Core Knowledge, Magellan, and the Great Man Theory of HistoryPosted: October 12, 2009
I guess in honor of Columbus Day the Core Knowledge Blog has put up a list of questions about the Age of Exploration. The first question is this:
1. Who was the first explorer to circumnavigate the world?
The answer they list below is:
This is going to sound like nitpicking, but this answer is wrong. Magellan, as I am sure the folks over there know, never circumnavigated the world, having died mid-journey. His crew, or rather, 18 of his original crew, did make it around the globe, but not him.
Is that nitpicking? I suppose people will say that it’s common to talk about expeditions under the names of their leaders in historical discussion, but that’s not the way the question is phrased. It’s not asking what the first expedition to circumnavigate the globe was — it’s asking who the first explorer to circle the globe was.
I tend to see this as a bit of a Freudian slip — for reasons I can grasp intuitively but find hard to express there is a strong link between the Core Knowledge people and the Great Man Theory of History. It’s no surprise that where you find a Core Knowledger getting the vapors it’s usually over someone forgetting the name of a 19th century President.
On their “Age of Exploration” quiz, the answers to ten of the twelve questions are the names of explorers. Not the nations the explorers were from, or the technologies that made such exploration possible. Not even how the various expeditions were funded, or who stood to gain. Certainly not the social context.
This is not accidental, although it may be unconscious. There is a persistent push in these questions that we must associate all achievement (and conversely all atrocities, I suppose) with the actions of individuals, and not the societies or institutions that produced them. Can someone explain to me how that is *not* a highly ideological stance?
It wasn’t Spain that first circumnavigated the world. It was *Magellan*. Through his individual gumption. Through the force of his character. Through his rugged individualism. Through his not-on-the-dole initiative.
[And he never took a hand-out except for, you know, that whole state funded venture]
Forget the backers of the expedition, the hundreds of men that died, the eighteen that made it, the Basque captain that finished the journey. Forget the societal context (Not! A! Fact!).
It was Magellan who first circumnavigated the globe. Even if it wasn’t.