For a Better Understanding of History, Go East

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The ability to explain current events requires an essential ability to properly reference history if one is to offer a rational analysis for how we got here. One of the most frustrating things about this, however, is the far too prevalent tendency to oversimplify the factors contributing to the state of the present, and the comic book level vilification and dehumanization of adversaries. This problem seems to arise from a general approach and way of thinking about the world, which makes use of building a linear progression of causes and effects, and is most susceptible to committing numerous fundamental attribution errors. In short, it is the Western way of thinking about history.

Richard E. Nisbett is a professor of social psychology and co-director of the Culture and Cognition program at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. In 2003 he published a fascinating book titled The Geography of Though: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… And Why. It included various accounts of cognitive and social psychology experiments that demonstrated very notable differences in the ways East Asians (mainly from China, Japan, and Korea) and Westerners (mainly Americans) perceive the world and process information. Keeping in mind the individual differences and that Nisbett mainly cited findings from lab experiments, he showed how these findings applied at a large scale by showing how they manifested in the real world in a variety of ways. One such example was in how history is taught in Japan and the U.S. at the elementary school and college levels. Nisbett writes:

“Differences in causal reasoning between Easterners and Westerners are broader… Westerners seem to engage in more causal attribution, period. Historian Masako Watanbe has made this point beautifully in her studies of the ways Japanese and American elementary school and college students and their teachers deal with historical events.

Japanese teachers begin with setting the context of a given set of events in some detail. They then proceed through the important events in chronological order, linking each event to its successor. Teachers encourage their students to imagine the mental and emotional states of historical figures by thinking about the analogy between their situations an situations of the students’ everyday lives. The actions are then explained in terms of these feelings. Emphasis is put on the ‘initial’ event that serves as the impetus to subsequent events. Students are regarded as having good ability to think historically when they show empathy with the historical figures, including those who were Japan’s enemies. ‘How’ questions are asked frequently – about twice as often as in American classrooms.”

The amount of detail and personal involvement expected of Japanese students as they study history is incredible in its complexity when compared to what is expected of American students:

“American teachers spend less time setting the context than Japanese teachers do. They begin with the outcome, rather than with the initial event or catalyst. The chronological order of events is destroyed in presentation. Instead, the presentation is dictated by discussion of the causal factors assumed to be important (‘The Ottoman empire collapsed for three major reasons’). Students are considered to have good ability to reason historically when they are capable of adducing evidence to fit their causal model of the outcome. ‘Why’ questions are asked twice as frequently in American classrooms as in Japanese classrooms.”

Reading this I could not but think of the periodic resurgence of the claim by Neil deGrasse Tayson and others that the so-called “Golden Age” of Islam, i.e., when Muslims were scientists as imagined via projections of modern people to the past, came to an end because of one man and one man only – Imam Abu Hāmid al-Ghazāli. One is left wondering what is worse: that someone looked up to as a “public intellectual” and self-declared “educator” would be so simpleton in his historical analysis, or that many people actually believe this. Nisbett further relates what Watanabe thinks of this type of thinking:

“Watanabe labels American historical analysis as ‘backward’ reasoning because events are presented in effect-cause order. She notes the similarity of this to goal-oriented reasoning: define the goal to be achieved and develop a model that will allow you to attain it…

Consistent with the lesser complexity of the world they live in, Westerners see fewer factors as being relevant to an understanding of the world than Easterners do…the tendency to see so many factors as relevant to the outcome [as is the case with Easterners] was related to the degree to which the individual held holistic beliefs about the world.”

Although these differences in approaching history intellectually favour the East, The Geography of Thought is not meant to be an indictment of Western modes of thinking. Nisbett does point out advantages and disadvantages for both East and West as they each have their weaknesses and specific cognitive errors, and makes it clear that despite the general patterns that distinguish them no individual falls completely on side or the other. However, there is a general tendency today to look West for progress and enlightenment, and to attribute superstition and irrationality to the East. What Nisbett shows through studies spanning the globe is how ill-conceived this idea is and what we can gain by learning from the East.


For in-depth discussions with Mohamed Ghilan on books such as the one featured in this Vignette through an Islamic perspective, join Andalus Book Club.

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