THE RISE, FALL, AND COLLAPSE OF CIVILIZATIONS

Rachel Hansen, Big History Teacher
Iowa, USA

“The situation today is like flying one of those pedal-driven contraptions with flapping wings that people created before discovering the laws of aerodynamics. At first, when the flight begins, all appears well. The airman has been pushed off the edge of the cliff and is pedaling away. But the aircraft is slowly falling.”

ayers-flying-machine

Aerial Machine invented by Dr. W. O. Ayres of New Haven (1885). Scientific American published May 9, 1885. Public domain.

This is the description of “civilizational flight” from Daniel Quinn’s novel, Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. In Quinn’s metaphor, our civilization is a poorly designed aircraft, doomed for collapse and on a dangerously misunderstood flight. We’ve made an unfortunate miscalculation, mistaking freefall for flight.

The Rise, Fall, and Collapse of Civilizations, in Lesson 7.2, raises thought-provoking questions about civilizations that experienced this same disastrous “civilizational flight.” What I appreciate most about this activity is the simplicity of the directions and the freedom for students to explore the causes of societal collapse on their own.

Students choose three civilizations of the past, and then begin conducting their investigation. Included in their research is the reason for collapse, the claim testers, theory alignment (internal weakness, external conquests, environmental disasters), and citations. The activity is a great way to put the claim testers to work, and an engaging opportunity for students to build their skills in using evidence in argumentation. It also makes for an incredibly insightful Socratic seminar discussion, filled with more questions than answers.

We set up this activity with some visual note-taking on Jared Diamond’s TED Talk, “Why Do Societies Collapse?”. In his talk, Diamond outlines a five-point framework for collapse, using the Greenland Norse to illustrate his thesis:

● Human impacts on the environment
● Climate change
● Relations with friendly neighbors
● Relations with hostile neighbors
● Political, economic, social, and cultural factors

Our students find questions of societal collapse intriguing. This activity stirs up their intellectual curiosity, which compels them to find answers to challenging questions and ask more of their own. What happened to the Anasazi? Why did the Mayan civilization collapse just after its peak? To what extent does our own civilization show warning signs of collapse?

About the author: Rachel Hansen is a high school history and geography teacher in Muscatine, IA. Rachel teaches the BHP world history course over two 180-day semesters to about 50 ninth- through twelfth-grade students each school year.

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