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Soubresaut's avatar

I want to develop a more comprehensive understanding of world history. How should I go about it?

Asked by Soubresaut (13695points) 1 month ago

My history education has been pretty dismal. I’ve picked up bits and pieces of some topics, and have some general understanding of others, but much of my understanding feels relatively shallow compared to what it could be.

I want to begin studying history in a more deliberate, diverse, and comprehensive way, but that idea seems so large to me that I’m really not sure how to approach it.

Does anyone have any advice?

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17 Answers

Inspired_2write's avatar

Check out your local archives collections and read about real people’s struggles and how they overcame them.
Some write stories using actual events taken from archives as they are not under copyright infringements.( after so many years).

hmmmmmm's avatar

I like the approach of starting with the self and spreading out. For example, I’m a US citizen. My taxes pay for my country’s actions globally. So, it’s worthwhile ethically to be informed of what my country has done and is doing globally on my behalf and with my tax dollars. This makes the journey of traveling back into history more focused and far more interesting.

For example, I might take a recent event, such as the coup in Bolivia, and look at the US leaders and corporations approach here. When I discover that a driving force in this coup has everything to do with natural resources (lithium) and foreign need to control these resources at the expense of Bolivia, I might find that this pattern has played out in nearly every Latin American country. This will quickly get me involved in recent US involvement in coups, funding right-wing death squads, invading, and undermining democracy in Latin America as well as other places (SE Asian, for example).

This dive into recent history will start to paint a picture of the world in which certain trends become cyclical or repeated. And this starts to get interesting. A dive into US destroying Vietnam will invariably lead to French colonialism and from there we get to all kinds of colonialism and the aftermath.

I guess what I’m proposing is that it might be more interesting and engaging to start with the current day and allow the things that interest you along the way inform the direction you might choose to go.

When I was taught history in school, it too often felt that I was arbitrarily being dropped into a particular period of time with little context. Other than trying to learn “facts”, I had nothing grounding me to the humanity of that history and the underlying principles and engines that drove the events.

LostInParadise's avatar

While I find @hmmmmmm‘s approach interesting, I would suggest starting top down rather than bottom up. Get a book on world history and create a rough outline, perhaps accompanied by a timeline, of the major civilizations. Include names of notable leaders and some of the major wars between civilizations. Once you have set up a context, you can focus on more specific areas.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

Like @LostInParadise, I suggest you read a good overview to begin. This book will give you a very good idea of the major movements in history from the ancient world to the present. While you are reading, you may want to note things that seem particularly interesting. From these notes, you can research in more depth.

It really is a matter of just reading. The question becomes what to read. I am one to strongly suggest reading first documents instead of what a historian says about the documents. However, to begin, I think an overview is a good idea. If I’m interested in Aristotle, I would recommend reading him instead of reading what others think about his writing.

Jeruba's avatar

My thought would be that you can choose any number of lenses, depending on what interests you, and view a fairly narrow trail through it, that in actuality reflects the whole.

I would say go narrow, not broad. It’s very hard to view the world, but you can study a grain of sand.

For example, take a history of modern inventions. If you really look at them, you will see that they are full of links to the past, both through ancient solutions to the same problems (transportation, home heating, water management) and through their ties to events that forced adaptation and innovation (wartime, population movement, famine) or enabled them (electricity).

James Burke’s fascinating PBS series Connections(TV_series) traces the causes and effects of technological innovations through time. Even if some of the science might be out of date since the 1970s, the series inspires a sense of the span and scope of human development.

A history of art would do that. A history of music or literature. A history of medicine, a history of fashion, a history of agriculture. A history of eating utensils. A history of glass. One of Bill Bryson’s books might lead you somewhere interesting.

How about a history of great ideas that changed the world, or humble inventions (pencils, adhesive tape) that did the same? What did the invention of feminine hygiene products do for the world? Or try Asimov’s The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science (1960). Again, it doesn’t matter if it’s out of date; you’re not looking for the latest developments in nuclear physics but for a picture of relationships and a pattern of change over time.

Look for context, look for connections. When something big happened, what else was going on nearby and in the larger world at the same time? For questions like that, the Internet is a great resource.

Consider a history of the present moment: could anyone talk about, say, world politics in 2020 without talking about disease? It’s all connected; one would lead you to the other.

When you find a particular theme that catches your interest—for example, how architecture reflects and shapes cultural ideas, or how the invention of precision machining affected warfare, or the far-reaching linguistic consequences of the Norman conquest of England—you can branch out and take in bigger breadths of interaction.

If social history interests you more than wars and kings, again, pick a starting point and follow threads. How about the Inquisition in Europe? or how the idea of revolution spread in the American colonies? How about the Silk Road?

My emphasis is on reading (meaning actual books), but of course there are also videos and websites and documentaries. I’m a reader, and I like to take in information at my own pace, annotating my books as I go. I also prefer to trust well-documented scholarship, and I actually read the notes. Right now, though, there are all kinds of online courses and resources available, many of them free.

I’ve always found that the more closely I look at something, the more interesting it gets; and that there is no such thing as useless knowledge.

In sum: Start anywhere. Investigate an interest you already have, and try to view its origin and progress in the context of time and place. Follow those connections where they lead. And don’t overlook the branching power of your book’s bibliography.

janbb's avatar

I would start somewhere: being methodical probably with ancient Asian and Indo-European civilizations, then look for a great lectute series or video series on that topic. The Great Courses has some bery good video lectures and there are also MOOC, I think they’re alled, open university courses. Or even community college courses. If the tracher isn’t intersting, find another. Joseph Campbell ‘s series with Bill Moyers on The Power of Myth is a magical connector of world myths: Kenneth Clark’s series “Civilization” was very good as I recall and so was Sister Wendy’s The Story of Painting.

I got a beautiful book from the library called ‘The Silk Road”a few years ago that traced that trade route.

If all else fails, go to a good library when they open and ask a reference librarian to point you to areas and browse.

janbb's avatar

^^ Sorry about typos – iPad and fat fingers.

Aster's avatar

If it were me, and I can’t imagine such a thing but it’s compelling, I’d order sixth grade history books and read those. I think they’d be more to the point so to speak and easy to read . And they might have nice pictures! lol

gorillapaws's avatar

First, this is a great question. It’s a really admirable goal! Second, I would say there’s excellent advice above. Third, I would stress that whatever approach you take, be sure it’s holding your interest. If one approach isn’t engaging you, I recommend shifting gears to something that works better for you. Forcing yourself to slog through history that isn’t interesting to you will likely result in abandoning the effort altogether, which would be a shame.

Lastly, not to expand an already massive topic even further, but you might want to start with some anthropology as a foundation. Man on Earth is an incredible read that explores a ton of different cultures around the world. What’s so amazing is how all human cultures have similar challenges to solve and the ways in which they go about doing so differently. Getting food, shelter, preserving order, marriage and children, etc. It makes you appreciate how the human experience has universal challenges across all cultures and time.

That might be an interesting lens to use in your journey to learn about world history.

elbanditoroso's avatar

Read both sides.

If you’re reading about the Middle Ages, read but the Catholic side and also the muslim and other sides of the question.

If you’re learning about US History, read both the British and American histories of the revolutionary war, and so on.

give_seek's avatar

This is a great endeavor. Here’s my recommendation:
* Find a timeline of world history that lists major events.
* Start with the events that intrigue you.
* Watch documentaries on those events.
* Keep a notebook with you as watch the documentaries. Write down major events mentioned in the documentaries—especially if they are mentioned as catalysts or results of the event you’re learning about.
* Select your next documentary from the list you made and/or go back to the timeline and chose the next event that intrigues you.

Good luck!

kritiper's avatar

Order up the complete 52 episode PBS series, “The Western Tradition.” It’s the history of western civilization.

snowberry's avatar

Another idea is get some well researched and well written biographical books of famous people from a certain period of history, and begin your timeline around them. When an important event or another historical figure was mentioned, we put that on the timeline. We discovered that many people known for various accomplishments actually knew each other, and this provided a really great insight into history.

That’s how I taught my kids history when we homeschooled. By the time my oldest graduated from high school she had an extremely clear understanding of the American and French Revolutions.

Love_my_doggie's avatar

Do you live near a community college?

Such schools offer good course selections for modest tuition. I’ve taken a few history classes, just for fun, at my own community college, and I greatly enjoyed doing so.

I doubt that any schools will reopen during 2020, but maybe next year.

Soubresaut's avatar

Huge thank you to everyone for sharing such thoughtful, helpful strategies. Much lurve! (Do we still say “lurve” here?)

I know this goal of mine is a long one, but it does feel less daunting now!

LostInParadise's avatar

I have been watching some Khan Academy history videos. They give a good overview of world history, and you may find this a good starting point. I am particularly interested in medieval history, and was surprised to see how many lectures they have of this period.

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