Historian Scott Powell, the creator of "A First History for Adults" is about to kick off his newest learning program, "The Islamist Entanglement." Below is my recent interview with Powell about the aims of his new course and his unique method for teaching history. —Nicholas Provenzo
Rule of Reason: The title for your course on the history of Islam and the West is "The Islamic Entanglement." Why not "relationship" or some other word? How is the West "entangled" with the East, and how can the study of this history help us today?
Scott Powell: Thanks for asking! I chose the course title very carefully.
There are two facets to it. First, the title "Islamist Entanglement" captures the fact that over the past sixty years the United States has developed an enormous stake in the Middle East, to the point where, as a nation, it is now not only invested in the economic development of the region, but also actively engaged in manipulating its political system as well. The use of the word "entanglement" is also, however, my subtle way of alluding to the fact that this recent trend in American foreign policy is a tragic deviation from a different approach to foreign relations once advocated by the Founding Fathers.
This policy, first put forward by George Washington in his farewell address of 1796, and later incorporated into the Monroe Doctrine, was that "the great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible." It is, he continued, our "true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world" rather than "entangle" our peace and prosperity" in their political fortunes.
That's where I got the word "entanglement." I've long been an admirer of the foreign policy of the Founders, so I thought it was especially fitting to use that term.
RoR: Whether we wanted to or not, many of us have received quite a schooling in Islam over the past few years as Islam's adherents have captured the world's headlines. Nevertheless, given the nature the West's entanglements, do you think that Westerners truly understand Islam, and if they don not, how does your course help correct this deficiency?
SP: I would agree that Americans have indeed become more aware of America's links to the Middle East and of the nature of Islamic culture in general, especially since 9-11, and I would agree that in many regards it is an awareness that has not actively been pursued, but rather one thrust upon us. This last point is, I think, a significant problem, which I would like to address through this course.
America has been impressing itself on the Middle East ever since WWII. That it has done so without any idea of how the culture there would react is evident. In 1979, for instance, Jimmy Carter praised Iran for being an "island of stability." Then, which came as a complete shock of course, an Islamic Revolution occurred, and the US embassy was stormed by people shouting "Death to America!"
In situations like this one and 9-11 most Americans have reacted by calling for military action against Muslim nations. What they haven't done is proactively pursued the knowledge that would underpin a far more productive and secure relationship with the people of the Middle East. The knowledge I'm referring to is knowledge specifically of the story of the Islamic world's shifting response to being subordinated by Western civilization.
What I want to do with The Islamist Entanglement is offer an essentialized orientation to this instructive story--to show what has happened in the modern history of the Middle East and why--and thereby, provide a factual or historical springboard into a more proactive mode of thinking about our relationship with the Islamic world.
RoR: If the West is entangled in the Islamic world, the reverse can be said just as easily. Yet why haven't the Islamists embraced the better ideas of the West? For example, several of the 9-11 hijackers studied in Western countries before destroying themselves and others in their violent jihad. Rather than knock down our skyscrapers, why didn't they point to them and say to the Islamic world, "this is how we must be." To what degree is the West indicted in sowing the deeds of its own destruction here?
SP: Tragically, just as the West was achieving supremacy over Islam politically and militarily, after about 1700, its own culture was in many regards abandoning the root of its relative advance--namely the "Renaissance" or rebirth of reason. This is especially the case in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when Western thinkers turned against the Enlightenment, and the brief political flowering of individual rights in the latter eighteenth century was smothered in Europe. The process of the political subordination of the East was then accelerating, but the cultural conduit carrying ideas Eastward was now transmitting the ideologies then in vogue, such as nationalism and socialism, which were contrary to those that had actually spurred Europe's progress. Consequently, when those Muslims who were interested in improving their lives turned West, they failed to find anyone who could articulate the reasons why the West was better. That life in the West was and is better than in the Middle East is manifest, but to identify why is not a simple matter. And if one does not understand the causes then one cannot properly transpose what has happened in Western civilization into the Islamic setting.
The West is thus, as you say, to be indicted--for failing to know, embrace, and defend the values that have nourished its own greatness. Part and parcel to this had been the adoption of counterproductive foreign policies, which have only served to exacerbate the antagonism between the two cultures.
RoR: Your method for teaching history differs greatly from the way most people have come to know the field, and it's fair to say that many of your students feel as if they are learning history for the first time. Can you describe your method for teaching history and the process by which you came to develop it?
SP: The Islamist Entanglement is part of a history program I call "A First History for Adults." I developed this program because I realized there were many adults out there who want to learn history but have no place to start. Time and time again I've seen adult students who are committed to learning about the past ask historians in frustration, "Where can I get started?" It's one thing to enjoy a book or lecture by a great historian; it's another thing to actually gain knowledge for yourself. It doesn't just happen by being exposed to someone else's expertise.
Based on my understanding of Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, and specifically her theory of knowledge, I began to examine the issue of knowledge acquisition, as it pertains to history. I came to realize that as in every other area of cognition, there is what Rand called a "hierarchy" of knowledge in history, which determines the most profitable order of acquiring and organizing historical information into an integrated body of knowledge. When that hierarchy is respected, history becomes more manageable and intelligible.
Although my work in this theoretical area is just getting started, I think that students have responded so well to my classes because my presentation of history is organized in a way that optimizes what they get to take away from it. This is especially the case for my keenest students, who continue to interrogate the material in between and after classes using the methods I advocate, but also for anyone who just pays attention!
RoR: You state that knowledge of history doesn't come simply from being exposed to someone else's research or expertise. Where do you think it comes from and how do you assist your students in getting it?
SP: Let me clarify.
Most historians amass a huge constellation of facts in relation to some subject, and then present it--either chronologically, or according to some thesis. Rarely do they stop to consider whether or not their audience can actually relate to that material by fitting into their own personal context, and just how the new information might expand and help solidify that context. (If they took that issue seriously, the whole focus of the profession at this moment would be on rebuilding general historical awareness in the culture, because most people have little, if any knowledge of general history and have abandoned it as irrelevant to day-to-day life.) It's basically historians' aim to present what they know or what they have concluded about something. But that doesn't necessarily help someone who doesn't yet know history themselves.
In relation to this, I identified some time ago a basic cognitive measuring stick that can help you determine whether or not you are actually learning when you read a history book. I identified that when your personal context is insufficient to actually integrate new historical information, you end up suffering from an acute case of what I call "sinking concretes." As the new facts to which you are exposed pile up on one another, your mind simply can't retain them. They "sink" into the recesses of your mind, and eventually become irretrievable. This may sound like just a fancy way of saying you forget them, but to see the question as a cognitive one helps to identify that the reason you can't remember is that the facts you encounter are not buoyed by a context that would allow you to retain them. Try reading your top favorite history article or listening to an inspiring history lecture, and then take the "sinking concretes test" afterwards, a day later, and a week later, to see how many facts you have retained. Then you'll know if you actually obtained any knowledge from the time you invested.
And when you're done being frustrated by conventional history, come try A First History for Adults! My aim is to create a presentation of history that specifically builds upon the context of knowledge of the average educated adult, and allows you to create a real foundation of knowledge. I help students create a "skeleton" or framework upon which more elaborate research and abstract thinking can be profitably pursued. Probably the most important thing that I do is eradicate as many non-essential facts as possible, and then show how the really pivotal ones can be grouped into useful historical abstractions, called "periods." It's not a magic serum, but it is the most productive way to build general historical knowledge.