Civilization(s) as a Concept in Teaching

Civilization(s) as a Concept in Teaching

The Kpelle of West Africa existed within the context of an acephalous state. For some purposes we can find a high degree of political integration (even "passports"). On other levels we see rather isolated villages, few exclusively non-agricultural occupations or specializations (metal- workers, weavers, etc.). From a European point of view, such peoples were uncivilized. The real problem, of course, is that as another pointed out, "civilization" is always used invidiously: "I am civilized, you are barbarian," even reciprocally, as with the Greeks and Persians. When the "Poro" of Siera Leon rose up in revolt against the British in the late 1890s, they did so simultaneously, coordinated by messengers who carried burned palm fronds all over the countryside. The Poro was, in fact, not just a secret society, but the pre-British governemnt of the area (or, a pre-British government), and reflected a high degree of social integration existing within a context of dispersed settlement patterns.

Similarly, the pre-Hispanic Phillipines, especially but not only around Lake Bai, supported a number of quite functioning states based in relatively small and separate communities. To the Spanish mind (de Morga and others) the Philippinos were "sin politica" and correspondingly uncivilized. To the Chinese (much better observers and interpreters of others' social complexity then the Europeans), many of the same peoples/nations/states were understood as being both civilized and worthy of diplomatic recognition (exchange of symbolic gifts from elephants to parasols). The Chinese were prepared to be much more flexible than the Europeans, in their definitions. The non-exclusive nature of Chinese religion may be crucial here, and should cause us to pause when we insist on finding some people to be "uncivilized." Also, as I wrote some years ago:

"Just as Lyndon Baines Johnson did not want Khe Sahn to be another Dien Bien Phu, Philip II of Spain did not want another _leyenda_ _negra_ (black legend) attached to his name or the crown of Spain. The _leyenda_ _negra_ was the stigma of civilization destroyer that was given to Spain as a result of the conquests of New Spain and Peru."

Gordon C. Thomasson, _Cornell Journal of Social Relations_ 15:2 (Winter 1980):172.

I would insist that geopolitical considerations motivated the portrayal of certain peoples as "uncivilized" more than any condition "on the ground" throughout the period of European expansion. One need only consider Samuel Purchas' dedication of _Purchas, His Pilgrimage, or Relations of the World and the Regions Observed in All Ages and Places Discovered_ (London: Henry Fetherston, 1625-1626) to King James I (who inconveniently died during publication). In a gush of anti-papist strategizing, Purchas commended to the king a union of non-Catholic kings from all around the world--non-White and non- Christian!--who would even exchange sons and daughters in marriage, as a barrier to Catholics girdling the globe with territories loyal to Rome. Once that "fate" was averted however, the peoples described by Purchas (in the same vein as the Hakluyt's collections of voyages of discovery), suddenly eclipsed into obscurity and emerged as insignificant and uncivilized "tribes" or peoples fit only to be conquered.

Given the consistently (over centuries/millenia?) political use of "civilization" as a concept, and only in part because as both historian and anthropologist with regional/area specializations in sub- Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America I see or allow in more data than those who approach the field from a "Western Civ" model, I tell my students that despite the textbook I am teaching a class on World Societies and Cultures" and I don't blush.

Gordon C. Thomasson
World History Faculty

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Subject: Civilization(s) as a Concept in Teaching
Date sent: Wed, 21 Sep 1994 15:02:48 -0500 (EST)

Editor: Dr. Ali B. Ali-Dinar, Ph.D.
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