World History

So I’ve been making a tour of all of the online education portals. I’ve long been embarrassed by how weak my math skills are and I’ve been doing remedial work on them on Khan Academy, a site which is probably still best known for its math exercises. Recently however, I discovered that the site has expanded to include all kinds of different topics, including a vast library of videos covering the history of the world as a whole. There must be something like over a hundred hours of videos there on history. It took a ridiculous amount of time to do so but I can now happily say that I’ve been through every bit of the content that’s available so far.

First off, when the site calls it the history of the world, it means it. The videos cover practically every corner of the Earth and ranges from human prehistory to roughly the Cold War in the 20th century. Have you ever heard of Tarhunt the Conqueror? Now you have. Of course, the coverage is uneven. There is a ton of material on the Roman Empire and the detail that the course goes into each of Napoleon’s campaigns seem a bit much. On the other hand, the course seems to be trying but coverage of the history of China still seems a bit spotty. I expect that new videos will be continually added to fill in the blanks and indeed I’ve seen new ones being added even while I was following the course. Still there’s so such stuff here that I can’t begrudge the coverage being unbalanced. This course won’t make you an expert but even if you knew nothing else going in, it’s still enough to make you know more than the vast majority of people.

In addition to the videos, the course has questionnaires, of which there are two types. The first is the usual quiz to help cement what you’ve learned in the videos into your memory. The second shows you an excerpt of some text that asks you questions about it. The latter is more interesting as it demands some critical thinking as the questions are deliberately written so as not to be straightforward. Unfortunately only a small fraction of the modules so far have questionnaires and even for those that do have them, the database of available questions seems to be so small that questions are often repeated. It feels a little silly when, out of a seven question quiz, two or even three are the same question. The format is sound enough and hopefully they’ll work on expanding the quizzes and not just keep adding videos. There are also text review pages with no narration. I liked these a lot as I often absorb information faster through reading instead of listening.

As with the videos on mathematics, the vast majority of the content is narrated by Khan Academy founder Sal Khan himself. There are the occasional guests and I find that I always appreciate these special appearances as when, for example, art or history experts show up to explain the details of works of art. I do have some concerns that Khan himself is not a historian and seems to be mostly self-taught. I think it would help somewhat if students were assured that the content has been reviewed by an actual historian. To be fair Khan does always remind the audience of his amateur status and always asks viewers to study the primary material themselves and make up their own minds. But we all know that most people will be content to just study what is available here and take him at his word. At the very least, instead of repeating endlessly that he is botching the pronunciations, wouldn’t it be more helpful to consult experts and get them right? As a Chinese speaker, I shudder when I hear him speak Chinese names.

Overall, there’s no disputing the immense value of the course. I think, given the state of our modern world, the most valuable section might be the primers on the history of the world’s most important religions. It’s a fantastic resource for everyone to understand the principles and history of religions whose influence continue to exert incalculable influence on world events. Even as a Malaysian for example, I confess that I didn’t fully understand the roots of the Sunni-Shia divide until I studied them here. I am also certain that most adherents of any given religion know only a tiny fraction of the history of their own religion that is taught here. The world would be a far better place if everyone who had an opinion on something based on their religion watches these videos first.

Apart of this, Khan does a bunch of other stuff that I think is especially clever. One of these is quoting extensively from the source material where appropriate. Reading the actual texts of oaths, treaties and whatnot from thousands of years ago is surprising source of insight. I also like his special sections highlighting the role of women in various civilizations. His repeated admonitions not to overly romanticize history is great as well, reminding us of the terrible human cost that comes in the wake of so-called great people like Alexander the Great. If nothing else, this course is a fantastic source of trivia that will be endlessly useful in parties. Did you know for example about the relationship between the word ‘Aryan’ and modern-day Iran? Or that the title ‘Pope’ came from the Pontifex Maximus of the Roman pantheon?

A quibble that I have is that Khan does talk a bit too much and that there is too much redundancy between videos. There’s an endearing quality in this being more of a conversation than a lecture but I do wish it were edited down and cleaned up a bit. One section includes videos from Crash Course, an entirely different series. I don’t like the flippant attitude of the host there but there is something about being succinct and valuing the audience’s time there that I think Khan should emulate. I think it would also help a lot if each video ends with a citation of the sources used to encourage follow-up study.

I thought I was fairly knowledgeable and well-read on history before this but I was pleasantly surprised by how much more there is to learn. Even for those who know most of it, there’s a lot of value in seeing it all together like this and becoming aware of how one piece of history here links to another piece there. For example, I was struck when Khan compares the price of the Louisiana Purchase at 60 million Francs to the 90 million Francs that France demanded from Haiti as reparations in return for recognizing its independence. It really does give you a powerful sense of perspective on the horrible injustice that was done to the fledgling country. It’s fair to say that I’ve learned from this course but I think it has also made me a lot more cynical about human greed and how it drives pretty much everything.

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