A Practicum In Historiography

Shirley and I are listening to the lecture portion of a course on History of the World to 1500 CE. Richard Bulliet of Columbia University taught the course a couple of years ago. While there are exceptions, Bulliet’s lectures are more key word driven rambles over the history of the world than well focused, topic driven, discussions. But what wonderful rambles they are. When the state of scholarly discourse allows, Bulliet generally entertains us with the most unorthodox suggests possible on the available evidence. In so doing he as often makes fun of himself.
Throughout the course Bulliet struggles with several related questions. His most pervasive question concerns exactly what one might even mean by the history of the world. And of course, there is no hope of addressing this issue without some idea of want any history might be. He also worries about why their history seems so important to some of the peoples of the world and of so little importance to others. He wonders why some modern nations divide, occasionally sharply, over modern, western, reconstructions of a shared early history and why others seem content to hold on to what scholars see as a fabricated history in the face of evidence and argument. Along the way he tells us of the many issues confronting the editors and authors of The Earth and Its People: a Global History to which Bulliet was a major contributor. Bulliet toys with old fashioned folklore studies, Jaspers’ axial age ideas and Diamond like geographical explanations. He never really embraces any of these lines of thought and specifically rejects much of Diamond’s work.
All of this is done more or less off the cuff and as a result, once in a while he makes an error in fact – e.g. he erroneously tells his students that ancient Ugarit is in modern Lebanon. At one point he tells us why he prefers BCE and CE to BC and AD and then proceeds to use BC three or four times during the remainder of that same lecture. But these kinds of faux pas are few and tend to bring a smile rather than a frown. I would (and in later posts may) disagree with him on several points but his thought process on what history is and how it should be told is abnormally interesting.

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