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May 19, 2011 11:09 AM   Subscribe

How can I get a better grasp on US/World history so I will better understand current events/stop looking stupid?

I had a not-particularly-great K-12 education, in which history and social studies, especially at the high school level, were particularly bad. Now 23 and a college graduate, I still am pretty shaky on a lot of things I should definitely know (say, what decade WWI was in... yikes!). I've got a couple months of partial unemployment, and I'd like to use them to get all this stuff straight in my head.

Some things really interested me as a kid/teen so I learned about them on my own time. So I'm pretty well set on ancient civilizations, histories of the Americas maybe until the 1600s (pre-European contact and maybe a couple centuries past), I'm pretty good on European history up through say the 1700s? I have spotty knowledge of the histories of Asia and Africa... what interested me, I read up on, but I don't have a good overall picture.

Things that I'd like to focus on-- pretty much all of American history past the civil war-- in school I think we only got past this point maybe once, and then we only got to WWI, so especially, especially WWI and beyond with a focus on the US. I'm so embarrassed to admit what I don't know past this point. It's a mess. What do I absolutely need to know about here?

So this question is basically asking for a list of things I need to know-- sort of history essentials for a decent overall picture of world history and a more detailed picture of US history that I can build on to understand current events better. I'm not really looking for a very detailed

And in addition to lists, also resources I can use? Especially with things laid out in timelines/charts. Internet/free is better but if there is an absolutely amazing book I need to buy, I could do that.

bonus-- I'd love to understand middle eastern history and politics like, at all. where can I start there?
posted by geegollygosh to Education (30 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly, I'd start with Wikipedia. It's probably not the absolute best resource out there, but you can start with something you're interested in (say, WWI) and spin off into the more specific (and more america-specific) article from there if you want. It's easy to spend hours link hopping in Wikipedia if you get into the topics. You can even start on their History of the United States page if you're not sure what specific thing you want to start with.
posted by brainmouse at 11:14 AM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Get something like a "Dummy's Guide to World History" or whatever, and read it. At the same time, in a notebook, create a chart with 3 columns. Track events since 1900 in each of the columns - use a column for the US, a column for Europe and a column for Asia. Then you can compare what was happening at the same time in different parts of the world.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:16 AM on May 19, 2011

The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy wouldn't be a bad first stop.
posted by Zed at 11:18 AM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

A change of schools and some opportune lying led to me never taking the 2nd half of US History in high school. Then I grew up a produced a child who is a history nerd, and found myself playing catch up. The "Don't Know Much About History" book was useful as a quick catch up. A People's History of The United States is controversial because it looks at US History from the point of view of those that were oppressed in America's march to might, the Native Americans, slaves, women, etc. But I think it's indispensable in understanding how the US became a world power, and who get run over on the way.
posted by COD at 11:22 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd highly recommend picking up a copy of Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the United States. It presents the history of the country from pre-colonial times to the modern day in a funny, accessible, memorable way that's still really informative. I even used it to help review for my AP US History exam back in high school -- it was good for recapturing the broad strokes after focusing on all the details. You can browse the first few chapters for free here.

If you like that, you can also check out Gonnick's similar (and lengthier) Cartoon History of the Universe, a multiple-volume series released over decades which covers everything from the Big Bang to the dinosaurs through ancient history and up to the modern day.
posted by Rhaomi at 11:23 AM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm not qualified to try to answer your whole question, but I have a suggestion. The only way I was able to absorb history in a way that made it stick was to approach it from the perspective of people who lived it--by reading good (and enjoyable) historical fiction, memoirs, and biographies. Just looking at timelines and trying to memorize them is futile, and not fun either. Definitely, though, have timelines (which others here will recommend) and maps available and study them with your other reading to add factual context. Movies can be part of this project, too. If you approach learning history in the form of absorbing stories, it becomes a hobby instead of a chore. Eventually, it all starts to glom together.
posted by Corvid at 11:25 AM on May 19, 2011

Seconding Larry Gonick's stuff. It's so good that some colleges actually assign it for extra reading. The "Cartoon History of the Universe" also addresses some aspects of World History that most "world history" courses often don't even pay attention to, so you'd be ahead of the game.

Oh, and don't feel bad about the gaps in your knowlege -- I don't think any schools manage to get much past the Civil War in their history classes.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:25 AM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think there are lots of different ways to approach this. I'd try a bunch of them and see what works for you. I'm concentrating on US history, but the same ideas could work for world.

1. Try lighter (but not dumb) overview for a quick orientation. I'm a total fan of Larry Gonick's cartoon history books, e.g. The Cartoon History of the U.S. (On preview, it looks like everyone agrees!)

2. Try heavier (but still accessible) overviews. The Oxford History of the US series isn't complete (there's a big gap between the Civil War and the Depression) but they are all considered excellent books.

3. Many people have trouble with "pure" history but get engaged with biographies and more culturally-focused history works. Pick some periods you're interested in and find some well-liked biographies of significant (or even not so significant) people. It's a great way to get a feel for a period -- you might do this before some of the overviews, I find stuff sticks better in the mind that way.

4. Totally use Wikipedia to fill in gaps and understand side references in things.

5. Consider working backwards. I have a pet theory that history would be best studied that way for some people. Read something current, get curious about how it got that way, read something a little older, get curious about the roots of that and so on until before you know it you're dealing with Babylonian stuff or whatever.

6. You can have a plan, but excitement and curiosity will carry you farther. Follow your curiosity!
posted by feckless at 11:29 AM on May 19, 2011

It depends on your learning style. Do you do better with snippets of information? Better with a whole book? Better when your learning is self-controlled, or better when someone else sets the agenda?

I do better with self-controlled snippets, so I second Brainmouse's suggestion to start with Wikipedia. You could start with the History of the United States, which also has links to 11 more specific pages that focus on smaller time frames from pre-colonial times to today. Or you could start with the 1700s and go from there - Wikipedia even has a crazy big listing of decades that you can use to visit each decade that interests you.

So if you prefer self-directed snippets, Wikipedia is a good start. It's also a good place to go if you hear about an interesting event, or realize you don't know something you should.

But I think the most important thing is to approach learning in a way that interests you. Don't set big goals like "I'll learn every major battle in WWII!" unless you really want to learn every major battle in WWII. Instead, let your mind wander to interesting things, and if you get bored come back to them later. You'll remember them much better that way, and you'll keep learning throughout your life it learning is fun and self-controlled rather than a chore you've assigned yourself. Corvid's response is a good example of this - Corvid learns better through interesting historical narratives, so that's how Corvid approaches history.
posted by Tehhund at 11:40 AM on May 19, 2011

I really like David G. McCullough's books. He goes into excellent detail on the leaders he profiles, and creates the context of the world and the issues of the time that shaped the leader's decisions.

He is very readable.
posted by rich at 11:43 AM on May 19, 2011

I agree with Corvid: I don't learn by reading facts and dates; I learn by being engaged.

In college I studied music history. Using that as a jumping off point, I am now pretty familiar with Europe during the period of 1200-1900, including non-musical (or tangential) topics like religion, architecture, medicine, science, art, and other things. I can spout dates with the best of them (but still have a mental block when it comes to specific dates of wars, for some reason).

I recommend finding something specific about history that interests you. Looking at civil rights in the U.S., for example, would teach you about American history from Columbus to the present. If you're interested in medicine, you could look at the vast changes in that field from the Civil War onward. Maybe the history of Middle Eastern/U.S. trade would work. It's hard to say without knowing your personal interest or educational background.

I guess what I'm saying is that becoming an expert of sorts in one area will turn you into an informed person about many, many other related areas.
posted by coolguymichael at 11:44 AM on May 19, 2011

The "best" way entirely depends on what kind of learner you are. For me, context is everything. I do my best history learning with a combination of comparative timelines (e.g. What was happening in Japan when we were fighting the civil war?) and backwards or sideways learning, as feckless suggests. For example, I've got a thing for 'The Age of Sail', and the minutiae of life at sea. This led me to learn about European politics in the 16th-19th centuries to find out about the causes of the wars that launched the ships that I am so interested in. This led to reading about the War of 1812 because I wanted to know about the differences between the American Navy and the European Navy at the time. And so on.

Find something that interests you, as you've clearly done on your own already, and spread outwards from there. Wikipedia and the public libraries are your friends.

On preview, what other people are saying.
posted by bluejayway at 11:45 AM on May 19, 2011

Once, long ago, I helped to research an encyclopedia of terrorism. Inadvertently, I acquired a broad but shallow education inthe history of the 20th century. Because the history of terrorism is the history if ideological and cultural conflict, and learning about it entails learning a lot about why people hate each other enough to kill each other in the first place. So if you care to go that route, you might wiki up, say:

Baader meinhoff group
Italian red brigade
Moro liberation front
Shining path
Che guavara

And relatedly:
Gamel Abdul Nasser
Partition of India
Mikhail Bakunin
Communist congress
Revolutions of 1848
Karl Marx
Otto Von Bismark
Ibn Saud

And, because he's a personal fave of mine - Roger Casement
posted by Diablevert at 11:45 AM on May 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

I received The Cartoon History of the United States from my MeFite Secret Santa and it taught me all sorts of things I didn't know. It only touched on most things but it was a nice recap and a good start for further exploring.

I also read a lot of WWII non-fiction, which helped me build up a nice understanding of that time in America's history. From there you can't help but learn a bit about WWI and the cold war, since they're all somewhat tied in with each other.
posted by bondcliff at 12:01 PM on May 19, 2011

Go through Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" one wikipedia article at a time. That get's you the 50's through the 80's. If your education was like mine, that era was pretty much never mentioned.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:01 PM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

This book covers a lot of history, focusing on the growth of human knowledge. It's written in a pretty engaging way.
posted by delmoi at 12:05 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

For modern Middle East history and politics, you'll probably want to start by reading up on the post-World War I mandates, which set the stage for today's states. Here's an All Things Considered segment (and transcript), and this site has some good videos and maps about twentieth century Middle East history (though it seems only the video I linked to is free). Wikipedia has entries for each of the mandates. Though it's aimed at teachers, PBS also has a good site for the history of Middle Eastern nation-states, as well as a timeline and a bunch of links to other sites. From there, you can jump into other major themes from the second half of the twentieth century (Pan-Arab nationalism, the Cold War, Nasserism in the 1950s and early 1960s, Israel-Palestine, Westernization in Iran followed by the Iranian Revolution, resource management across the Arab Middle East, The Ba'ath Party and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent rise of the Taliban).
posted by lilac girl at 12:13 PM on May 19, 2011

The American Presidency by Gore Vidal is really compelling little summary of American history which can be read in one sitting. I wish I had read it when I was younger. Vidal can be pretty flippant, but he really ties things together.
posted by ovvl at 12:17 PM on May 19, 2011

Two things that have worked well for me:

1) Watch and read a ton of historical fiction. Even if it's not particularly good stuff, as long as it gives you a sense to time and place, it's going to help you start tying events, places, and social movements together. I didn't intend to read Connie Willis books or watch Mad Men for the history, but you kind of end up being interested in it anyway along the way. When you come across events later, it really helps to have that context, and a lot of characters and fiction will stay with you in a way that dry facts don't.

2) Get a nice, big notebook and start a timeline. Finding a pre-made one for reference can be useful, but you'll get a lot more out of keeping a personalized running timeline of your own. Start blank, and every time you read or hear or think or ask about an event, add it to the timeline. Moon landing, Napoleon's march into Russia, that episode of Doctor Who, you name it. When you have a framework you can start to build context, and that's invaluable.
posted by you're a kitty! at 12:56 PM on May 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

I would add in Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, because it straightens out some common misperceptions and gives you many terrific jumping off points.
posted by batmonkey at 1:12 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I read Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud a couple years ago and really liked it.

More than a chronological history of the world, it manages to contextualize events and explains things like where monotheism comes from, why governments are structured they way they are, etc. It's big, but it's readable and worth the investment of time. It doesn't cover the 20th century, however.
posted by auto-correct at 1:28 PM on May 19, 2011

As far as the First World War is concerned, there is an unfortunately limited amount of information the US public school system offers (no matter how good or bad your schooling had been). As a person that slept through most of high school - but particularly my social studies classes - I am now a full convert and going into a career in History Education (with a particular interest in WWI).

I realize books can be a little costly, but there are 3 that are particularly good reads about what was then called "The War to End All Wars" (and google books has previews of two of them):

Gallipoli By Alan Moorehead (w/preview) - Tells the story of the ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) invading the Turkish peninsula of Gallipoli

Regerneration By Pat Barker (w/preview) - A mix of fact and fiction set in a British military hospital

Unknown Soldiers By Neil Hanson - Follows the diaries of 3 soldiers - one American, one Englishman and one German

(if I was only buying one of the books, it would be Unknown Soldiers, FWIW)

The books aren't exactly centered on America... but considering the US didn't get into the war until 1917 (and the war ran from 1914 till 1918), it would make sense that we weren't exactly the center of attention. I have plenty of other books to guide you towards if you are really interested in the subject. MeFi mail me if you'd like and I'll throw out more suggestions.
posted by Yzerfan at 1:41 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

This book covers a lot of history, focusing on the growth of human knowledge. It's written in a pretty engaging way.
posted by delmoi at 2:05 PM on May 19 [+] [!]

That's actually one of a trilogy: The Creators, The Discovers, and The Seekers, a pretty good survey of history from Day 1 to current-day (through somewhere in the 1990s I think), all written by Daniel Boorstin. I read the first two some time back and am reading The Seekers, which covers religious thought, philosophy and politics, currently.
posted by Doohickie at 3:01 PM on May 19, 2011

Does it need to be reading material? There are some excellent history podcasts out- here's a list of suggestions. The Lars Brownworth ones are great, although not exactly the area you are looking for.

Seconding the books of David McCullough. He takes a story where you already know the ending, and makes it a page-turner.
posted by ambrosia at 3:12 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just finished reading Geoffrey Blainey's A Short History of the Twentieth Century. Very readable narrative style, and I feel like it has filled a lot of gaps for me.
posted by AnnaRat at 3:15 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Kid Charlemagne: "Go through Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" one wikipedia article at a time. That get's you the 50's through the 80's. If your education was like mine, that era was pretty much never mentioned."

You know, I kinda did this; not officially, but half-assedly, on and off. Great idea.

I've discovered that I seem to know more about politics and such in the 1950s through the 1970s than my parents do, and they were alive through that time period. How? The comic book store up the road in sixth grade sold MAD magazines for a quarter a pop. MAD pretty much made fun of EVERYONE that was in the zeitgeist at that moment.
posted by notsnot at 3:28 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

John M. Barry's The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History is a terrific read about the WWI era in the US. While I'm sure I must have learned the basic info in high school history about when/how WWI was fought, I had no idea of the size and scope of the 1918 flu epidemic. Also by the same author is Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, another great read, and one that's particularly relevant to current events with the levees.
posted by oh yeah! at 7:37 PM on May 19, 2011

If you can get hold of it, The People's Century is a documentary series about the 20th century, focusing on well, ordinary people's lives. It covers world history but possibly with a UK bias (it's been a while since I watched it).
posted by plonkee at 12:40 AM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

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