Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Wrong Way to Teach History: The Migration Era as an Example

Many history books and history courses are organized around a framework of eras: the Age of Exploration, the Age of Ideas, the Age of Revolution, the Age of Reason, the Age of Darkness, the Age of Industry, the Age of Enlightenment, the Age of Absolutism, the Age of Progress, the Age of Methodism, etc.

This approach, however, is misleading. The world does not move from one “age” to another. At midnight, Monday becomes Tuesday, or Wednesday becomes Thursday. But there was no defining stroke of midnight which changed “the age of ideas” into “the age of reason.”

Such ages are called ‘constructs’ and are the products of (over) generalization. Rather than beginning with such generalizations, history should begin with the study of specifics, of the data points which are given: people, places, and events.

When beginning with concrete evidence, we can give clear answers. If studying about Voltaire, we can learn the year of birth, the year of his death, and the towns in which both occurred. If we study the city of Leipzig, we can learn the geographical data about the distance between it and other cities, and learn which individuals were, or were not, in it at some point in time.

By contrast, if we attempt to study the Gilded Age, the Space Age, the Modern Age, the Hellenic Age, the Hellenistic Age, or the Global Age, we cannot give specific answers to questions about when this age began or ended, or about the geographic extent of its physical presence. We cannot definitively decide who was, or was not, a part of this age.

We see, then, that doing history as a series of “ages” fails to reflect the fullness of evidence given in the data. Such constructs are unnecessarily ambiguous and are generalizations which can ultimately mislead students.

Diligent historians have long realized the deficiencies to this approach. Avner Falk writes:

Most historians like to divide history neatly into periods, such as Classical Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and Modern times. In reality, historical developments are much more complicated. The “Migration Period”, or the “Barbarian Invasions”, is a name given given by historians to the great wave of human migration which lasted about four centuries, from about 300 CE to 700 CE, and even later, to 1000 CE, in Europe, marking the transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages.

Using the era of the Völkerwanderungen as an example, Falk already notes the ambiguity in the endpoint of the alleged “age.”

Mass migrations are documented throughout recorded history, going back at least to 1400 BC, with the “Sea Peoples” recorded in Egyptians texts and the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt.

Such mass migrations continue up to the present time, e.g., as refugees flee war-torn regions in the Middle East and Africa.

It seems at best artificial, and at worst simply wrong, to demarcate a segment of time and label it the "Age of Migrations," given the presence of migration across all history. Abandoning generalizations and listing specifics, Avner Falk continues to describe the Völkerwanderung era:

During that time, especially in the fifth century, after being divided into a Western and Eastern part, the Western Roman Empire was destroyed by marauding tribes. The migration included the Huns, Goths, Vandals, Swabians, Franks, and other Turkic, Germanic, and Slavic tribes. The Huns were confederation of Central Asian equestrian nomads or semi-nomads (like the Mongols), with a Turkic aristocratic core. The migration of the Germanic tribes may have been triggered by the incursions of the Huns, which were connected to the Turkic migrations in Central Asia. Eight centuries later, in the thirteenth century, the Mongols made the vast “migration” which led them to conquer most of Asia and large parts of eastern Europe.

By noting that the Mongol events also constituted a “migration,” Falk further undermines the notion of a finite “Age of Migration,” because it has now been extended to the thirteenth century.

Overgeneralized notions of a migration era fail to register the divergent natures of the groups (e.g., Germanic or Turkic), of their motives (aggression or seeking food), of their varying levels of social and economic development, of their routes, of their points of origin, or of their final stopping points.

To structure of history of those centuries around the narrative of each group, rather than around a construct of an era in which groups migrated, gives the student more data, and a more usable conceptual framework into which to lodge that data.