ignorance!

On the way to a conference last week, I was faced with a more or less challenging situation: an intense dialogue among a few colleagues about the significance of different cultures in world history and development.  This is a complex topic and it’s hard to make simple conclusions on the matter.  I want to write about this experience though, not because I am after advertising or defending a particular nation or want to offend others.  This is simply my way of alleviating pain after hearing highly ignorant and uneducated remarks by supposedly educated individuals in the United States.

 

I was faced with the question of “who contributed the most to our history” or “whose work we should look for when studying the history of art, philosophy, poetry, architecture, literature, and so on.”

I have often noticed that Europe stands out in the American version of history in many different fields.  For example, I happened to take introductory courses to political philosophy and architecture history at Cornell University as an undergraduate student.  I can confidently say that the majority of topics covered were related to Rome and Greece and some times Great Britain. I, like many other students, left our class thinking that these concepts were first introduced by these nations only and others were mostly followers.  Plato’s Republic was introduced to us as a book that marked the beginning of philosophy and political dialogue and such ideas seemed to begin in a society where thinking and logic were encouraged for the first time. Democracy was shown to be the most mesmerizing concept in a world of chaos. We were introduced to every famous architectural piece in Europe and briefly reviewed a few others (i.e. Ancient Egypt, Japan, and India) in the last couple weeks of the class.  Even specialized courses tend to be biased and negative towards eastern nations, following the language used in ancient Greek historical records.  

 

I was faced with the same dilemma in the car last week. 

 

Cyrus’ Cylinder: Considered as History’s First Declaration of Human Rights
in Ancient Times is today displayed at the British Museum.
©British Museum, London

 

With my little knowledge of history, I believe that there were many extremely knowledgeable and progressive societies before and after Europe began to develop its culture. Why is this question one of substantial importance? Why do many of us who specifically come from Iran, China, or other problematic nations demonized by western media have to face personal attacks aimed to ignore and/or under-score our history, culture, and contributions to the world?  There seems to be a huge gap in real world history and what has been advertised by Europeans after colonialism.  I am interested to know the details of how this happened, but I speculate that most Americans follow the Euro-centric historic records that understandably tend to underscore the reality and fail to credit and therefore learn from different nations and their contributions.  An architect who does not learn about ancient Chinese philosophy and art, or does not know what Persepolis (Takht-e-Jamshid) is, can be at a disadvantage compared to an architect who has been introduced to a wider variety of styles and ways of thought.  

 

Why do we teach biased history in our schools in America? Is it because the founders of this country came from western Europe? Is it because the United States was once a British Colony and hence subject to a brain washed record of history? Does the past justify denying ourselves and our children a picture that shows the reality, as opposed to making a Euro-centric view of the globe? Why don’t we want to learn about the real Middle East or East Asia or other places in conjunction with Europe?  Is this view acceptable in this century of knowledge in a country that was itself a victim of unjust colonialism, a county who owes its progress to its vast range of immigrants and their diversity of thought, a country whose founding fathers were open minded enough to take advantage of Cyropedia and the organization of the Persian Empire 2500 years ago in addition to the European politics.  Isn’t this the core of the current conflict between the east and west? The “west” seems to fail to appreciate what the “east” has to offer or fails to credit the eastern cultures for their vast contributions in every field?  

 

Propaganda for demonizing the “east” and its history seems to be a repeated pattern after the Persian/Greek wars in which a few Greek historians described the Persians as barbarians (surprisingly shown the same way in recent popular western animations and movies).  In recent times, propaganda has been a useful (or perhaps destructive) tool during the cold war as well as the current conflict between the Christian nations and the Muslim world.  It seems to me that it is necessary to force the decision makers to improve the education of the next generation in this country.  Biased history will not only further separate us all, but will cause unnecessary hatred and conflicts.  I’m curious to hear your experiences with prejudice wherever you are or your thoughts on the topic.

 

 The Lost City of Stone, Petra

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8 Comments

Filed under Africa, America, art, culture, development, India, Iran, lessons, literature, poetry, popular culture, sociology, traditions, War

8 responses to “ignorance!

  1. hi there…
    I ….search for images about (Petra) …. and sudden… I find myself here….!!!!!
    excuse me because I cant speak english…But i will happy to meet you….
    IRAN…Black13
    By….

  2. Jeff

    I think the majority of Americanized history stems from the fact that we wrote it. I believe there is a fair amount of justification for America’s ego in light of what this former colony has achieved in its brief 240 year history, but I know few scholars ignorant enough to claim that we developed writing, gunpowder, or produced a significant amount of the world’s precious art…

    I see your point, but at the same time feel hostility towards American in your words. I’d guess that comes from our eclectic form of governance that produces a new leader with new (and often opposing) ideas every four or eight years. With that said, I cannot ignore the modern accomplishments of a melting pot that developed most, if not all of the modern world. What needs to be said is that we did it in spite of our politicians, and not because of them.

    There are a million things I’d love to see in this world right now, and the city of Petra is one of them. To see what the world produced when America was blowing grass, roaming buffalo, and natives streaming down from Alaska is a dream I’ll never see. Given how hostile the rest of the world has become as it sinks into the abyss of tyranny, terrorism, communism, and totalitarianism, it’s much safer to sit at my computer and see the world through biased eyes.

    And that’s sad. A goal I had as a child was to see the great pyramids of Giza, walk along the Great Wall of China, and spend that one night in Bangkok just to say I did.

  3. Depends on what discipline you’re talking about. Classical musicians will most certainly point to Bach as poliphonic perfection, he was German and of German lineage. He’s kind of like the Newton of physics. The runners up would be Beethoven and Mozart, both from Germany as well. Thought there were many before them (Handel etc.) these are general considered the greats and most influential in developing poliphony to what it is today (rock, jazz etc.)

    For jazz artists you’re probably going to look to Benny Goodman/Glenn Miller for big band orchestration, Charlie Parker aka Byrd for bebop, and BB King for blues (Muddy Waters as well). All American.

    I’ll go out on a limb and say that as far as modern science is concerned most look to Einstein… Germany again. In all of this I think you need to define exactly what makes a nation great and last through history… cultural influence? scientific influence? military might? I think Germany should be mentioned, despite their decline via an insane leader. Then again us American mask the virtual destruction of an entire race as manifest destiny! So as the guy above said…history is written by th winners! (We certainly don’t hear about the Britts blocking German ports to prevent their industrialization, and insighting a war do we…)

    • Jeff

      Okay, look at it this way. Bach and Beethoven reached their potential a long, long time ago. I love their music and admire their talent. They flourished at a time when their society placed a value on such endeavors.

      The big band era and the birth of the blues took place under similar circumstances. Einstein was a product of Germany, but flourished when? Where?

      Not just in America, but in a place with Freedom and Liberty. It matters not which nation a person comes from, only that they are free to dream.

      Liberty makes a nation great. So long as Liberty is real, that nation will produce a diverse culture, a strong military, intelligent scientists, and thrive.

      Patrick Henry once said that you could take everything else away, all the rights and freedoms imaginable, and if the people had Liberty they’d get it all back. He was right.

      It’s not about national pride or undue arrogance, or even liberal or conservative. Those are just symbols. The jewel is personal Liberty, and all societies should strive to attain it.

  4. Penny

    10jun10
    https://asheyan.wordpress.com/2008/05/29/ignorance/#more-195

    What history as taught in America seems to forget is that everything is built upon something else, even Greek civilization ;-). And many times we don’t examine where or what that something else was/is. The United States’ “founding fathers” didn’t pull their new system out of a hat, and it wasn’t a new idea appearing just then and there. Even the dominant religion here, Christianity, came from the Middle East and the East (and who knows from where those ideas came before written history.) I still remember as a child in Sunday School looking at the picture of Jesus on the wall – his hair was dark blond or reddish and his complexion fair. Um, I don’t think so … seems anything of value has to be like “us”.

    I think that Americans (of which I am one) are very conceited. But, I think that conceit comes from insecurity about ourselves. We are carefully taught in grade school that our country is unique and stands far “above” all other countries. History classes provide no recognition that similar things were/are happening all around the world. When we grow up we suspect (some more than others) that it was a lie, or at least a gross exaggeration. Some people hide behind their flags to hang on to the perception of superiority.

    National Pride, “my group” as opposed to “your group” is a human attribute (possibly among other mammals too) we just need to recognize it for what it is: something to hold the group together, and not take it to extremes. That is what leads to conflict and ultimately war.

  5. Angie

    Being of a mixed ancestry of Native and African American, I have always found the American history books to be incomplete and offending. A friend of mine once asked me why the Native American were so friendly at first, then changed and started killing white folks. I told him that if the first Native Americans to come in contact with whites knew that the whites were planning to steal their homeland, they would have killed the pilgrims too. He didn’t like that answer. Nor do I like the way some of our beloved “founding fathers” owned black slaves. Many of them. For many years I felt that my people, both of them, were not Americans, nor wanted here. Even with Obama as president, racism looms large in the USA. If we take examples of Europe as a standard, then how do we account for Rome, Greece, Great Britain, Spain, France, and Germany’s lust for power and global domination. some of the worlds greatest and most devestating wars have come from such civilized countries, emphasis on civilized. I would suggest that my fellow Americans read up on the Native American and African American History. It is uniquely humbling. such as the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee, Booker T. Washington, Nat Turner to name a precious few.
    I am glad I stumbled upon your site, as I have always loved to study Biblical Archaeology, and Petra is my first love. I wish with all my heart, that people open their eyes to see the beauty of this world in all cultures, and know that no one country can claim to be better than another, for without each other we are nothing.

    • I don’t think the Pilgrims planned to steal anyone’s homeland, Angie. Common sense (not history books) says they didn’t percieve the land they settled as owned by anyone because it was so different from the organized culture they left behind in Europe. America was populated by nomadic bands of savages that defined their ancestral home by where they buried their dead, not by where they built a house.

      The destruction of the Indian population and way of life came about naturally. Any time a primitive society meets another so radically advanced by comparison, the primitive society will cease to exist; it will either collapse naturally because of the introduction of new ideas it cannot assimilate, or it will be conquered because of its inferiority. There’s no intent, there. That’s just the way life goes.

      As for our Founding Fathers and slaves… Yeah, I hate our history books too because they’ve conveniently forgotten to include the fact that our Founders despised slavery and included within the Declaration and the Constitutions the means with which to rid ourselves of it, forever.

      In the course of your life, I hope you find different books that reveal our hidden history, not the luddite tomes written by social progressives and those who just want to make you hate. What happened yesterday is important to know, but the next page in our history is unwritten. Choose to write something better, not bitter, and thank God you live in the greatest country on Earth where such things are still possible.

  6. Angie

    Hello Jeff. You seem to think that the Native culture that existed here was “savage and inferior” and needed to assimilate with the superior and advanced culture or just cease to exist . Well I’m happy to say, they are still alive and kicking! Were it not for the Natives feeding the Pilgrims, they all would have starved to death, as so many DID before they were taught how to survive in this new land. The greatest problem in the history of America is the fact that once they learned from these “savages”, they no longer needed their help, and then left them with all these broken treaties supposedly signed in “good faith” by our founding fathers. I beg to differ on the “superior intellect” theory afforded to a people who could care less about honor and truth.
    Now about those “slaves”. It took a mighty Civil War to set them “free”. To free men, women and children who, in Gods’ eyes were already created Free. So many needless deaths over a 1776 Constitution that states “all men are created equal”. Seems our founding fathers forgot a few folks.
    Regardless of what was done in the past, there is no hate in my heart. What I see is a fast turnaround to what many great minds have said that “those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it”. I see this in the treatment of President Obama by Right-wing Republicans. who gave President Bush a blank check to pursue Osama Ben Laden (who?), and start not one but two (2) wars. And recently, the firing of Ms. Shirley Sherrod, (USDA), for supposedly “racist remarks”which turned out to be just the opposite, and the following apology by her Boss and President Obama. We need learn to respect each other’s differences. We are not perfect, none of us, but no one has the right to be arrogant here. Like I said before, read up on Native American and African American history. I now all to well on Europeans and their settlers in America. Now it is your turn. You will find a culture rich in music, art, community, and yes, even dare I say, religion. Just one more note, I find it curious how those “savage” Native American artifacts are now going for millions at auctions. Curious.

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