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Winter 2019

guatemalan ruins


This course meets M, T, W, Th - 2:00 - 3:20pm.

What is a civilization? What does it mean to be civilized? What distinguishes civilizations from one another and from other types of human societies? Are civilizations better or more advanced than other types of human societies?

In this course we will use the study of non-Western civilizations to critique traditional narratives of Western civilization as the pinnacle of human achievement. We approach our study through a wide range of disciplinary lenses such as philosophy, history, literature, religious studies, art history, archaeology, anthropology, political science, and law. From classical South Asia, to the ancient Maya, and the ancient Near East, we will compare and contrast ancient non-Western civilizations to expose an expansive understanding of what a civilization is.

Examining the ancient past of civilizations will help us locate the enduring power of the concept of civilization in the world today. Why is "civilization" so central and often debated in culture, society, and politics today?

The study of civilizations allows us to use Northwestern’s campus and Chicago as our extended classroom to discover how relics of civilization are all around us and what they mean in our world. Why is there a Roman-Egyptian mummy at Northwestern’s Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary? Moving beyond campus we will visit two Chicago area museums, one selected by the professors and one selected by the students, and examine how museums display civilization to us.

Readings will include excerpts from:

Gordon Childe, 1950, The Urban Revolution

Eric Cline, 2014, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed

Arthur Demarest, 2004, Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization

Sigmund Freud, 1930, Civilization and its Discontents

Lewis Henry Morgan, 1877, Ancient Societies

David Wengrow, 2010, What Makes Civilization?: The Ancient Near East and the Future of the West

John Zerzan and Kevin Tucker, 2005, Against Civilization: Readings and Reflections


Ann Gunter (Art History) is an art historian and archaeologist whose research and teaching focus on the ancient Mediterranean and its neighbors in the Near East, including Mesopotamia and Iran. She is especially interested in cultural and artistic interaction between Greece and the Near East in the early first millennium BCE. She is the author of Greek Art and the Orient (Cambridge 2009) and the editor of A Companion to Ancient Near Eastern Art (Wiley-Blackwell, forthcoming). She is the Bertha and Max Dressler Professor in the Humanities.

Mark McClish (Religious Studies) specializes in classical Hinduism, with a focus on early South Asian legal and political literature (dharmaśāstra and arthaśāstra). He holds a Ph.D. from The University of Texas at Austin in Asian Cultures and Languages with a specialization in Sanskrit and Indian Religions. He is the co-author of The Arthaśāstra: Selections from the Classic Indian Work on Statecraft (Hackett, 2012) and is currently completing a manuscript examining the textual history of the Arthaśāstra. His areas of teaching include Hinduism, religion in classical India, Hindu law, and politics and religion.

Cynthia Robin (Anthropology) is an archaeologist and anthropologist. Her research focuses on the ancient Maya civilization where she has been conducting archaeological research for the past 30 years. She studies the impacts that ordinary people can have on their societies and how ancient Maya society can hold answers to understanding the nature of sustainable societies. She is the author of Everyday Life Matters: Maya Farmers at Chan, the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Anthropology Department, and a winner of the Karl Rosengren Faculty Mentoring Award.

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