The End of Western Civ 2: Balancing Content and Context

I love teaching survey courses, which is good because I teach them a lot. In particular, I’ve poured a lot of thought into the philosophical, practical, pedagogical, functional, ideological, and other words ending in “al” aspects of teaching a sequence that, in my institution, is labeled “Western Civ.” One of the most fascinating parts of teaching is getting to the end of Western Civ 2, because students in my experience are most intrigued by the 1990s. They never had it in high school, and are aware that most of the post 9/11 world, their lifetimes, was formed from events in the 1990s.

Where I want to develop this further is particularly in teasing out what are the big issues at the start of the 21st century–conflict, genocide, natural resources, nationalism/race/ethnicity, technology and the use of military force, information, wealth disparity, poverty, disease, human rights–and stay focused on these throughout the course. For the last few lessons, we used Mason’s Modern Europe, third edition, and a variety of documentaries in class, including but not limited to National Geographic’s series on the 1990s (which I can only find bits of on YouTube, and part of Frontline’s United States of Secrets. And I was going to use clips of Goldhagen’s Genocide: Worse than War, but that wound up getting cut.  I will admit, a certain amount of the time I was editorializing on things we were watching, or explaining how things like coffee shops, out in the Pacific Northwest where I spent my teenage years, were often attached to bookstores, and then the bookstores went away.

So, I’m still working on getting the lesson themes to hang together, and will be experimenting again in the spring (a bit more Brexit, some ISIS, some Trump I’m sure), but below are the lesson pages I created for History 102 this fall semester.

Lesson 28 The 1990s, part 1: Globalization and Mass Media

Reading Notes:

This is the world that you live in today. It began in the 1990s. More precisely, it began on August 2, 1990. when Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait. What unfolded was an unprecedented display of military power, carefully stage-managed on public media (at that time, television). By December of 1991, the Soviet Union was no more, and the United States, after the massive display of military power in Operation Desert Storm, was the world’s only superpower.

This is the origins of your world.

By 1992, with a presidential election up in the air and Los Angeles torn apart by the worst race riots since the 1960s, William Jefferson Clinton swept into the presidency and began the Clinton era that many are saying came to an end on November 8, 2016. War, global trade, the internet, social media, wealth inequality, race relations, reality tv, music, housing, the environment, financial crises, humanitarian crises–everything that you have lived with since you were aware of the world, all began in the 1990s.

The reading and viewing material for this lesson focuses on the global economy and its discontents. In class, we will discuss the content of the material, and will consider a couple other aspects of the 1990s that impacted how people interpreted these events.

Lesson Objectives:

  1. To understand and be able to explain what globalization was and how it operated in the 1990s, starting with NAFTA and ending with the protests at the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999.
  2. To analyze NAFTA as a historical treaty and assess different interpretations its impact.

  3. To understand the major currents of modern society in the 1990s, particularly the power of television to transform viewers’ perceptions of social and international affairs.

Readings and Videos to be completed BEFORE class:

–Commanding Heights: Part 3, New Rules of the Game. NOTE: You are responsible for viewing the following sections: The Global Idea and The Global Economy, 6:00 to 35:15, and  The Global Debate, from 1:14:36 to 1:54:17. I highly recommend simply watching the entire documentary, but these are the sections that you are responsible for. 

–Mark Glassman, NAFTA 20 Years After: Neither Miracle nor Disaster 

–Jana Herron, Was NAFTA Really So Bad for the Economy? 

Globalization             World Trade Organization (WTO)         Seattle protests, 1999

North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)           Bill Clinton

Study Questions:

  1. What is globalization, and what are the main arguments of its supporters and its critics?
  • Analyze the discussion around NAFTA. What did critics of NAFTA say was wrong with the treaty as it stood? What was Bill Clinton’s defense of the treaty? After reading the articles from Bloomberg and The Fiscal Times, what is your impression of NAFTA’s effects?

  • The WTO protests in Seattle in 1999 were a landmark event in the modern history of globalization. What were the protesters arguing against, and what were they arguing for? Was there any common ground between the members of the WTO and the protesters in the streets?

  • QUIZ: Your task is to write up answers to the study questions, of at least several sentences apiece. Each question is worth 5 points. 

    Further Reading and Viewing:

    –This is What Democracy Looks Like, documentary on the 1999 WTO protests (Links to an external site.)

    Lesson 29 The 1990s: The Rise and Fall of the United Nations

    Reading Notes:

    This lesson concludes our whirlwind tour of the 1990s. This was the decade of Vanilla Ice and Desert Storm, to be sure, but it was also the decade of the Internet, the PC, the United Nations, and a whole series of genocides, failed states, and failed interventions. We will be exploring some of these, and conclude with some thoughts about the debates over the future of Western Culture and world civilizations.

    Lesson Objectives:

    1. To analyze major UN interventions, major crimes against humanity, and major U.S. interventions in the 1990s.
  • To understand the major trends in popular culture and the impact of technology on the 1990s.

  • To understand what is meant by the phrase “culture wars” and how culture, including “Western Civilization,” was debated and contested in the 1990s.

  • Readings/Videos to be completed before class:

    Srebrenica 20 Years On, UN Peacekeeping Missions , 2015

    –The Atlantic, Violence and Unrest in Central Africa, 1996

    –Selection from Andrew Hartman’s 2015 book A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars  (There are countless possible readings on the 1990s’ culture wars, none of them unbiased or dispassionate. Hartman’s extract does a decent job of summarizing the major aspects of an enormously complicated topic.)

    Terms and concepts:

    Srebrenica                 Rwandan Genocide                  U.S. intervention in Haiti

    Culture Wars             Somalia and Black Hawk Down         the Internet and Personal Computers

    Study Questions:

    1. What happened at Srebrenica? How successful have UN peacekeeping missions been in preventing genocide and crimes against humanity, on the whole?
  • Leading political scientists in the early 1990s thought that either the entire world would adopt “Western values” (Fukuyama, below) or that the world plunge into a “clash of civilizations” (Huntington, below). Reading the Atlantic article on Rwanda, do you get the sense that either is correct, or that the issues of the 21st century will be entirely different?

  • In the 1990s, the entire concept of Western Civilization came under heavy attack and criticism. In a globalized economy, does “Western Civilization” even mean anything concrete? Should U.S. college students have to learn “Western Civ,” or “world history”? If so, how should it be taught?  [NOTE: These are important questions, ultimately the questions that the entire course hinges on, so give your answers some serious thought!!]

  • QUIZ, Lesson 29: Write answers of several sentences for each study question and bring them to class. Each question is worth 5 points apiece. 

    Further Reading/Viewing:

    –Chapter 1 of Irene Taviss Thompson’s Culture Wars and Enduring American Dilemmas , 2010.

    –Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations?,  from Foreign Affairs, 1993.

    –Francis Fukuyama, The End of History?, from The National Interest, 1989.

    Lesson 30 The European Union, America’s War for the Greater Middle East and Western Civ in the 21st Century

    NOTE: This lesson is structured somewhat differently. We are considering three things: The European Union, America’s wars in the Middle East, and identity (or identity crisis) of Western Civilization.


    Modern Europe, chapter 14 The European Union

    –Modern Europe, Conclusion: Europe in the Twenty-First Century

    –Robert Wright, 2015, The Clash of Civilizations that Isn’t 

    QUIZ: Your homework is to prepare responses of 3-5 sentences apiece on the study questions below. Each question is worth 6 points. 

    Study Questions:

    1. What is the goal of the European Union and what institutions have been set up to further those goals? How successful has the European Union been?
  • Where does Mason see Europe going in the 21st century? After 2012, and culminating in the events of this year, do you think this is an optimistic assessment?

  • What is Wright’s thesis in “The Clash of Civilizations that Isn’t”? How do the wars in the Middle East, immigration, and religion impact the identity or future of Western Civilization? Is “Western Civilization” even a good term to use anymore, if it was ever a good term?

  • Recommended:

    Andrew Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East 

    Sherry Wren and Michele Barry, Global Health Challenges in the 21st Century 

    Center for Strategic and International Studies, Russia’s Hybrid War in the Ukraine