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Classify world regions by their histories, not geography

Any undergraduate who studies history is understandably obligated to examine many corners of the world. Globalization first makes this necessary by having successfully amalgamated the individual threads of history into a holistic tapestry. The world now contains a unified history that affects the context of all countries within.

Regional histories also lend relevance in themselves. The past is patterned; events independently resurface throughout the world. Such inter-civilizational echoes provide new dimensions through which to understand separate currents of history. The great interplay of nations casts many subtle influences, often difficult to perceive unless one is versed in the diverse histories of various regions. 

Which, of course, indicates the importance of determining where one region ends and another begins. The breadth of the world’s cultural diversity is determinable only by dividing the earth into its distinctive civilizational spheres. Without consideration of these spheres and their subdivisions, the independent development of language and tradition over thousands of years is neglected in favor of more artificial categorizations of populations around the world.

This is precisely the problem of history departments throughout the United States and abroad. An undergraduate history major must ordinarily choose to study at least three of numerous regions, which at Brandeis encompass Latin America and the Caribbean, the United States, the Middle East and Africa, Asia, Europe and Russia, or a transregional combination thereof. Now, the importance of such broad historical literacy is indisputable; where the modern American university fails is its division of the world.

The world is made a mockery of on a civilizational level. While it is perhaps excusable for American universities to reserve a region for America, nearly all the remaining regions are demarcated with reckless inanity. Why, for instance, is the Middle East attached to all of Africa? In what manner do Persians, Arabs, Turks and Kurds of Asia Minor align with ethnic Damara, Bantu, Swazi and Tsonga of southern Africa? While certainly Arab-Berber North Africa constitutes an incontestable extension of the Middle East, the inclusion of all of Africa is an absurdity, and to some extent an insult to the cultural distinctiveness of Sub-Saharan Africa. 

To ascribe an entire region to “Asia” is equally mad. I have taken history courses on both India and China, and yet I need only to have taken one in order to acquire credit for a continent which contains 60 percent of the world’s population. India and China, which emerged independently from pristine civilizations, respectively delivered Indic and Sinic civilization to life and preserved their distinctiveness up to the present day. Their unnatural fusion into a single region deprives students of a valuable opportunity to receive separate credit for studying both, in recognition of the distinguishable civilizations that they are.

In this ignorant game of pretending that civilizations can be substituted by continents, “Europe” too denotes a false concept. Europe was never a unified civilizational entity; what comprises the European continental landmass are actually two distinctive cultural spheres: That which emerged from the fallen Western Roman Empire, and that which arose from the long-lived Eastern Roman Empire and its gradual Grecization into the Byzantine Empire. The former exhibits the legacy of the latter-day Western Roman Empire in myriad ways, from its Latin script to its historical Roman Catholicism (or, after the 95 Theses, Protestantism) to its organic adoption of Roman architecture centuries after Rome fell. The East, by contrast, employs the Greek-descended Cyrillic script, is predominantly Eastern Orthodox and established itself upon the architecture of Constantinople. Notwithstanding the influence of the Latin script and classical architecture from Romania to Turkey, the lesson of the Great Schism is clear: Any attempt to pretend that Europe is a single entity is doomed to collide with a sharply divergent civilizational ancestry. Smoke and mirrors may help to conceal the irreconcilable dissimilitude between Russia, Belarus, Serbia and Bulgaria on one side and England, France, Italy and Portugal on the other, but the rigorous standards of American universities should know better.

The problem is that “geographic regions” are geographically determined. Universities crudely arrange the avenues of world history by continent rather than civilization, gambling whether a continental boundary aligns with a cultural sphere of influence. This perhaps works for Latin America, which is delineable as both a continent and united cultural entity; India and China, conversely, share the misfortune of occupying the same mighty continent, and so their histories must be squeezed together to match the estimation of American history departments. 

I hesitate to relate this to the arbitrary colonial borders blighting Africa and the Middle East, or the poor penmanship with which the British Raj was partitioned, but the similarities overrule omission. When distinct cultures are mapped by geographic rather than historical means, the unnatural combinations which result are fraught with sectarianism and cultural tension. It might be convenient for American academia to simplify “Europe” into a unified construct, or to entertain delusions that the Middle East and Africa belong together as one faceless throng, or to encourage the misconception that Indian and Chinese civilizations are wedded by some fictitious sense of shared “Asianness.” Yet history cannot reassemble itself to accommodate the conceits of modern times, whose propensity to plan contradicts the organic development of civilizations. Modernity is for this reason averse to the notion of heritage, which originated outside the designs of central planners, and its eminent influence upon history. 

History cannot be treated with tools of other disciplines. History departments must respect the logic of history, without corruption by modern prejudice and ideology, and redraw the world accordingly. Should Brandeis resolve to perceive history unto its innermost parts, the world’s many threads of heritage would be rendered clear before their living descendants. Each successive generation will encounter the cultural strands out of which the West and all its brethren civilizations were born.

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