On history and other essays


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Stephen Buckle - - Journal of the History of Philosophy 40 3 Philosophy, History, and Myth: Essays and Talks. But it will not have these uses except for those who enjoy it. The same is true of such things as music and painting and poetry. To study these things either because you must, or because you wish to be cultured, makes it almost impossible to acquire what they have to offer.


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  4. Shakespeare wrote with a view to causing delight, and if you have any feeling for poetry he will delight you. But if he doesn't you had better let him alone. It is a dismal thing to inflict him upon school children until they hate the sound of his name; it is an insult to him and an injury to them. The opportunity to enjoy him should be offered to them, and will frequently be successful if it takes the shape of performing a play; but those to whom he is merely a bore should be allowed to occupy their time in some other way.

    History is not quite in the same case, because a modicum of history must be taught in schools. But whatever goes beyond this modicum should only be learnt by those who wish to know it, and even the modicum ought to be made as entertaining and pleasant as possible. Most children wish to know things until they go to school; in many cases it is bad teaching that makes them stupid and uninquiring.

    There is history in the large and history in the small: each has its value, but their values are different. History in the large helps us to understand how the world developed into what it is; history in the small makes us know interesting men and women, and promotes a knowledge of human nature.

    Both should be learnt concurrently from the first.

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    The method, in the early stages, should be largely by movies with explanatory talk. History in the large answers as far as may be the question "how did things get here? It should begin with the sun throwing off planets, and should show the earth as a fiery ball, gradually cooling, with earthquakes, volcanoes, boiling seas and deluges of hot rain. Then gradually the various forms of life should be shown in the order of their appearance—forests of ferns, flowers and bees, odd fishes, vast reptiles fighting furious battles in the slime, awkward birds just learning to fly, mammals, small at first, but gradually growing bigger and more successful.

    He should be shown flying from wild beasts to the tops of trees, discovering fire and thereby acquiring safety in caves, escaping from sabre-toothed tigers into lake-dwellings, catching mammoths in pits, gradually perfecting his weapons and making himself, by intelligence, not strength, the Lord of Creation. Then comes the beginning of civilization—agriculture in the Nile Valley and in Babylonia, the growth of the art of pottery, the evolution from stone to bronze, and thence, at last, to iron.

    At the same time could be shown the first civilized governments and religions—Egyptian kings and their pyramids and toiling slaves, mysterious dark temples lit up only once a year by the rising sun at the summer solstice, armies and the pomp of palaces. All this, in pictures, would delight almost any child, and would bring him, by easy stages, to the point where recorded history begins.

    There is one aspect of history in the large in which there has been enormous increase in our knowledge during the last hundred years—I mean the history of the very earliest civilizations. This subject has a great deal of fascination, both in itself, and because of the detective ability that it calls for. The first great step was the deciphering of cuneiform, the writing of the Babylonians and Persians. Through tablets that have been excavated, a great deal is now known about the laws and customs and business methods of ancient Mesopotamia.

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    Then there is the astonishing Minoan civilization of Crete, of which in classical Greece only a few legends survived. Unfortunately the Cretan script cannot, so far, be read, but from architecture and sculpture a great deal can be learnt. It seems that the Cretan upper classes were luxurious and rather decadent, fond of bull fights in which they employed female toreadors who performed the most astonishing acrobatic feats. It is only in modern times that nations have discovered how to be civilized without being decadent. The Cretans, rendered effeminate by luxury, appear to have been swept away by Greek pirates, who were then still barbarians.

    But for the victories of the Greeks over the Persians a millennium or more after the fall of Crete, Greek civilization might have disappeared as completely as that of the Minoan age. The history of the development of arts and crafts, in its broad outlines, can be made interesting to very young children if it is presented in pictures with explanatory talk. The development of housing, of locomotion, of ships, and of agriculture is worth knowing something about before any detailed study of history begins; it gives a general sense of technical progress, slow at first, and then gradually more and more rapid, and it helps to form an imaginative picture of daily life in epochs very remote from our own.

    The part played by great rivers in the beginning of civilization is something which an intelligent child of six or seven years can understand. It is a mistake to begin education entirely from what is familiar; children have more free imagination than adults have, and they enjoy imaginative pictures of things very different from what they are used to.

    This is shown in the pleasure that almost all children find in playing Indian. The later stages of history in the large are, in the main, less suitable for very young children than the earlier stages; probably, in most cases, they ought to wait until about the age of ten. It could then be explained that there have been three great ages of progress: the first, when agriculture was discovered, when kings became powerful and States began to grow, when vast buildings were erected in honor of kings and gods, when the art of writing was invented, the Babylonians discovered the rudiments of mathematics, and the arts of peace and war passed out of the barbarian stage.

    Next, after thousands of years of ossification, came the great age of Greece, from the time of Homer whenever that was to the death of Archimedes at the hands of a Roman soldier. Then another long period of decay and darkness, followed by the incredibly rapid progress from the 15th century to the present day. Throughout recorded history, progress has been the exception, not the rule; but when it has come, it has been swift and decisive.

    Throughout this survey, certain important principles should emerge without being unduly emphasized. Periods of stagnation are those during which individuals feel powerless; periods of progress are those during which men feel that great achievements are possible, and that they wish to have their share. There has been in recent times a dangerous tendency, not unconnected with totalitarianism, to think only in terms of whole communities, and to ignore the contributions of individuals.

    But consider: some man or men invented the wheel, but in the American Continent it was unknown until the white men introduced it. Probably it was not one man who made the invention, but several men, starting from round logs used as rollers; however that may be, the difference that these men made to civilization is immeasurable. The need of individual genius is shown by the fact that the Mayas and the Incas, though in some ways highly civilized, never hit upon this simple invention. The difference between our world and the world before the industrial revolution is due to the discoveries and inventions of a small number of men; if, by some misfortune, a few thousand men of exceptional ability had perished in infancy, the technique of production would now be very little different from what it was in the 18th Century.

    Individuals can achieve great things, and the teacher of history ought to make this clear to his pupils. For without hope nothing of importance is accomplished.

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    History shows that the spread of civilization to new areas, as opposed to its intensification in a given region, has usually been due to military conquest. When a more civilized group conquers one which is less civilized, the conquered, if they are not too far beneath their conquerors, learn before long whatever their masters have to teach.

    But the converse also happens: when the conquerors are less civilized, if the war of conquest has not been too long or too destructive, they are apt to learn from their subjects. Greek civilization was diffused throughout the East by Alexander's victories, but throughout the West by the defeats inflicted on the Greeks by the Romans.

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