‘People Make Choices. Choices Make History’

History is, first of all, about choices — good choices and bad choices — and the consequences of those choices.

Many times, these choices did not even seem like choices at the time, because people tend to operate on “automatic pilot.” They simplistically embrace the profit motive. They act the way their culture or environment or loved ones or social structures have taught them to act. Perhaps they are “just following orders,” being obedient to some authority. Perhaps they are simply doing what feels good at the moment. Maybe they are desperate. Perhaps they are acting impulsively, without fully thinking through the consequences of their actions. Perhaps they are simply reacting, sometimes in anger, with a desire for revenge.

Often, people’s motives are mixed. Make a list of at least 10 motivations for people to act the way they do.

Often there are invisible social forces that shape people’s actions: powerful ideas; politics; economics; disease, pandemics…

From Individual to Societal Choice

Imagine you are one of the first Portuguese sailors and traders to reach Africa in the 1400s. You consider yourself a good person, an adventurer, an explorer, a risk-taker and a good businessman. You have spices and minerals, such as silver and gold, aboard your ship to trade. You need to make a profit to finance your journey, and to support your family back in Portugal. On the West coast of Africa, you meet a friendly tribe interested in doing business and trading with you. They take you to their leader. The leader explains that he has recently won a war against another tribe. He is interested in exchanging some of their prisoners for gold, silver and spices.

You examine the prisoners: they are strong and hearty, potentially good workers, that you could take back to Portugal and exchange for a very good price. Why not? You need the money.

So you exchange silver and gold for five prisoners, return to Portugal, and auction them off in a bidding game and make a nice profit. This works so well that you decide to do it again and again and again. You don’t see anything wrong with this.

You have little awareness that you have just started the horrific trans-Atlantic slave trade and an institution of  racism that will be the curse of humanity for at least 600 years. Like people throughout history, you are morally blind to the injustices of what you have done or left undone.


Theories of History

Historians develop theories for what causes historical change. What do you think are the most common causes of historical change?


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