The Great Courses video lectures presents a history of the west and calls it world history

On the back cover of a recent New York Times Book Review was a full-page advertisement for a “Great Course” (that’s the brand name) set of DVDs or CDs titled “The World Was Never the Same: Events That Changed History.”

I never read these ads, but the idea of reducing history to 36 incidents appeals to my “top 10” mentality, like the “10 greatest battles in history” or the “25 most influential people of the 20th century.”  Great Courses describes the video course as “36 of the most important and definitive events in the history of the world. It’s an intriguing and engaging tour of thousands of years of human history.”

With only 36 events, I assumed that selection of events to include on the list would reveal the ideological bent of the lecturer, in this case a professor at the University of Oklahoma by the name of J. Rufus Fears.

Never fear, in his list of important events of world history, Fears reveals himself to be another white male selling an old-fashioned and specifically American version of the growth of the Christian world, spiced with a survey of world religions to promote a superficial diversity.  Check out the list or skip to my analysis:

  1. Hammurabi Issues a Code of Law (1750 B.C.)
  2. Moses and Monotheism (1220 B.C.)
  3. The Enlightenment of the Buddha (526 B.C.)
  4. Confucius Instructs a Nation (553–479 B.C.)
  5. Solon—Democracy Begins (594 B.C.)
  6. Marathon—Democracy Triumphant (490 B.C.)
  7. Hippocrates Takes an Oath (430 B.C.)
  8. Caesar Crosses the Rubicon (49 B.C.)
  9. Jesus—The Trial of a Teacher (A.D. 36)
  10. Constantine I Wins a Battle (A.D. 312)
  11. Muhammad Moves to Medina—The Hegira (A.D. 622)
  12. Bologna Gets a University (1088)
  13. Dante Sees Beatrice (1283)
  14. Black Death—Pandemics and History (1348)
  15. Columbus Finds a New World (1492)
  16. Michelangelo Accepts a Commission (1508)
  17. Erasmus—A Book Sets Europe Ablaze (1516)
  18. Luther’s New Course Changes History (1517)
  19. The Defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588)
  20. The Battle of Vienna (1683)
  21. The Battle of Lexington (1775)
  22. General Pickett Leads a Charge (1863)
  23. Adam Smith (1776) versus Karl Marx (1867)
  24. Charles Darwin Takes an Ocean Voyage (1831)
  25. Louis Pasteur Cures a Child (1885)
  26. Two Brothers Take a Flight (1903)
  27. The Archduke Makes a State Visit (1914)
  28. One Night in Petrograd (1917)
  29. The Day the Stock Market Crashed (1929)
  30. Hitler Becomes Chancellor of Germany (1933)
  31. Franklin Roosevelt Becomes President (1933)
  32. Mao Zedong Begins His Long March (1934)
  33. The Atomic Bomb Is Dropped (1945)
  34. John F. Kennedy Is Assassinated (1963)
  35. Dr. King Leads a March (1963)
  36. September 11, 2001

There are so many things wrong with this list from the standpoint of world history that I don’t know where to start!

Except for the Hammurabi Code and the founding of some major world religions, all the events involve the growth of the Christian West according to the mid-20th century middlebrow American version that goes from Greece to Rome to Christian Europe to the land of the free.

One quarter of all the events involve the United States, a nation that has existed for about 230 years, or a mere 2% of the time since humans began cultivating plants and animals. How, for example, did the assassination of John Kennedy change world history? Eisenhower and Kennedy had already committed us to Viet Nam and the civil rights movement was already growing. And how do both the 1929 stock market crash and the election of FDR get onto a list of 36 events that changed history?

Neither of the events representing arts and letters changed history. There are commonalities between the creative artists involved: Both are recognized by most people. Both represent more of a summing up of a tradition than a break with tradition. Both have created examples of Christian art:

  • Dante is one of my favorite poets, one who I have studied extensively and reread quite often, but I would never claim that he changed history, not even literary history, unless you believe that no one else would have thought of writing in the vernacular instead of Latin. Other than the innovation of writing in Italian, his style represents the height of medievalism, soon to be swept away by the stylistic innovations of the Renaissance. Real literary innovators with lasting influence include Li Po and Tu Fu (late Tang Dynasty poets), Cervantes and Joyce.
  • Same thing goes for Michelangelo, whose event was getting the commission to paint the Sistine Chapel. A magnificent and extremely famous painting, but Michelangelo, though imitated, did not revolutionize painting, only helped it a little to evolve. Nothing Michelangelo did was as influential as the work of Giotto, Masaccio, Van Eck, Monet or Picasso, not to mention the late Yuan Chinese painter Zhao Mengfu, who had a lasting impact on both Chinese and European art.

There are subtle signs of ethnocentricity everywhere: For example, the founding of Europe’s first university in 1088 is mentioned, but not the introduction of the examination system in the Chinese civil service more than 475 years earlier. We learn of the Battle of Vienna in which the Christian Hapsburgs turned back the Islamic Ottomans, but nothing about the founding of any Chinese dynasty, nothing about the Mughal conquest of India, nothing about Chinggis Khan! Also note the male-centric nature of the lectures: no event involves a woman.

We would have to hear or see the lecture to know for sure, but the promotional materials suggest that Fear’s handling of slavery and its bloody demise—a major theme in world history—is a whitewash. The event representing the American Civil War is presented from the point of view of the South, i.e., “General Pickett leads a charge.” The paragraph description of this lecture on the website makes the specious claim that the South would have won the Civil War if it had won the Battle of Gettysburg. This understanding of the war conveniently forgets the tremendous resource advantage that the North had, which Ulysses S. Grant understood and used to his advantage in planning his battles. But more to the point, there is no room in the course for any event depicting the 400-year history of the slave trade, which funded the economic and technological advances of Western Europe and the United States from the 16th through much of the 19th centuries.

And who is this J. Rufus Fears, who lectures to us about these important events in world history?

The Great Course promotional material calls Fears a “historian,” but judging from what I could find about him on the Internet, he is as much of a practicing historian as Rufus T. Firefly.

An Internet search finds that Fears teaches a lot of video/audio courses for adults, all about great men or great ideas of the West or of world religions. His only publication other than course material that I could find is as editor of a book by Lord Acton, a 19th century English Catholic historian and politician. Fears did write an article in “Atlantis: Fact or Fiction,” a 1978 book of essays on possibilities of the actual existence of Atlantis that focuses on Atlantis in myth and literature. The University of Oklahoma says that he’s a professor of classics, which is not really history, although it can involve history. I cannot find one scholarly article or book by Fears, or even one book or article of popular history of the sort that David McCullough or Bruce Catton might write.

While perhaps not a historian, Fears is a regular guest on “The Rusty Humphries Show,” a right-wing radio talk show that runs on more than 250 stations. A visit to Humphries website lists some other recent guests, the usual right-wing suspects, including John Bolton, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Paul Ryan, anti-choice activist John Schneider and Rand Paul.

I’m not saying that “The World Was Never the Same: Events That Changed History” doesn’t provide history to those who buy the course. But everything I can find out about the course and the good Professor Fears indicates that what we’re getting is comforting if distorted verification of the ideological imperatives of western superiority and American exceptionalism.

I think I’ll pass on Fears’ version of world history and instead reread some Fernand Braudel, Mote’s magisterial Imperial China: 900-1800 or Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

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