When I was a kid I remember that teaching “history” went out of fashion. For instance, we didn’t talk about stuff like wars, such as WW1, WW2, or even the civil war or Vietnam. The teachers themselves did not seem to have much direct knowledge on the topics, either – often they’d let me teach the WW2 sections (when they came up) rather than have me continually interrupt (since they didn’t know anything more than what they were reading of the 2-3pp that summarized WW2). It was only a day here or there out of years of classes, after all.
What did they teach instead of history? From what I remember it was mainly “sociology“, which according to Wikipedia is “the study of society, including patterns of social relationships, social interaction, and culture”. I don’t remember learning too much, except that every page of the book featured multi-cultural interactions and photos; really that was all I remembered at all.
It is ironic that the study of history fell off the map (except for alternate histories where everything that the USA has ever done was crap, i.e. Chomsky / Michael Moore) and this sort of social “imagineering” picked up the pace, because, in reality, history of course moved on in completely opposite direction.
This months’ issue (March / April) of Foreign Affairs punches that issue right in the head with an article titled “The Clash of Peoples – Why ethnic nationalism will drive global politics for generations”.
There wasn’t a lot in the article that shouldn’t be familiar already with those that are students’ of history and especially European history; but unfortunately there aren’t that many of us so I will give a brief summary:
- Europe used to have mixed states and polyglot nations that were large in scale and size and mixed religions, races, and homelands. Classic examples including Austria – Hungary, which included a mix of German and other nationalities, along with allowing for high level intellectuals to flourish including Freud and Kafka, as well as the Ottoman Empire under Turkey, which actually had a reasonably high level of functionality and intellectual achievement before ossifying near the end
- these nations could have been a poster-child for those sociology books I perused as a child, since they had all kinds of different groups packed together with some overarching institutions (the army, the bureaucracy, the church)
- at the fringes of empire, particularly in the Balkans, embryonic nation states were often the spark that led to war, in particularly with Serbia in WW1 and even Danzig in WW2. True, these wars were often inevitable in any case, but these sorts of displaced and minority populations definitely contributed to the ensuing fire
- over the last 150 or so years, all of these nations have either broken down into their smallest, national parts or are in the process of doing so. In the rich West it often wasn’t that violent (Czechoslovakia splitting into Czech and Slovak republics) or it was explosively violent (Serbia / Croatia) on the fringes
- some of these splits happened earlier on; such as the war between the Greeks and the Turks immediately following WW1, and some happened since the fall of Communism in the 80′s and 90′s
- Even in those states that are classically thought of as solid like the UK there is continuous talk of splitting off Scotland; and Spain has a long-simmering low grade war with some of their ethnic minorities
- Belgium is barely holding together; they practically had to put out a press release saying that they were remaining as a state (the main sticking point is what to do with Brussels)
- The Netherlands isn’t much better; when you are there you can see the major dividing lines by ethnic groups, as well
Thus if you were keeping score, the “nation state”, the crucible of nationalism, has completely swept the board in Europe. Whenever people have been given a choice of living with people from another nationality, they said “no” (or Nyet or in myriad other languages). There are a few holdouts, like Belgium, but even they seem to be swimming against the tide.
A lot of this is likely due to the lack of an outside military threat; for other than economics and scale, it is the threat of an outside military power (like the old Warsaw Pact, which today seems strange to say since Poland is a bulwark against communism) that brought people together; while they might not like their neighbors, they liked the Russians even less.
Although the article doesn’t go further, the nation state is of course rising elsewhere. Many Asian states are facing this issue; look at the China / Tibet issue as a case in point. India is an amazing country in that it holds together at all; you could view India as a giant map of Europe as far as the mini-nations in its midst and the number of people in each. Within Pakistan and Afghanistan there are also mini-nations fighting it out; if left to its own devices (and the prospect of war wasn’t ever present in that area of the world) likely you’d have many more states in that region, as well.
The purpose of this post isn’t to say that the rise of the nation state is a good thing; it is just to state, baldly, that it has mostly swept the table in the developed world and that this fact doesn’t seem to have been reflected in the popular understanding of the way the world works. While the US is vilified in our own textbooks not to mention others, we are in fact one of the few polyglot nations left, and in a distinct minority in this regard. We may ultimately be one of the few nations like this, perhaps with Australia and the UK (should they hold together) as brethren.
If you taught history today (which they don’t) and started with the facts as they are, not the way someone would imagine them in an ideal state, you’d have to say that the axis of history over the last 150+ years says that the world will break into smaller and smaller states of ethnically and religiously homogeneous peoples, and those few countries that don’t do this (the US, China, India) are exceptions either economically or doing so for military or specifically historical reasons, and in fact the tide bets against those countries in the long run as staying together indefinitely.
Sociology as practiced in the 70′s textbooks I remember is an alternate universe, one not fettered by reality.
Cross posted at LITGM