The Modern World: Global History since 1910

This is obviously the second half of the huge history course that I wrote about a couple of months ago. This second part is, if anything, even larger, comprising as many weeks and with videos that add up to a significantly longer duration. Naturally it’s also the part that will be most familiar and perhaps most exciting for people, including as it does in its scope the two World Wars, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and even everything up to the 9/11 attacks.

Since the videos were all made at the same time, the quality both in terms of content and presentation is an excellent as before. Still there are inevitable differences, not the least of which is because the period of time being covered is so much shorter now. Whereas the previous course covered major events with broad strokes, this course talks about the events of the 20th century in much more detail. Its treatment of the two world wars is practically a play-by-play, down to individual battles and major decisions made by all parties on the strategic level. While I mostly enjoyed this wealth of detail, I have to admit that even I got bored sometimes when it’s hard to grasp whether or not something is truly important on a global scale.

Just as the previous course can be summed up as the story of the world being dominated by Europe, this one is largely the story of the United States coming into its own. Having turned decisively away from its isolationist instincts, the US finds itself inextricably entangled with the rest of the world and it so it both changes and is changed by every other country. One thing to note is that while professor Phillip Zelikow had been able to maintain a fairly neutral tone for the previous course, this one isn’t just US-centric but explicitly on the side of the US and its allies. This is only to be expected and it’s a good thing that Zelikow tries to be fair but doesn’t pretend to hide his own opinion that the “good guys” won the two World Wars and ultimately prevailed in the Cold War. After all, it’s one thing to be dispassionate about the huge tragedies that happened hundreds of years ago but it’s another thing entirely to affect to feel nothing about things that happened to your parents and grandparents.

One minor problem may be that the course assumes that the students taking it are reasonably intelligent and knowledgeable about 20th century events. No similar assumption was made for the previous course. This means that it serves to fill in the details but doesn’t try very hard to introduce the events themselves. It may seem laughable to have to tell students that there was such a thing as the Korean War and who fought in it, but I’m no longer surprised by people lacking basic knowledge in history. This structure worked well for me but I can see it easily loosing a lot of people. I suspect that students from China for example could find themselves somewhat lost.

Anyway I learned plenty here and would recommend it highly to anyone interested in history. I especially appreciated the reminder that though it now feels like a tired footnote in history, communism was once a potent force. I also enjoyed hearing all of those anecdotes, such as how Charlie Chaplin was once nearly assassinated by Japanese nationalists. I do have to say that my experience was severely degraded by Coursera no longer allowing non-paying students to even submit answers to quizzes for evaluation. I don’t care at all about certification but I find that taking the extra effort of doing the quizzes does wonders for my ability to focus attention on the lectures and retain it afterwards.

Finally, I note that as this course was made a few years ago, it doesn’t take into account the events that have happened since. To me, watching these videos in 2016, it feels to me that nationalism is resurgent all around the world, even in the United States with the rise of Donald Trump. Zelikow claims that part of the modern world is the remarkable rise of liberal values. I don’t disagree but it feels to me that this resurgence of nationalism is a counter-reaction to a globalized liberalism, strengthened perhaps by the fact that we live in relatively peaceful times so that nations feel less need to band together for protection and more able to selfishly demand for things that benefit only themselves. But as Zelikow also notes, it’s not like there are a lack of challenges in common in the 21st century and these problems, including climate change, terrorism and the rise of ultra-hazardous technologies, require more not less international cooperation to solve. Politicians who appeal to the nationalist instincts of their citizenry are endangering the future of the world by making such cooperation more difficult. Zelikow ended the course by noting that the future feels murky and a lot more uncertain that when he was young. Unfortunately in the few years since then, it has taken a dark turn that even he didn’t predict.

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