The Western Tradition

The broader context in which British, American, Canadian, Australian and other English-speaking national history has been mostly played out is the “Western Tradition”. In my previous blog I distilled this down into 12 topics. Let’s look a little more at these.

Younger high school students should be given a first “run through” of Western civilization. The main aim of this is for them to have a clear mental timeline in their heads. This will be valuable in itself, but it will also allow them to make more sense of their own country’s timeline, and also of the timeline of world history, which they will be tackling at a later stage.

Another important aim is for students to start getting a clear idea of where the different civilizations were located, geographically. This is really important for younger students. I have, pinned to the wall of my study, a review of one of our earlier pieces of software, about Victorian Britain. The teacher was surprised to discover that his class of 11-year olds hadn’t realised that anything at all was happening outside this country at that time.

the middle east egyptian and ancient mesopotamia

The earliest origins of our civilization is often held to go back to the Egyptians – the latest proponent of this is in the BBC’s History of the World series presented by Andrew Marr. In fact, the Mesopotamians are a better candidate: their civilization reaches back further into pre-history than the Egyptians, and is indeed the earliest civilization in world history. Via the Phoenicians, it has made at least as strong a contribution to Greek civilization as the Egyptians. There is also evidence that Egyptian civilization derived, to some extent, from Mesopotamian. The Egyptians have become the better known of our earliest forebears because, a) Egypt has gripped the Western imagination more, mostly due, I suspect, to those iconic structures, the Great Pyramids; and b) because Egypt looms large in that foundation document of Western history, the Bible.

Having said all that, I do feel that Ancient Egypt could well serve as the focus for a study of the earliest civilizations; if it grips the imagination, why not use it? Students love learning all about mummies, pyramids, hieroglyphs, Tutenkhamun and all that. They should also be given a sense of Egypt’s place along the timeline of Western history (i.e. almost at the beginning!), and a glimpse of the bigger picture, which includes the fact that another, older civilization was flourishing in Mesopotamia at the same time.

A brief glimpse can be given of other civilizations – Indus, Shang China, perhaps even the Olmecs – and also to the non-urban cultures which of course made up the majority of human societies at this time; but at this stage I wouldn’t dwell on these; they are for later, once students have a clear idea of the Western strand of world history.

There’s plenty of things to go at for the Greeks and the Romans. Younger students enjoy learning about the way they lived: those gladiators send a shiver down their spines. Here, however, a very few dates and historical events should start rearing their ugly heads. These are necessary to place these topics on the timeline of Western Civilization. So: the first Olympic Games, traditionally regarded as the curtain-raiser for Greek civilization (776 BC); The Persian Wars (490-80 BC) allows a look at the dramatic battles of Marathon, Thermopolae (the “300 Spartans”) and Salamis; the conquests of Alexander the Great (330s BC); Hannibal’s march on Rome (218 BC – a good peg on which to hang the rise of Rome); the career of Julius Caesar (conquest of Gaul, invasions of Britain, dictator of Rome, assassination – and what came next: 50s and 40s BC – a focus for the coming of the Empire); Constantine’s conversion to Christianity (AD 317) and the Sack of Rome (AD 410 – the iconic date for the Fall of the Roman Empire in the west).

Next there’s medieval Europe – castles, barons, knights, cathedrals, monks, manors, serfs, yeomen, small smelly towns, and so on. Wonderful stuff! And actually, I wouldn’t bother too much about dates and events; the important thing to get across is Medieval Europe’s place in time and space, and it’s defining features – particularly the huge power of the Christian Church, and the social and political system called “feudalism” (not need to worry at this stage that some modern scholars question this label).

medieival europe

If you do wish to dwell on medieval Europe and bring in some dates and events, you could do worse than: Charlemagne (c. 800); the Vikings (800s and 900s); the Norman Conquest of England (1066), the Crusades (1090s to early 1200s); Magna Carta, 1215; and the Black Death (1347-51).

Time’s run out for today – I’ll continue this tomorrow. But before I go…note that I’m not talking about such things as cause and consequence, change and continuity, source work and so on. This is because I believe that the focus for younger students should be on gaining a string framework of history. Having said that, they should be being introduced to these issues, and be starting to think about them. In due course I’m going to be elaborating on what I’m talking about here, so more then.


By Peter Britton