Why Human History Cannot be Understood in a Vacuum
When trying to decipher what Clive Ponting meant when he said, “Human history cannot be understood in a vacuum,” I have deemed it is necessary to break the explanation up into three different parts. The first being, what does human history look like through a vacuum? What is it comprised of, what are its characteristics? The second being if human history is not understood in a vacuum, then exactly how is it understood? What does that type of understanding look like and encompass? And the last part of my discussion of Clive Ponting’s statement will be an attempt at presenting a successful way of understanding human history, using a specific process.
What does human history look like in a vacuum? A vacuum used here by Ponting is a figure of speech representing the ideas of confinement, boundaries, and a limited space for movement. These are all descriptions appropriately used for the scope of human history instruction I have received up until this point in my life. Human history is presented to most in a largely defined manner. The dates, the places, and the people are the entire focus of history curriculums. Learning human history has been personally, a mundane experience at best. Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492. America fought for its’ independence in the war of 1812. The first president of the United States was George Washington, inaugurated in 1789. At the age of nine years old, these were all facts that I could say as quickly as I could say my street address. At the youngest of ages, human history is introduced, at least in the American education system, as a plethora of maps, timelines and names.
These are the boundaries of the vacuum. If something is to be discussed in a history class, it is limited to when did it occur, where did it happen and who was involved? I suppose this may be the extent of depth that most young child’s minds can handle, however the same approach was presented throughout my entire educational career. During the first and second years of my university education, part of the history exams consisted of blank maps to be filled in, matching questions of which year went with which revolution, and fill in the blank queries of which famous names led these revolutions on these maps. The interconnectivity of all of these different people, places and times was never studied. The concept of hybridity, whether deemed too complicated or too undesirable to teach, was not an idea that penetrated my psyche until I enrolled in History 140 at the University of the Sunshine Coast.
If you were to rip up a piece of paper into heaps of different pieces and then use a vacuum with a clear frame to clean them up, what would it look like? The pieces of paper would be flying around rapidly within the vacuum; they would all be caught together but still separate at the same time. Through a vacuum, human history is seen as a ton of information all thrown together. Each piece of paper represents people, places or times. They are all together in the sense that they are all moving along within the walls of the vacuum. However they are isolated, as the suction power of the vacuum keeps them in constant motion. It is impossible to group them all together, to make an attempt to see a collective piece of paper. This is precisely why human history cannot be understood through a vacuum. The walls must be removed, the constant suction power rotating date after date, place and after place, and person after person must be turned off. The pieces of paper must be allowed to fall and lay as they may, in one collective group, telling one coherent story.
So, if human history is not understood within the walls of the vacuum, how can it be understood? What can the pieces of paper exist within so that a clearer picture is painted? Ponting’s usage of a vacuum as...
References: Brown, C. S. 2007, Big History From the Big Bang to the Present, The New Press, New York.
Christian, D. 2008, This Fleeting World: A Short History of Humanity, Berkshire Publishing Group LLC, Great Barrington.
Christian, D. 2002, World History in Context, San Diego State University.
Ponting, C. 1991, A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilization, Penguin Books, New York.
Ponting, C. 2000, Word History: A New Perspective, Pimlico, London.
Wright, R. 2005, A Short History of Progress, Text Publishing, Melbourne.
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