Thursday, March 31, 2005


Although I have been discussing the divisions of history, I want to emphasize that history is continuous and complex. It's entirely possible, and appropriate, to begin accounts of particular things at some point in the middle of one of these divisions and end them in the middle of another. However, it's also difficult to hold large and complex things in mind all at once, or produce a list in order from memory. I have suggested a notebook, or the division of a notebook, in order to keep track of the exact names, dates, and order of events, because these details are so easily forgotten, and the divisions are useful for events that have happened at about the same time together. I personally tend to get caught up in the mechanics of the divisions and to have to remind myself to add content. This is most easily done by examining the peoples of the world, which will be the next subject of discussion.

I haven't established divisions of the future. For one thing, the boundary between the future and the past is moving. April 1, 2005 is in the future as I write this, but in two days it will be part of the past. For another, it is somewhere between difficult and impossible to predict the future in detail. There are some things that can be predicted with reasonable confidence; such as the next sunrise; others that are planned, but many plans are subject to interruption and abandonment, and some that depend on things beyond our knowledge or control; such as the date, epicenter, and magnitude of the next major earthquake. This happens on all time scales, and the further in advance we attempt to predict or forecast events, the more difficult it is. For those who believe in divine revelation and prophecy, more information is available than is humanly possible, but even there, there is much room for disagreement and interpretation, and there are seldom dates or exact details attached.

What limited forecasting is available would depend on knowledge of scientific laws. Many human events are difficult to forecase: For instance, it is certain that Pope John Paul II will die, and probably within the next 5 years there will be a new Pople, but when and who is a much more difficult forecast. Likewise, events involving many people, the population and condition of the earth, new books, art works, or inventions are difficult to predict. The relative importance of the various social institutions, and the fates of the various peoples of the earth are a little easier, in the short range. It is an interesting, and humbling, exercise to compare predictions and forecasts with history, but at the same time, a knowledge of history will give some insight into the future.

The only exercises I can suggest are to give attention to your plans for the future. You might find that you can anticipate and control more in some things, and less in others than you might have supposed.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Modern history

For those who wish to do their historical research on the web rather than looking at books, a couple of starting points are: World History Web Resources: An Annotated Guide. You might also try World History Blog I'm also making other inquiries for print resources, and I should have some recommendations in a few days.

I have divided Modern history by century:

16th Century (1501 - 1600). This is noted for the Reformation, the Copernican revolution in science, and the age of Exploration, as the Spanish and Portugese, and to a lesser extent the French began to followed up the discoveries of the Americas with colonization and conquest in the Americas, India and Southeast Asia, and the coast of Africa.

17th Century (1601 - 1700). This is noted for the continuing development of natural science and for religious warfare in Europe. The English, French, and Dutch began to compete with the Spanish and Portuguese as major colonial powers.

18th Century (1701 - 1800). This period is known as the "Enlightement", as discoveries in science began to overthrow long-held beliefs about the world and nature.

19th Century (1801 - 1900). This is the period of the Industrial revolution, as railroads and long-distance communication were introduced. The British empire became the dominant power in the world, as the French and Spanish lost most of their colonies to independence, and explorations into the interior of Africa and Asia established Western presence throughout the world.

20th Century (1901 - present). This century is noted for automobile and air transportation and mass communications, the World Wars, and the relative decline of Western political influence. The United States replaced the British empire as the dominant power in the world. In my own studies, the 21st century is still too new to have its own section, and is temporarily included with the 20th.

The sciences have developed greatly during the modern period, although they are rather indirectly connected to human history. Studies of the human body and psychology have also developed, and there are numerous prominent individuals. World population has increased and people have mixed and migrated, they have begun to significantly affect the environment, and studies of race and anthropology have also been produced and debated. Literacy has become widespread, occupations and the arts have changed significantly, and all kinds of new inventions have created massive changes in society. These have caused significant changes and strains in all the institutions of society, including family life, education, economics, government, and religion. The pace of social change has greatly accelerated, there are numerous communities and cities. All these changes have affected all the peoples of the earth.

Once again, I have been able to only mention a few of the highlights of this period: It is possible to devote an entire career to only a small part of this study. Again, I recommend making your own timeline to list the historical "landmark" events that are most important or most interesting to you.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Classical and Medieval History

I'm using a three-part format for my posts here. First, I have some general comment about self-directed education, links, or other introductory comments; second a discussion of the title topic and how it relates to other topics, and third, suggested exercises. I don't have much in the way of general comments, but it's been mentioned to me that my writing on factual subjects, such as these, tends to be a bit dry and technical. If you aren't interested in history today, ask me something else. I use CE (Common Era or Christian Era) for dates in this period, instead of the more usual AD.

Classical and medieval history is where many studies of history begin, after a brief nod to antiquity. I have divided this into 4 periods of 500 years. (If you don't like this division, make up your own!)

1) Early Classical. (500 BC - 1 BC) This period is best known in Western Civilization as the Classical age of the Greeks, and the Hellenistic age following the conquests of Alexander (the Great). It is also the period of the Roman Republic, and the beginning of the Roman Empire.

2) Late Classical. (1 CE - 500 CE) This is the period of the Roman Empire. It also is noted for the spread of Christianity, and ended with the division of the Roman empire into the Western portion, which collapsed, and the Eastern, which became the Byzantine empire.

3) Early Medieval (500 CE - 1000 CE) This is the early middle ages in Europe, sometimes referred to as the Dark ages. Islam originated in this period and began to spread over much of the world.

4) Late Medieval (1000 CE - 1500 CE) This is the late middle ages in Europe, beginning with the Crusades and ending with the discoveries of the New World by Columbus and a sea route to India by the Portuguese. The modern era follows this.

The Greeks made some significant advances and innovations in the study of nature that form the foundations of modern science, but erronious concepts persisted for centuries. The same can be said for studies of the human body and psychology. Biographies of prominent individuals were written. The earth's human population increased and techniques of civilization with impact on the earth became more widespread with each passing century. Alphabetic writing spread and many more peoples of the earth became literate; techniques of occupations and arts, and artifacts and constructions became increasingly numerous and widespread. More families and their genealogies can be identified, techniques of education improved, trade and commerce began to extend across the Old World, forms of government were refined, and several religions originated. Numerous communities and cities that still exist were founded, and various civilizations and empires that are still remembered flourished.

For exercises in this area, I suggest the same as in my last post. That is, create a time-line with major, landmark events in this period, and use it to write a brief, summary account.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005


There are disadvantages as well as benefits from a timeline of world history. One of these is that it's all too easy to create an outline that is empty of content. It's usually better to make the organization fit the data, rather than making the data fit the organization.

Antiquity deals with the period from about 3000 BC to 500 BC. I have this divided into periods of 500 years each.
1) Early 3rd millennium BC
2) Late 3rd millennium BC
3) Early 2nd Millennium BC
4) Late 2nd Millennium BC
5) Early 1st Millennium BC

Although there was a fair amount of knowledge of nature and most people lived closer to it than in modern times, this knowledge was not as well organized as it is now. Information about the human body and psychology from this period is also mixed with other observations and ideas. It is possible to identify historical individuals; some of them with significant biographical information, and many that are legendary or semi-legendary. Hierarchical, formal organizations can be identified. Methods of protection from the weather and stable, year-round food supplies both influenced nature and resulted in an increase in human population, on all continents except Antarctica. Writing developed and came into greater use, specialized occupations, and an abundance of man-made artifacts are known from this period. Some families can be identified, methods of formal education, long-range trade and economic systems, methods of government, and a variety of religions can be described. Social changes and a variety of social types can be identified with more accuracy, numerous were founded, communities, a few of them still inhabited today, and the major peoples and cultures can be identified. These include the Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Israelites, Greeks, Etruscans, early Romans, peoples of India and China. Few peoples in Africa were literate. In the Americas, the Olmecs of southern Mexico and Central America were the dominant civilization. These various peoples and civilizations had roots in prehistory, but older materials, as well as those of the non-literate peoples of the earth, still require the expertise of archaeologists and anthropologists. Much knowledge about these ancient peoples was lost in classical and medieval times, and has been rediscovered and reconstructed in the modern period.

This is also a period I have largely set aside in my own studies, although it is more useful than prehistory. As a suggested exercise, do some reading about each of the civilizations I have mentioned and give some detail to the sketchy time line. Especially take note of the landmark dates when major events occurred.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005


Now that I have discussed each of the major divisions of knowledge as I have organized them, it's time to go into a little more depth. Once again, these are suggestions: a different style of organizing may work for you.

Since history is continuous and doesn't fall into neat periods, especially when different kinds of events are being considered, almost any dividing line between historical periods can be justified from one point of view or anothers. Rather than trying to find "natural" dividing points, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I tend to arbitrarily divide up historical periods with boundaries at round numbers of calendar years. I use three divisions for Prehistory.
1) More than 15,000 before present
2) 15,000 to 10,000 before present. 10,000 Before present = 8000 BC.
3) 8000 BC to 3000 BC

The first of these corresponds very roughly to the Lower and middle Paleolithic stone age. The second corresponds roughly to the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic stone age, and the final corresponds roughly to the end of the ice ages and the beginnings of agriculture and civilization. Dates are for the most part uncertain in this period.

More than any other, this period overlaps with natural and biological history. Few if any individuals can be precisely identified from this period. This period includes the origin of humankind and the peopling of the earth. It is the domain of prehistoric archaeologists and anthropologists rather than historians proper, because what written records there are few and fragmentary and nonexistent for the earlier parts of prehistory. Rather, events and processes must be reconstructed from fossils and physical remains, and there are few of them compared to the abundant records of later years. It is difficult to identify any of these cultural remains with modern social institutions, although they probably did exist in rudimentary form. However, the details tend to be more speculative and controversial than well-established. What exist are archeological sites corresponding to communities, and these apparently tended to be small and short-lived. Later periods of history are useful primarily for the history of archaeology and anthropology, although it may be possible to work back into prehistory from the study of antiquity.

Because of the remoteness of this period from current concerns and the comparative difficulty of gaining enough expertise to be useful, I do not expect to be pursuing detailed studies of prehistory in depth in the near future. Like many other subjects, I include this subject for reference, because I may want to come back to it eventually.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Science and nature

I detest putting things in alphabetical order. Alphabetizing is one way of organizing information and works well for such things as phone directories, but people don't remember names, words, or concepts in alphabetical order. Instead, our memories tend to work by association. We connect new things to things we already know. To take advantage of the way memory works, I try to establish clusters or groups of related ideas, and keep between 3 and 8 items in a group.

Science is one of my personal favorite areas of study. As I organize information, this includes the physical and natural sciences, not the social, behavioral, or technological sciences. Specifically, I recognize 5 major areas:
1) Physics. Mechanics, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, and structure of matter.
2) Chemistry. Chemical substances, changes and reactions, and chemical systems
3) Astronomy. Planetary astronomy, stellar astronomy, galactic astronomy, and cosmology
4) Earth Science. Geology, Oceanography, Atmosphere, weather and climate; Physical geography, and Earth history.
5) Biology. Molecular biology, cell biology, organisms, ecology, and Biological history.

Science is a human endeavor, and scientific investigation is done by individual people, with their characteristics and limitations. It is also a social endeavor, subject to other characteristics that influence society. It makes use of ideas, patterns of behavior, and technology. There do not seem to be strong connections with families, but this is closely connected with education, and there are connextions with economics, government, and religion. The communities and peoples of the world have somewhat varying emphasis on science. It is possible to distinguish between the history of nature, and the history of science (the human study of nature), and which is to be treated where and how is up to the student.

For exercises, spend some time outdoors. Watch the trees, grass, or whatever grows where you live. Examine the shape of the ground; bend down and examine it closely, for insects and small things. Watch the sky and the clouds. Look at the stars. Pay attention to things and what they are made of; to light, color, temperature, size, shape and weight. Then, write down any questions that occur to you about hows and whys of how these work. A child-like curiousity about the world and how it works is at the root of scientific research.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Personal studies

A few days ago, I overheard a couple of guys on an inter-city bus talking about what they would have done if they had missed it and had to wait a couple of hours for the next one. Since the terminal was downtown, the library was close by. I would have been happy go to there for a couple of hours, but this thought never occured to these other two men. I have a great love of reading; perhaps an inordinate one. But we have so much potential to learn and do things, and there is so much to learn and do in this life, that it saddens me a little to see people wasting what time they have while the resources about them go unused.

The category I call Personal studies deals with people as individuals, rather than in groups. It includes three principal areas:
1) Human body
2) Psychology
3) Biography

The first two of these are considered sciences, although they are not quite as well organized and developed as the physical and natural sciences. Studies of the human body are often grouped with medicine, but I reserve that category for the diagnosis and treatment of disease, and place it in culture. This is a fairly well developed area.
Psychology is the study of the human mind and behavior, with the focus on the individual.
Biography is more often considered one of the humanities and could easily be grouped with history, if I were using a different approach to organizing history. I include it here because of the focus on particular individuals.

These studies are fairly close to physical and natural science. People do not exist in isolation, and have to be considered in social context. They also change by learning and acquiring culture, by participating in social institutions, and are members of communities and cultures. The methods of history are also useful in studying biography and the personal sciences.

One exercise I would recommend in this are is to make a list of people, with a few notes about them. These may be historical figures, prominent people, or aquaintances, if it's not a violation of privacy. Include contact information, if they are living.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Social fundamentals

I took a closer look at the site that I mentioned at the beginning, and I wasn't very happy with its approach, so I did a Google search on the subject of self education, and found that there still isn't a great deal out there. I did find a few more resources, though. I like Self Education - Learning without instructors, Autodidactic press, but they don't take you very far in terms of links or techniques. I hope to include more links like these, and pointers to specific subjects, as I go on.

The area I am calling social fundamentals deals with groups of people, without all the cultural and institutional baggage of society. These deal with common themes that affect all cultures. Specific areas include:

1) Group studies. Social interaction, Formal and informal organizations
2) Demography. The study of human populations and their growth, change, and movement.
3) Human ecology. Relationships with nature and the environment
4) Physical anthropology. Studies of race and physical characteristics of groups of people
5) Human geography. Specific distribution of people on the earth
6) Specific groups. Particular groups with names, addresses, and identieties.

This is a rather general category, and the ordering of topics is subject to rearrangement. It's not an area where I have gathered a great deal of expertise.

This depends more directly on science and nature than other areas so far considered, and it also depends quite directly on people considered as individuals. Details about particular areas of social fundamentals can be gathered from how they are manifested in particular areas of culture and social institutions, and from particular communities and societies. These fundamentals have changed somewhat through time, as world population has increased, changes in culture have affected the environment, and the earth has been explored, and history is useful in describing these changes.

Several exercises might be useful. Various references have the population of various countries, you might include a map of the world, or a list of organizations that is useful to you. Include these or copies of them in your notebook as a ready reference so you don't have to keep going back to the original sources time and again.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005


Independent learning may but doesn't have to be solitary. There are times when it's easier to work entirely independently without having to coordinate with someone else, but there are other times when it's useful to discuss your thinking, discoveries, and difficulties with someone else who shares your interest.

Usually, culture refers to areas that are also called the fine arts. I use a much broader definition in the classification of knowledge I use. The three major categories are
1) Ideas,
2) behavior
3) Objects.

Ideas include language, literature, graphic arts, mathematics, applied science, and philosophy. Behavior includes customs, occupations and hobbies, sports and games, performing arts, and special events. Objects include foodstuffs; clothing and dress; buildings, furniture and structures; vessels and vehicles; communication media and devices; tools and machinery; and other miscellaneous artifacts. These are overlapping categories, and many other possible classifications can be made.

These are more closely related to nature and natural science than the other areas discussed. They are rooted in the needs of individuals and are products of human activity, either individually or in groups. These are also closely connected to the institutions of family, education, economics, government, and religion, and different communities, cultures, or peoples have different varieties and forms of culture. Each of these areas has a history, and the historical development of culture, and elments of culture is an important part of study. Experts in any particular area, whether it is painting, stamp collecting, or military aircraft, become familiar with the history of that area.

Because this is such a broad subject, the only thing I recommend is to make a list of your particular interests and activities, and things you would like to learn about. I intend to return to these subjects with more specific suggestions.

Friday, March 11, 2005


First, a couple of thoughts on independent learning in general. I may have mentioned that one way to do it is to take a top-down type of approach, working from the general to the more specific. Since I like to get an overview of a subject before plunging into the details, this works for me. However, an equally appropriate approach is to start from yourself and work outward. If I were working with individuals, I would probably recommend such an approach. However, an individual-outward approach has to be tailored to the needs of each individual, so instead I'm presenting a survey of the broad areas, with details to be discussed later. If anyone has a comment or question, I'm willing to take that into account.

Sociologists have identified five major institutions that are present, to some extent, in every human society. These include
1) Religion
2) Government
3) Economics
4) Education
5) Family

In many cases, these are not clearly distinct, and they are never entirely separate. A person may be a worshipper, citizen, consumer, student, or family member; sometimes more than one of them at once.

There are connections of each of these with science and nature, and they depend ultimately both on individuals and on groups of people. Generally speaking, these are social, rather than solitary activities. They each are associated with language, literature, and ideas, with customs and patterns of behavior, and objects or artifacts. These institutions take on a variety of different forms and relationships among different communities, peoples, and cultures, and they each have a historical development.

As an exercise, I suggest describing your particular affiliation with each of these: It may be present or past.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Social Studies

One of the nice things about independent learning is that you are not restricted to the pace of a class or a teacher; you can go as fast as you like, or as slow; you can skip and skim or be deep and thorough, and you can bounce around from one topic to another. The temptation is to be quick and superficial. What matters is your own interest and ability to stick to a project. Do a little something, each day.

The subject I am calling social studies is traditionally included in the areas of sociology, anthropology, human geography, and history. It deals with the civilizations, peoples, nations, ethnic groups, and communities of the world and their structure and the changes they undergo.

Certainly this is based on nature and physical geography. Every person belongs to some society or community, but some are more prominent and influential than others. The fundamentals of society, including population and distribution, and the human interaction with nature, are also important in these studies. Language and literature, the arts, and technology are important components of human societies, and the major social institutions of family, education, economics, government, and religion are also part of these studies. Also, each society and community has its own history. This illustrates how subjects may be seen from various different perspectives. I tend to put histories of particular nations or societies here, while in the history section I organize them by time, so that I compare ancient peoples to ancient peoples, medieval peoples to medieval peoples, and modern peoples to modern peoples. A history of China from ancient through medieval and modern times would go with other studies of Chinese people.

I divide this section
1) Peoples of the world
2) Communities and cities
3) Social structure and change.

As an exercise, try identifing, in increasing or decreasing order, the communities you belong to. For instance, in the US; town or city, county, state, nation, and then groupings of related nations.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

More history

Why study history at all? One reason is that it helps tell us where we came from, how we got here, and which direction we may be going, whether it's as individuals or as a society.
History is, above all, a story that is presented as being true. It's difficult and challenging to do, for several reasons. One is that we don't always have all the facts; some things were never recorded or written down. Another is that we can't include all the facts we do have. Some events are more significant and important. A history is always shaped by the purposes and intentions of the author. Some historians deliberately emphasize some facts in order to make a case; others, in spite of their best efforts to tell the truth, have unconscious or hidden biases that others can detect. Finally, a story that concentrates on "just the facts" don't always make a good, or interesting, or memorable, or meaningful story. There is an art to storytelling as well as the ability to judge and evaluate evidence.
Professional academic historians have a tendency to be experts in rather specialized areas of fact, which doesn't always result in historical writing that is accessible to the nonspecialist. Part of a broad education ought to include the ability to read and write history.
The difficulty in writing the human story is that we don't know either the beginning, because it was not written (or if it was, the oldest original records have been lost), and we do not know the end, because it hasn't happened yet. What we can do is tell shorter stories from the middle.
For organizing the raw material of history, it's useful to keep track of events in the order that they occurred. I tend to use arbitrary dates and approximately equal intervals of time to create a mental picture, in a fashion similar to how a topographic map suggests a picture of the landscape.
The major divisions I use are:
1) Prehistory (Before 3000 BC)
2) Antiquity (3000 - 500 BC)
3) Classical and medieval (500 BC - 1500 CE) (That's Common or Christian Era)
4) Modern history (1500 CE - Present)
5) Future

As an activity, I suggest picking a time and a place of interest, taking notes on about half a dozen of the most significant events as landmarks, arrange them in order, and then writing a story connecting those events.

Monday, March 07, 2005


The topics I mentioned yesterday are listed in approximately increasing order of complexity. For starters, I'm working in the other direction.

I believe there is actually a higher order of knowledge than human history, but it't not easily accessible through scholarly methods, so I won't discuss it much here.
In the areas of scholarship, history is the most complex and depends most on other areas of knowledge.
For instance, one area of world history, commonly known as "big history", starts with the "big Bang" and considers the formation of the earth, origins of man, and long-term projections into the future. Biography overlaps with history, and biographies of individuals are its building blocks. Not just individuals, but social groups are also included and mentioned. Cultural, artistic, technological, and other areas of social history, as well as family histories, educational history, economic and corporate history, and religious history are as important as governmental and political history, which has traditionally received the most attention. It is often divided by countries and regions.

Sunday, March 06, 2005


There is a difference betweening being self-taught or self-educated, and self-certified. It's possible to know something well and thoroughly without a teacher, but since it's so easy for us to deceive ourselves, and so hard to recognize our own blind spots, it's often important and useful to be examined from a external point of view. How to gain recognition or certification, if it's necessary, will be a part, but only part, of things I intend to discuss here.

For my own purposes, I have the realm of knowledge divided into seven major divisions.
These include
1) Physical and natural Science,
2) Personal studies (human body, psychology, geography)
3) Elementary social studies (geography, physical anthropology, social groups)
4) Culture (Ideas, arts, artifacts)
5) Institutions (Family, Education, Economics, Government, Religion)
6) Sociology/Anthropology (Communities and peoples)
7) History.

There are various other schemes for division of knowledge, including for instance the Dewey Decimal System, Library of Congress cataloging system, and indeed the departmental organization of any college or university. The details don't matter: the subjects you choose for emphasis will influence your organization. The important thing is to have one, and not have subjects scattered helter-skelter.

Another link that may be useful in self-education is:

Saturday, March 05, 2005

From the top

For some years I have been involved in a major self-directed learning project, which has been enjoyable but not particularly profitable. I'm interested in sharing what I have learned and thought along the way. I'm hoping for comments from other people who share this kind of interest.

Self-directed education is more like exploring the wilds than following a highway. It can be frustrating, slow, incomplete, and filled with hazards and painful errors. On the other hand, there are few things more satisfying than to reach an understanding of a subject, perhaps even to discover for oneself things that no one has ever known before.

One of the first things to recognize is that the world of human learning is huge. No one person can master all of its intricate detail. It's necessary to pick and choose what to study. If knowledge consists of iscolated, unconnected facts, like a trivia game, then the more facts one has, the greater is the confusion.

Furthermore, it's nearly impossible to study any one subject in complete isolation. Any one subject is connected to several others, and without any guiding or organizing principle, self-directed education has no more direction than wandering down a road to see where it goes. Sometimes, such undirected meandering may be useful, but it's not very efficient.

Since no two people are identical, and have different needs, preparation, and purposes, it is impossible for any one formalized program to suit everyone. There are various other advantages to a self directed program, which I may discuss as the topics arise.

One of my first suggestions for someone beginning a self-directed education is to start with a 3-ring binder and a package of paper. The reason for a binder, rather than something like a spiral notebook, is that it allows for rearrangement and replacement of pages. The process of learning is not linear, and doesn't proceed in a nice straight line from beginning to end. It may also be useful to have a set of divider pages, in order to group related subjects. Next entry, I will present an initial organization that I have developed.