Modern or Western Civilization is a historical field that is always at odds with itself: What is modern? Where do you start? What is the “Western” civilization and is it superior to the “Eastern”? Who are we including and why? Who are we disregarding and why? How are the events studied linked together? Do they need to be? What is the purpose of studying such a wide span of time and disparate events? Yet “Western Civ” or “Modern Civ” remain required courses for students at thousands of schools across the country because, problematic though it may be, it is still important.
At the forefront of digital education, UCLA has a number of interesting and informative video lecture series on its youtube channel. The course instructor, Professor Lynn Hunt, is a Modern European historian with varied specialties and interests, from gender to her most recent work on human rights. As she mentions in some of the course videos, she also co-authored a Western Civilization textbook and is therefore quite aware of the problems inherent to the field, something she addresses in her first lecture.
Although viewers will get the most benefit from watching all of the lectures in order, they are fairly self-contained lectures so if you are only interested in the French Revolution, for example, you can skip ahead to Lecture 3. This series was taped in the spring of 2009.
Lecture 1: Introduction/French Revolution
The first lecture in this series is primarily an introduction to the course and thus also to the idea and definition of modern civilization. Hunt describes the course as having two themes: “The West” and “Modernity” – especially: why is what we call “modernity” associated with “The West?” Please note, technical difficulties plague these videos at various points during the series, most notably on this video for the first 6-7 minutes.
Lecture 2: The Enlightenment
Professor Hunt discusses the place of gender within this conversation and the rise of polite culture. Although it may seem strange to modern day audiences, the “age of reason” is a massive change for cultures that previously employed logic derived from the Bible. In the Age of Reason, “public opinion” became a huge force for the first time.
Lecture 3: The French Revolution
For those of us who have wondered why the French Revolution was the revolution (and we’ve all wondered that, haven’t we?), Professor Hunt’s third lecture in the series is an illuminating lesson. She discusses the birth of ideology and “-isms,” and for those looking to win Trivia Night, the origin of the political terms “left” and “right.” Interestingly, Hunt continually asks her class to consider why certain events occur when and where they do; why, for example, did the Revolution occur in France rather than England or Russia? She gives a few rationales, but this is a good tool to use when viewing the rest of her lectures and possibly in your own classroom.
Lecture 4 is currently unavailable on UCLA’s YouTube Channel
Lecture 5: 19th Century Europe
While Hunt’s fifth lecture is ambiguously titled “19th Century Europe,” the subject is primarily that of industrialization in Europe during the nineteenth century, particularly in England. She discusses how industrialization can create surplus and how that can change a society as well as the nature of work. Also, during this time, there is a great standardization began taking place due to railroads. In particular, this meant that the standardization of time and time zones. Prior to railroads, humans could only conceivably travel so far in the span of a day and standardized time was not important. Now, depots coordinated arrivals and departures across large swaths of land as people and things moved farther and faster than they ever had in history.
Lecture 6: Revolutionary Movements
Professor Hunt breaks down the ideologies that were formed in reaction to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. She also discusses the rise of nationalism and makes a point to observe that nationalism actually started out as a left-wing ideology, unlike today when it is considered a right-wing ideology (this discussion begins around the thirty minute mark). According to Hunt, nationalism is probably the most underestimated force in modern history.
Lecture 7: Nationalism and Nation States
Speaking of the continued modernization in Europe, Hunt discusses the rise of national and racial superiority and its relationship to military violence. She also discusses the rise of “realpolitik” which is a system of politics or principals based on strategy or practical results rather than morals or ideology. During this time, it is connected to the larger emergences of realism in art and science as well as politics. A Madam Bovary discussion ensues around 9 minutes, so consider this your Spark Notes!
Lecture 8 is currently unavailable on the UCLA YouTube Channel.
Lecture 9: Imperialism and Mass Politics
As Hunt demonstrates, the dance between imperialism and mass politics is complicated and messy, and notes that it has been suggested that the masses lost their edge to imperialism and the newness and wonders of unknown lands. During this lesson, a TF lecturer discusses the ways in which Europe created the “other,” particularly through the use of the imagery of nature (e.g. “savagery”). Hunt then discusses the rise of new forms of mass culture during this imperialist moment; imperialism takes on an air of adventure, discovery, manliness, and dominance – ushering in an era of racism, national, and anti-Semitism as well.
Lecture 10: The Enlightenment II/Fin de Siècle
Despite its “Enlightenment” title, lecture 10 is actually about the Fin de Siècle (literally “end of the century” in French) as a challenge to the Enlightenment, a challenge to reason, and a challenge to notion of the forward march of progress. These challenges were most evident in the realms of art, politics, and philosophy, although they were by no means contained to them. Professor Hunt particularly focuses on the work of Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche. Freud’s challenge to reason came through his introduction of the idea of the “unconscious self” and the idea of infantile sexuality, while Nietzsche attacked a whole host of established ideas, even suggesting that “God is dead, we have killed him” – that civilization was declining, not progressing. The Nietzsche discussion begins around the 20-minute mark, and last through the 45-minute mark, when Hunt begins her discussion of Freud – which might seem like a long stretch until you remember how confusing Nietzsche is.
Lecture 11: World War I
As she so often does, Professor Hunt provides her class with the central thesis of her lecture, and for this one it’s that World War I is so destructive that it actually changes the political and cultural landscape for the first half of the twentieth century. Given the chief role WWI will play in the upcoming decades, it is essential to parse through the confusion to understand the event. Many people are aware of the immediate cause of the war (the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie by Gavril Princip), but Hunt also addresses the underlying, essential causes of the war. The first theory suggested by historians was that the political alliance system required countries to become involved when their allies did. After World War II, however, historians began to suggest that the war was perhaps also instigated by Germany which was looking to increase its imperial holdings and its standing in world politics. She then provides a thorough overview of the war itself.
Lecture 12: Duel Power
The last segment in this series features a guest lecturer addressing the subject of the Russian Revolution and covers the period roughly from 1917 to the late 1930s. This period, the lecturer declares, is one marked by binaries: by participation and coercive terror, by death and misery as well as happiness and hope, and by freedom and control. He discusses why Russia, a country that had been existence for centuries, imploded almost overnight: the fallout from a late and rapid industrialization, the devastation Russia suffered during World War I, the refusal of the czar to institute reforms, among other reasons.