

by William McGaughey

 

What type of platform?

Concerning the author’s platform

This is what is known as an author’s “platform”. The idea is that an author will create a place on the Web where persons interested in his or her work can congregate and email addresses can be collected. These will then be used for a web-based newsletter to build interest and develop a fan base. Then when the author’s next book is published, it will have an established market by the time it is offered for sale. Many persons, tuned in to the author’s previous works and kept informed by the newsletter, will be predisposed to buy the new book. That’s how book marketing is done in the digital age.

William McGaughey is the author of History of the Triple Existence and of previous books such as Five Epochs of History. He is the proprietor of several different websites in several areas. For a list of them, see http://www.billmcgaughey.com/stable.html.

The problem with respect to the “author’s platform” is that McGaughey does not intend to publish any more books of big history. History of the Triple Existence is his definitive work. Unlike fiction books, its value does not lie in the author’s skill with or style of writing but in the design of the story. The design is not only something created through the author’s creative imagination but also through logical contours within the story itself. Unlike other histories, the subject of this book is so large that readers will not read it for specific knowledge but for general understanding. In other words, this is a book that expands awareness of the universe and of a person’s place in it.

History of the Triple Existence is McGaughey’s latest and perhaps last book in the field of history. It is a book in the field of Big History, a genre pioneered by the Australian history professor David Christian. His previous book, Five Epochs of Civilization, was in the field of world history. At the time, this was thought to be the broadest field of historical study.

Both fields of history are worth studying. Big History, combining natural and human history, is the history of everything in the universe. World history, as defined here, is the history of human society since writing was invented five or six thousand years ago. Written records provide a basis of knowledge concerning past human experience. Such knowledge is based on the consciousness of the persons who did the writing. Big History, in contrast, partly depends upon knowledge gained indirectly through the observations and conclusions of empirical science.

History and science

With this in mind, let us return to the idea of an author’s platform. Both Five Epochs of Civilization and History of the Triple Existence are creation stories. The first is the story of civilizations. The second is the story of everything that exists. It is the story of matter, life, and thought, which together comprise the “triple existence”. Creation is not just the spark of initial creation but also subsequent events explaining how such being developed into what we see today.

In these two books, I have expressed my view of how the creation stories might be told. As such, they are expressions of knowledge. But knowledge in a scientific age does not have a definitive version. So it is also with world history and big history. They are both works in progress. One leaves open the possibility that better versions of truth may come along in the future as scientific knowledge expands and as creative persons work on compiling this knowledge.

I would combine this idea with that of an author’s platform. This is not to be my platform as an author but a platform for the enterprise in which hopefully several people including myself will be engaged. This platform will solicit emails for the purpose of building a community of persons interested in the enterprise of creating world history and big history. We need a community of scholars focused on such aspirations. Initially, it can be online.

Traditionally, the pursuit of knowledge has been the province of academia. I hope academic institutions will continue to sponsor the production of historical knowledge, but we cannot put all our eggs in one basket. Sadly, American colleges and universities have become increasingly like businesses rather than places of research or learning. Their mission has become to attract students who can pay the full freight of ever rising tuitions. This is done by hard-sell marketing to prospective students and providing amenities for students living on campus. That means that, while we would hope that improved high-school and college courses be developed in the fields of world history and big history, other avenues will also need to be explored. We need new platforms for producing and disseminating historical knowledge beyond what exists at the present time.

Think of how scientific knowledge is developed. Much but not all of it is cultivated within academic institutions. Individual scholars do research, publish articles and books, and teach courses. But government, corporate research institutions, and other organizations also play a role. There is no central body to coordinate these activities, Instead, specialized publications sponsor articles on subjects of interest. Academic and professional associations bring like-minded scholars together to stimulate each other’s efforts.

With respect to associations, world history has the World History Association (WHA) and the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations (ISCSC), among others. Big history has the International Big History Association (IBHA), established in 2010. Both have regular publications: The Journal of World History and Comparative Civilizations Review, on one hand, and the online IBHA newsletter.

What I find lacking in enterprises related to world history is a sense of progress in the production of history to match the progress in scientific knowledge. The scholars seem to be talking past each other instead of engaging each other and coming to a consensus. That may be because history is a form of storytelling; and so historians are authors given complete authority to create in their own way.

I am in favor of the autonomy of creative storytelling when it is fiction but not when the writing is supposed to produce an objective account of what has happened in the past. There should then be rigor in the selection of stories to be included in the picture of the past events. The stories should be checked for factual accuracy or, in the case of big history, for adherence to accepted scientific truths.

Recognize that storytelling is different than science. In a way, it is more advanced. Empirical science takes observations of natural phenomena at particular times. The knowledge gained from science pertains to what exists at the moment of observation. Storytelling, on the other hand, describes situations or events over a period of time. The storyteller must compile several different observations of experience and relate them to each other chronologically. Therefore, storytelling based upon science is possible only when scientific knowledge has advanced and been expanded to a certain degree. For example, primitive astronomy could not have known of the Big Bang.

The enterprise of field of interest in this platform boils down to two questions: How should the story of world history be told? How should the story of big history be told? Each person is invited to answer those questions in his or her own way. The answers are found through personal research followed by contemplation and writing. The purpose of the website is to coordinate these various activities in some way.

The challenge

Be a writer of history. Do some research. Create your own design. But this is not enough. History should be a collaborative venture which, like science, advances to new levels of understanding. That means that many different people should be writing history and they should be doing this in a way that links to other people’s work. Then historians would not just be talking past each other but talking to each other and to the larger audience of persons interested in these subjects.

Therefore, I am hoping that this website, or author’s platform, can be used for storytelling to create a structure of historical knowledge approaching what has been created for scientific knowledge. I have created such a structure in my book, History of the Triple Existence, but also acknowledge that this is not the last word. If someone wants to write another book of big history with an entirely different design, I would encourage that effort. Or, if someone wants to rewrite part of my book with a different design in certain places, I would welcome that, too. The more models of history, the merrier. Eventually the various efforts in writing history will sort themselves out in an improved structure of truth.

There is also another way that history can be expanded and improved. It has to do with the level of detail. A world history or big history necessarily is told in general terms. There is not enough space to go into detail about all events. However, if historians can agree upon a particular structure of history on a broad level, then it becomes possible for many people to collaborate in building a larger, more detailed work. I call this a “pyramid of history” - telling the same story at several different levels of detail. We would have a single history built of several layers of stories whose length and level of detail would depend upon how much time the reader has to spend.

A collection of models

To start out, recognize that we already have more than one design in both the fields of world history and big history. I have gathered a number of designs for each based upon published books. For each, there is the book’s table of contents followed by my own description of how the book is organized to present a certain structure of history. The date of publication may suggest how historical designs have progressed over the years. The books fall either into the category of world history or of big history.

Read these outlines (or the book itself) and decide which has the best design for the type of history it covers. Then, from your own experience, decide how the design might be improved. Consider how might a different selection of content would lead to a different design. Let historians who specialize in particular subjects decide what is factually correct. We as world historians or big historians decide what persons or events should be selected to give the best picture of the whole.

Since this is a relatively new type of enterprise, people will not know what to expect. Those who jump in first will have the greatest impact upon how the enterprise will proceed in the future. So, be among those showing an early interest. Add your name to the email list. Subscribe to the newsletter. Start working on your own project to write or rewrite history and keep others informed. Let’s see what happens. We could make history - no pun intended, of course.

 

Some models of world history

Some existing models of world history are the following:

(a) I.S. Clare’s, Illustrated Universal History, published in 1876,

(b) H.G. Wells’ An Outline of History, published in 1920,

(c) William H. McNeill's A World History, published in 1967,

(d) Arnold Toynbee’s Mankind and Mother Earth, published in 1976,

(e) William McGaughey’s Five Epochs of Civilization, published in 2000, and

(f) Peter N. Stearns’ World History: the Basics, published in 2011

 

(For a description of those models, see Models of World History and Big History.)

 

 

Some models of big history

Some existing models of Big History are the following:

(a) David Christian’s, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, published in 2004

(b) Cynthia Stokes Brown’s Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present, published in 2007

(c) William McGaughey’s History of the Triple Existence, published in 2015

 

(For a description of those models, see Models of World History and Big History.)

 

The World History Association and what's wrong with American higher education

The scheme of world history is essential both to the study of big history and world history itself. World history - human history - is the last stage of big history, following stories based upon the physical and biological sciences. If you look at the design of Peter Stearns’ world history and the big histories of David Christian and Cynthia Stokes Brown, you will see certain assumptions about the story of humanity that can be traced back to William McNeill, a pioneer of world-history studies whose views heavily influence the World History Association.

As I see it, the prime assumption of McNeill and his followers is that contacts between different societies drive world history. A society tends to remain the same unless it is changed by influences from outside that society. And so, trade routes, patterns of migration, activities of missionary religions, and other material and cultural exchanges would be a focal point of history. World history would revolve around so-called “networks of exchange” or trading hubs. I do not deny that these things are important but do believe that world historians influenced by McNeill put too much emphasis upon them.

Another way of looking at civilizations, championed by Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, would be to see civilizations as living organisms that rise and fall according to an internal dynamic. As life itself is governed by this dynamic, so human societies are governed by the dynamics of power that cause certain institutions to become weak after a certain time. These institutions are then replaced by others that repeat the cycle. Such changes have little to do with external influences which are largely unpredictable. My own interest in civilizations was inspired largely by Spengler and Toynbee, especially the latter, so I naturally embraced their scheme.

I wrote my book, Five Epochs of Civilization, in 1998 and 1999 and published it in the first year of the new millennium. While I generally accepted Toynbee’s view of civilizations, my definition was quite different. Instead of studying a number of regional civilizations (such as ancient Egypt or China), I saw the different civilizations as stages of a single worldwide civilization that developed in similar ways over time. Each was governed by an internal dynamic that caused the civilization to rise and fall. My scheme of world history was quite different than others so it did not receive a warm reception from academic historians.

In an effort to promote my book and connect with other world historians, I attended the annual conference of the World History Association at northeastern college in Boston, Massachusetts, in June 2000. I also gave a copy of my newly published book to Jerry Bentley, editor of the association’s periodical, Journal of World History. The conference was interesting but also rather disturbing, from my point of view.

I happened to attend a session on standards and guidelines for teaching Advanced Placement courses in world history. These guidelines were established by a seven-person panel of academic scholars drawn largely from the World History Association. Their recommendations were published in a booklet, a copy of which I received at the WHA conference. Of particular interest to me was the fact that the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, New Jersey, would develop tests for the Advanced Placement courses based upon the guidelines created by the committee. I quickly put two and two together to come to the conclusion that world history was being forced into a certain mold determined by academic politics. (See my critique of the Advanced Placement guidelines for world history.)

From a personal standpoint, I was disheartened to learn that the Journal of World History would not review my book, Five Epochs of Civilization, even though it presented a new scheme of world history that had been favorably received by major publications in Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world. It is true that I was an amateur scholar rather than a professional academic and my book did not draw much upon the works of other contemporary historians. But I had hoped that historians associated with the World History Association, inspired by curiosity and love of the subject, would want to review my work, if only to criticize it. Instead, they ignored it completely.

In the following year, I attended the annual conference of another organization, the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilization, held on the Rutgers Newark campus (where I had once taken accounting and business courses toward an MBA). There my book was reviewed, though unfavorably. Sitting in the audience, I had the opportunity to refute the arguments made by the reviewer, a former president of the ISCSC. In later years, I attended this organization’s conferences in Jamaica, Alaska, Minnesota, Michigan, Louisiana, and New Jersey. In fact, I was program chair for the 2011 conference held at Tulane University in New Orleans on the 50th anniversary of the ISCSC’s initial meeting held in Salzburg, Austria. Arnold Toynbee and other luminaries had attended that meeting in the fall of 1961.

I would have liked to have the World History Association or the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations discuss and debate issues related to world history or civilizations. In particular, they might debate differences in view of the great scholars who initiated these fields of study, Arnold Toynbee and William McNeill. They might discuss, in particular, whether external influences and contacts or the internal dynamic of change was more important to the rise and fall of civilizations or significant changes in societies around the world. Evidently, academia does not work that way any more. It’s more about controlling the curriculum than encouraging new conceptions of truth.

What I took from the 2000 conference of the World History Association was the following: A small number of politically well connected scholars sat on a committee, chaired by Peter Stearns, that decided what the curriculum of Advanced Placement courses in world history should be. The Educational Testing Service developed tests based upon this committee’s recommendations. Advanced Placement courses in world history and other subjects are taken by high-school students, who, if they pass the tests, receive credit for these courses in colleges that they may later attend. Given the soaring cost of higher education, there is a strong incentive for students to take Advanced Placement courses in high school to avoid having to take the expensive college courses. Therefore, students desperately want to pass these tests; and to do so, they must study what will be on the tests. Much power is therefore given to those historians who decide that question and to the testing organizations that look to them for curriculum direction.

Hundreds of thousands of students have taken the Advanced Placement courses in world history. Peter Stearns, chair of the seven-person committee, happened to write and publish his own book of world history, titled World History: Patterns of Continuity and Change. There have been at least eight editions. From the standpoint of power, the World History Association and its associated scholars have been highly successful. William McNeill, rightfully acknowledged as a creative pioneer, has been able to exclude competitors and competing theories from the study of world history. But the field itself has suffered. To remain healthy, history should be more like the natural sciences, open to new ideas.

I happened to become personally acquainted with David Kopf, a retired history professor at the University of Minnesota who specialized in the history of India. We take walks together along the Mississippi river three or four times a year. Kopf studied under William McNeill at the University of Chicago. He also taught world history to Jerry Bentley, editor of the Journal of World History, now deceased. David Kopf and several colleagues published their own two-volume book titled Comparative History of Civilizations in Asia which has its own technique of comparing civilizations based on the “3 Ps” - process, pattern, and period. While the concept of big history is mind-boggling to persons of his generation, Kopf approaches it with curiosity and acceptance. For me, he is a window to past generations of academics who were personally devoted to their subjects and wished to spread the excitement to others.

In June 2013, David Kopf told me that the World History Association would be holding its annual conference at North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis where I live. I just had to attend this conference. Even though the lectures and work shops remained useful, the event was not quite as interesting as it was in the 2000 conference. One of its leading members even admitted to me that the organization’s earlier expectations had not been achieved. Attendance was down. The incoming president, Craig Benjamin, was one of the principal supporters of that new discipline, Big History, which was also my primary interest. A highly capable person, he had organized the first conference of the International Association of Big History in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 2012, which I attended. He and two other big historians had also written and published a Big History textbook.

I do not want to suggest that its overly controlling approach to world history was the reason that the World History Association seemed now to be in decline. More important is what I learned from a female professor who was a colleague of David Kopf. She told me that academia was not what it used to be. A decade or two ago, colleges and universities would encourage their faculty to attend conference of this sort by subsidizing travel and attendance. Nowadays, attendees must foot the bill themselves. Instead of emphasizing professional development, today’s institutions of higher learning put their money into two areas: marketing campaigns directed at prospective students and building amenities-rich facilities that would make these prospects want to attend their college. In other words, higher education has become more like a business than a place of learning. That is also the opinion of Noam Chomsky, arguably America’s preeminent scholar.

Recently, I read an article in Forbes magazine (“Tuition Sorcerers”, August 14, 2014) that gives the inside story of why college tuitions are increasing so rapidly. The article focused upon a new approach to college admissions and student aid promoted by consulting firms such as Maguire Associates and Noel-Levitz that give work shops for academic administrators. Traditionally, student aid was intended to help academically talented, low income students attend colleges whose tuition they could not otherwise afford. The consulting firms have changed this policy to give more of the money to students who could afford the tuition but need an incentive to attend one college over another through tuition discounts. The consulting firms analyze data to see what incentives are most effective in persuading financially well-heeled students to attend.

The article describes the technique: “Noel-Levitz might be the most influential force in higher education pricing that you’ve never heard of, empowering what’s become a three-stage, market-distorting game for college administrators. First, conjure as high a sticker price as possible for tuition. Second, schools plow a lot of that extra money into student amenities, including country-club perks that outwardly justify it - and help with college ranking that reward such largesse. Finally, use your college aid pile not necessarily to help needier students but rather to offer discounts to lure richer kids who might pay the rest of that inflated tuition price in full. The average yearly cost for a four-year, private, not-for-profit college is now $41,000 - compared with $33,000 a decade ago - but the average discount rate for incoming freshmen is 46%.”

Higher education seems to have lost its soul. Not all educators are greedy manipulators, of course, but the system encourages such behavior. Those of us foolish enough to be truly interested in subjects like world history or big history should therefore consider other options than the academic one in cultivating such fields of interest.

What this is I cannot say for sure. However, the day of reckoning will surely come for overly expensive higher education as it has come for past institutions such as the Papacy that have gone beyond the stage of ripeness into coercion. This is a cyclical pattern that Toynbee and other historians of his persuasion have identified in world history. There exists a great opportunity, then, for other forces to emerge within society to take the place of the fallen institutions or create something entirely new.

Despite educational abuses, the human intellect will always retain a core of curiosity that wants to know the truth. It is for us to determine how that interest will be developed.

 

In conclusion:

This is an appeal for a new and more robust discussion of how history should be written at the highest level. We need to break down the silos and try to see the whole picture. Necessarily, not all scholars will agree what that picture should be. Therefore, we need discussion and debate. We need differing schools of opinion with well defined questions. Scholars in the fields of world history and big history need to engage each other on these questions and try to come to a consensus. Even if tests have “right answers” as determined by the givers of those tests, history itself is a process of searching continually for the truth, hopefully with an open mind.

In my opinion, a well-written world history or big history should have the following features:

1. The work should have a sense of the direction in which history is flowing. One phase should lead logically to the next.

2. Don’t neglect events happening in our time even if you cannot see clearly where they will lead. Bring the story up to date as best you can.

3. The chapter segments should be defined by their content rather than by dates and places or terms such as “ancient” or “modern” indicating degree of proximity to our own time. Try to be objective.

4. History at this level is much broader than government activities. Political lineages and wars are only a small part of what is happening in society.

5. Avoid racial or ethnocentric bias. A world history should involve all peoples of the earth, especially those in populous nations. My situation or set of values is not the culminating point of history even if I want to see it that way.

The above assertions, too, are debatable.


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