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From Straight Lines to Complex Networks:
A 21st-Century Paradigm for Teaching History

John Murnane


     Often called "the father of English History," the Venerable Bede, a monk at the Northumbrian monastery of Saint Peter at Wearmouth, was the first to apply and structure a historical work using the Anno Domini system of dating history from the birth of Christ. Writing The Ecclesiastical History of the English People in 734, as historian Michael Wood put it, Bede began the idea that History is "purposeful, leading toward an appointed end."1 Bede's approach was similar to what Herbert Butterfield called the Whig interpretation of History—that all of History was heading toward a world of liberal democratic capitalism. Like Bede's History, information was selected and arranged to tell this story—to the exclusion of others. This linear system of thinking often underlies the textbook narrative style of teaching history. It remains the dominant mnemonic model, one that has not changed much since Bede's time. Yet the changes in the way information is sorted, organized, delivered and understood in the world at large has undergone dramatic changes in the last 20 years. Is it time for historians to look at this problem anew? If so, then the emerging field of "complex systems" holds new possibilities. An adaptation of the ideas and theories emerging in this new research field may hold a way out of some of the problems found in what might be called the "straight line" narrative approach to history, an approach which often requires limiting the frame of reference and distorting the picture in the process. Applied more generally, complex networks theory might help prioritize everything from State Standards and Benchmarks to the terms in E.D. Hirsch's, Dictionary of Cultural Literacy to the concepts in history textbooks to the scope and focus of standardized tests such the College Board's Advanced Placement exam in a variety of subject areas (World History, American History, Human Geography, etc).

     In Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past, sociologist and Rutgers University Professor, Eviatar Zerubavel explains many of the problems with the "straight-line" approach. He delves into how the "historical meaning of events basically lies in the way they are situated in our minds vis-à-vis other events."2 And how the straight-line method leads to gross oversimplification. These "plot lines" as Zerubavel calls them, take the form of the inevitable "progress" model (like Bede's History or the Whig interpretation of History), or the decline narrative (Oswald Spengler comes to mind), sometimes they follow a "zigzag" story line (rise and fall). But how is information selected and placed on these supposed straight lines? How can everything fit?

     Dividing history into neat periods and eras is often the answer. "Periodizing the past basically involves a mnemonic transformation of actual historical continua into seemingly discrete mental chunks such as 'the Renaissance' or 'the Enlightenment'."3 These periods are seen as separate information, organized accordingly:

As if to actually reify the distance between them, [Zerubavel writes] we also literally place different historical "periods" in different chapters (or even in different sections) of history textbooks as well as separate wings of museums, thereby helping give substance to the imaginary divides separating them from one another. Such spatial segregation certainly helps perceive those purely conventional figments of our mind as distinct, altogether separate "eras."4

     In addition, Zerubavel claims that the idea of "watersheds," watershed periods or events in history serve as "chronological anchors," and that these devices—also part of a linear organization of time and history—lead to some significant distortions with exclusionary and political overtones. The designation "pre-Columbian America" is probably the most well known case. Zerubavel explains the effect of such labeling and packaging on the study of American history:

Essentially regarded as a mere prologue to its actual history, much of America's "prehistory" is thus forgotten. Consequently, the Norse voyages to Greenland, Newfoundland, and possibly also Labrador and Nova Scotia in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries are not considered part of the standard narrative of "discovery." Although most of us are quite aware of those early crossings of the Atlantic five centuries before Columbus, we still regard his celebrated landfall in the Bahamas as the formal beginning of American history. And if America was indeed only "born" on 12 October 1492, nothing that happened there prior to that date can actually be considered part of "American history." 5

     The typical treatment of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 provides another example. Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, many textbooks begin the story leading up to the attack in 1941, with Japan's invasion of Manchuria, ten years earlier.6 These plot lines rip the story of Pearl Harbor out of its larger context, a context that goes back to at least Commodore Perry's "opening" of Japan in the 1850s, or perhaps further back to the Opium Wars (1839-1854) between Britain and China—when Japan, wishing to avoid the fate of China, decided to take a "if you can't beat them, join them" view of world politics and embarked on an imperialist course. While there are many factors at work here—including what might be called the "politics of history textbook selection" in some cases—clearly textbook authors and history teachers alike—with "too much" information deemed essential—resort to these devices, these methods of cutting up history, and distorting it in the process.7

     Complex Network theories could solve some of these problems. At the very least, the very act of reorganizing historical data could lead to new conclusions and insight. Rethinking history in the manner outlined below may even serve to "democratize" the history classroom or lecture hall. Inspired by the World Wide Web and Chaos Theory, scholars such as Mark Newman, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, Duncan J. Watts and Harry Eugene Stanley have developed some intriguing theories regarding "how everything is connected to everything else and what it means," to borrow the subtitle of Barabasi's best-selling book Linked. These scholars have uncovered a common architecture or "topography," as they call it, for the human brain, the World Wide Web, air traffic patterns, the electrical grid in the United States, word usage in any given language, social relations, the food chain, business transactions. "There is a path between any two neurons in our brain, between any two companies in the world, between any two chemicals in our body. Nothing is excluded from this highly interconnected web of life," according to Barabasi. Similar to the idea of "Six Degrees of Separation," Barabasi and his team of researchers plot connections or links between "nodes" in complex systems, finding small separations in many of these systems.

Small separations are common in just about every network scientist have had a chance to study. Indeed, species in food webs appear to be on average two links away from each other; molecules in the cell are separated on average by three chemical reactions; scientists in different fields of science are separated by four to six coauthorship links; and neurons in the brain of the C. elegans worm are separated by fourteen synapses. In fact, it appears that the Web holds the absolute record at nineteen degrees, as all other networks studied so far display a separation of between two and fourteen.8

     However, all nodes are not created equal. These self-selecting networks follow Power Laws. In other words, complex systems follow a hierarchy—some nodes are at the top with the most connections, a few others are close behind, most are very low relative to the top two or three biggest nodes in the system. The difference between a schematic of the nation's highway system versus a look at air traffic maps provided in in-flight magazines illustrates the concept. Highways connecting big cities—New York, Chicago, LA—fall into an average (an average not too different relatively speaking any other city in the United States). Look at airline flight traffic: New York, London and Tokyo explode off the page. Flights in and out of these cities are many degrees of magnitude great than other cities—Hartford Connecticut or Denver Colorado, for example.

     These insights are having real-world implications. Emily Eakin, in an article for the New York Times ("Connect, They Say, Only Connect") explains the wide-ranging applications of these new theories:

Inspired by this insight, cancer researchers are now homing in on the cell's hub proteins in order to learn how to defend them from devastating attacks. Epidemiologists studying sexually transmitted diseases are arguing that it makes more sense to identify and treat the hubs in the transmission network than to give drugs to everyone. "The Bush administration's policy to give drugs to mothers with children is completely irrelevant to stopping AIDS in Africa," Mr. Barabasi said. "It's much better to go and target the hubs." Even the United States military has begun recruiting network theorists to conduct counterterrorism research, with the goal of learning how to protect information and economic networks at home and destabilize terrorist networks abroad.9

     Why not apply these ideas to curriculum design and the teaching of history? Take the following scholarly works on the history of ideas—Mortimer J. Adler, Six Great Ideas, Isaiah Berlin, The Power of Ideas, Will Durant, The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time, R.C. Sproul, The Consequences of Ideas, Charles Van Doren, A History of Knowledge and Peter Watson, Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud. All have searchable indexes on Amazon Books. Search "Darwin," then "Hitler." Darwin is mentioned 78 times in these works; Hitler 29. Is Darwin a New-York-like node, as in the air traffic maps mentioned above, but only in the history of ideas? A new program called "Wordle" seems to be moving in this direction, providing a visual means for identifying important concepts, "nodes." Developer, Jonathan Feinberg calls it "a toy for generating ‘word clouds' from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text."10 This snapshot resulted after in-putting an on-line chapter of the History of Ancient India into the Wordle program, the text is from "Ancient India and Hinduism to 1000 BCE," part of the Macro History Website (

Figure 1

     Though the so-called "Aryan invasion of India" has long been discredited in its most extreme form, the fall of Harappan civilization and rise of Aryan society is clearly a node. While this is unlikely to come as a surprise to most history teachers, it illustrates the potential of using some of the theories developed for understanding complex networks in the study of history. If this kind of modeling were taken to a much larger scale, what would happen? What ideas would rise to the top of the list? If the data sample was large enough, it is likely that a Power-Law pattern would emerge—certain concepts would be much higher up in the scheme of things, giving teachers, textbook authors, and test designers a better sense of priorities. If for example, the Neolithic Revolution (the shift to agriculture) turns out to be the biggest "node" in all scholarly works on World History, knowing this would have serious implications for the study of World History. It would suggest the need for deeper, more rigorous lessons in this area as opposed to others further down the list. It would make the current scope of the College Board's AP World History exam seem suspect—the AP World History exam focuses on world history from 600 CE to present, as instructors and students run the gauntlet of a linear organization of information.

     Take these ideas about linking information a step further. Complex networks work because of the connections between nodes, and ultimately the connections from all parts of the network to every other part in the system. What makes certain nodes more important than others are the many connections flowing in and out of them (flowing in and out of the New-York-like nodes). Using the shift to agriculture, the connections might look like this:

Figure 1

     East-West Trade might follow a similar web of connections—Silk Road, spread of spices, porcelain, tea to all of Eurasia, Buddhism to China, Islam expands, Marco Polo, Europeans look for allies against Islam (search for Prestor John in Africa), search leads to Vasco da Gama versus Swahili for control of Indian Ocean trade, Spain out flanks Portugal, Columbus, New World, Columbian Exchange, etc. The connections go on and on. Mapping such connections for the 5 or 6 largest "nodes" of World History or American History or other areas would make teaching much more manageable. If time allows, then moving "down the list," so to speak, is always an option.

     Tracing connections like this would allow for a more "democratic" and inclusive classroom as well—more than one storyline is likely to emerge, students would be more inclined to make their own connections and participate more in class. It may lead to deeper learning as well. The diagrams above (concept maps and webs) communicate ideas in a way that words alone cannot. As Charles Hampden-Turner explained in Maps of the Mind: Charts and Concepts of the Mind and Its Labyrinths, "we 'map' with words as well as images but because words come in bits and pieces many people have assumed that the world is in bits and pieces too, with bits corresponding to words. Word maps have a fragmentary structure that derives from language itself, not necessarily from what language describes."11 Moreover, Eric Jensen an Instructor at San Diego State University, co-founder, Jensen Learning Corporation and author of Brain-Based Learning: The New Science of Teaching and Training recommends that teachers "require learners to make mind-maps or graphic organizers that reflect models or ways of thinking, patterns, sequences, and levels of detail."12 Such methods accord with brain structures and how information is assimilated. Educator and author of Learning and Memory: The Brain in Action, Marilee Sprenger claims that such practices are critical in boosting "semantic memory," remembering key terms, spelling, and other word-based information. 13

     Borrowing from complex network theories might be a good way for history teachers and historians to help students make connections and focus on the most important concepts and information in a given area of study. In short, history teachers cannot afford to take an ahistorical view of their own teaching and curriculum. Borrowing from the exciting new area of complex networks could revolutionize the teaching of history, helping the profession make the paradigm shift that has changed most everything around us in the 21st Century.

Dr. John Murnane is Director of Academic Programs at Worcester Academy and a part-time Instructor of History at Fitchburg State University. He also serves as an AP consultant to the College Board and as a Reader for the Advanced Placement World History examination. John Murnane can be reached at


1 Michael Wood, Legacy: The Search for Ancient Cultures (1993), p. 143.

2 Eviatar Zerubavel, Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past (2003), p. 12.

3Ibid., p. 87.

4 Ibid., p. 88.

5 Ibid., p. 91.

6 See Thomas A. Bailey and David M. Kennedy's The American Pageant, (Ninth Edition), Gerald A Danzer, et al., The Americans (1998), Pauline Maier, et al, Inventing America; A History of the United States (2003), George Tindall and David Shi, America: A Narrative History (2002), Paul Boyer, et al, The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People (2004), and Alan Brinkley, American History (2003)

7 John R. Murnane, "Japan's Monroe Doctrine? Re-Framing the Story of Pearl Harbor," The History Teacher (August, 2007).

8 Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, Linked: How Everything is Connected to Everything Else and What it Means (2003), p. 34. For others working in this area see Albert-Laszlo Barabasi and Harry Eugene Stanley, Fractal Concepts in Surface Growth (1995) and Mark Newman, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, et al. The Structure and Dynamics of Networks, Princeton Studies in Complexity (2006).

9 Emily Eakin,"Connect, They Say, Only Connect" Saturday, January 25, 2003, New York Times.

10 Wordle Visited, December, 10, 2010.

11 Charles Hampden-Turner, Maps of the Mind: Charts and Concepts of the Mind and Its Labyrinths (1982),p. 8

12 Eric Jensen, Brain-Based Learning: The New Science of Teaching and Training, Revised Edition (2000), p. 82.

13 Marilee Sprenger, Learning and Memory: The Brain in Action (1999), p. 84


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