On Stating the Obvious

Several years ago, students I was teaching at the time asked that I try not to connect thoughts with words like “obviously” and “of course”. It wasn’t, they said, that they doubted the logical connection of one idea to the next, but that, from their perspective, these were not “obvious” connections but new ones. These students felt that my using these phrases made it hard to ask questions or seek clarification, because they implied these concepts, despite being new, shouldn’t need further explanation and the students were somehow unsatisfactory themeselves as if they did not understand immediately.

Put in these terms, my students’ case made good sense. In fact, I would even say it made obvious good sense – with the understanding, in using the word here, that in this situation I am actually the one learning, and so better able to tell whether a claim is “obvious” or not. I have attempted – with varying success – to avoid these phrases and others with similar implications when possible in the classroom.

In the school, the teacher has an institutional authority, which is not always used wisely. In other contexts, an attempt to provide an explanation or correction by its very nature is a claim to a similar authority. So, in those contexts as well, the goal in assuming such an authority is not to parade your own superiority, but to make those things you already know become obvious to those you address. I have offered an anecdote here to demonstrate how even normally harmless words can hinder such attempts to communicate. It is always our responsibility to watch our words carefully, but this is especially true when attempting to instruct others.

Reflections on an Old Textbook

Having limited access to the local libraries at present, I have been making some inroads on the set of books that is on my shelves but so far unread.  One of these was Dr. Hutton Webster’s Early European History, which appears (from names in the front) to have been acquired somewhere by my parents and scrounged by myself from some stack of books which they had, eventually, decided to pass on.

This text, as explained by Webster in his preface, is a selection and rearrangement from two previous textbooks, his Ancient History and Medieval and Modern History, chosen to meet then-new requirements put forward during the 1910s by New York’s Regents’ Syllabus and eventually the National Education Association.  It appears that a two-year course in European history was recommend for all or certain high schools, of which this volume met a requirement for the study of “ancient and Oriental civilization, English and Continental history to approximately the end of the seventeenth century, and the period of American exploration”.  The book I have read is the second, or “revised”, edition published in 1924.

After the manner of textbooks, each chapter concludes with several questions for study, which take many forms: factual review, discussion of students’ experiences, reflection on famous (or less famous) sayings or statements about the period covered in the chapter, and what amount to prompts for further research: that is, questions, usually factual or comparative, that could not be answered simply from Webster’s text.  Webster recommends that his text be used in conjunction with readings from original sources (of which he himself had also prepared several collections, though appears not to have reorganized these to match the new recommendations: I believe he cites four or five such volumes throughout this textbook).

Whether such original sources would suffice to answer all of the research questions I am unsure, but from my memories of studying such topics, and my guess as to the extent of these “extended, unified, and interesting extracts” such as would be provided at the high school level, I would guess not – which however raises the question of how much additional research students might have been expected to do.  (The answer, almost certainly, is that this varied extensively from school to school even where this textbook was used: what Webster had in mind, as a college professor writing for high schools, I don’t know how to guess.)

As far as his topic goes, Webster’s story proper moves from early civilizations in Egypt and the Middle East (which appear to be his “Orient”); to Greece and then Rome as unifiers around the Mediterranean; then to the civilizations of the surviving (Byzantine) empire, the Arabic Islamic caliphate and its successor states, and the European states rebuilding from invaded Roman provinces, through years of feudalism and Papal supremacy to Renaissance, Reformation, exploration, and colonization; and finally to some account of France and England through the seventeenth century.

This is recognizeable as the “Western civilization” narrative (at least as it’s generally thought of in America – one suspects European authors might not drop Poland, Russia, and the Austrian Hapsburgs, to say nothing of the smaller central European states, out of the story quite so soon).  It appears to be an arrangement intended by the recommendations mentioned above.  Without access to Webster’s other textbooks, either as constructed for this set of recommendations or in their original form, I don’t know how he would have considered this to fit into history as a whole.

Webster appears to have considered himself primarily an anthropologist, and it’s worth noting some of the peculiarities he displays in his introductory chapter and throughout the book.  He considers history to begin with written records, and for writing to be a prerequisite for considering a society civilized.  He considers “savage”, “barbarian”, and “civilized” to be at least roughly scientific classes, the first indicating a tool-using society without metals, and the first two without writing and likely nomadic.  In this summary I am not fully representating the degree to which Webster acknowledges the lack of clarity in these distinctions.

It is worth noting here Webster’s thoughts on race.  He again considers race as it appears in history to be essentially scientific.  Notably he considers the Semitic peoples to be White; and is inclined to see the Pacific and American tribes each as a separate “race” – making five instead of the common three.  However he considers this purely descriptive, likely an artifact of separations in prehistory, and is entirely in favor of what we would call mixed-race relationships: he considers this the obvious thing to have happened in the colonial era, and students are in fact asked to show that mixing of the races is a benefit, if not requirement, for a strong civilization.

On the other hand, Webster does consider that a civilized society is essentially justified in fighting other societies still in a savage or barbaric state, and even subjugating them – although his arguments seem somewhat sophistic.  He appears to assume the barbarian society will always – or as close as no matter – have started the fighting, and is insistent that while conquering the barbarians is all to the good, the conquered people ought to be given equality as soon as practicable: he seems, for instance, to view this as a strength of early Rome, and a failure to completely extend citizenship over later conquests as a great source of weakeness in the later empire.  He dislikes slavery – and while he spends little time on conditions in any colonized area, that may result from the assigned subject matter, or even his editors.   Webster himself seems to have been at least at the fringes of some kind of civil rights activism, at least by the standards of mainstream early 20th century American academia.

At the same time, some of Webster’s judgments are made in ignorance, though whether wilfull or incidental it is often difficult to say, having no really clear knowledge myself of the state of American scholarship at the time.  He does not seem quite aware of the extent of the central and south American native civilizations before European colonization, to say nothing of their North American societies; he considers that only the Chinese and Japanese in Asia had – apparently in his judgment even at the time of his writing – actually reached the point of being “civilized states” which is, by his own criteria, demonstrably false and here I think he really should have known better, though he shows a tendency, as he progresses through the years, to lose track of his essential definition of civilization (writing, with the urban life and establishment of  settled agriculture which he suggests tend to be contemporaneous)  and instead judge societies as only “really” civilized if they possess the most modern technology.

As a textbook, these factual and ethical flaws – together with whatever judgment one may make on the legitimacy of the overall narrative – are its greatest drawback.  Webster’s style is simple, readable, and engaging, and the questions he provides for study, while not entirely consistent in phrasing, number, or seriousness from chapter to chapter, are quite good.