Nonorganic Growth of Nations

India’s rapid economic growth — and its long-standing poverty — are also reflected in the census. More than half of all Indian households now have cellphones, but fewer than half have toilets. [NPR 2012]

More recently:

Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday that it would allow women to drive, ending a longstanding policy that has become a global symbol of the oppression of women in the ultraconservative kingdom.  [NYT 2017]

I would guess most people reading this learned history with a focus on Europe and the United States. One worry is that the West, as the technological leaders of the world for most of modern history, has a story that does not apply to developing countries today. Instead of progressing “organically” like the West, many countries today have built their laws, cultures, and institutions in different orders.

The United States began with a document outlining the principle of self governance. It had, at the time, a colonial and economic relationship with Great Britain. It was 14 years after the publication of The Social Contract, which was itself part of a larger body of work in the Enlightenment. And it took several weeks for news and communication to travel across the Atlantic. These were part of a larger number of factors that all aligned to make the Declaration of Independence happen.

Now imagine you skip to the Information Age and ask a particular faction of some war-torn country, whose primary export by overwhelming majority is oil, to draft some documents like the above. I worry that we look for the good things in the past and try to duplicate them in other places today, but fail to consider the circumstances that made them good.

What happens when social media appears before secularization? Airplanes before representative government? Our lessons from history don’t apply.

To be certain, I am very in favor of teaching Western history as it is so crucial to understand the big themes of the modern era. It alone contains the world-changing arcs like the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. But we need to consider what happens when countries make progress out of order compared to what we have learned.

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