In his work, the Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun remarks that students of his time confused memorization of knowledge with “habit and skill.” He also writes that “their memorized knowledge may be more extensive than that of other scholars…They think that scientific habit is identical with memorized knowledge. But that is not so.”1 This section reminds me that in many ways, students have not changed.
Students still make the mistake of conflating factual knowledge with learning, thereby undervaluing skills. They often forget that overarching themes and concepts help organize and make sense of otherwise useless historical details. They need help. When a teacher takes time to unpack their curriculum, paying attention to short-term and long-term outcomes, the balance between skill and content, and key concept integration, students get that help. The CEDs for the AP History courses do a great job of laying out the scope and sequence of each course, however, it is still up to the teacher to make the analytical threads that run throughout the course visible and useful. In AP World, one of these threads that I put front and center is Ibn Khaldun’s concept of asabiyyah, more commonly known as social solidarity or social cohesion.
It is through social solidarity that Ibn Khaldun begins to develop his philosophy on history. Many of his ideas seem obvious today. However, his reason and source-based methodology as well as how he strikes the balance between the power of social forces in causing change and preserving the omnipotence of God and preordained fate, something common in medieval histories, is impressive.
Another of Khaldun’s quotes, this time from the opening section of the Muqaddimah, remarks that “students often happen to accept and transmit absurd information that, in turn, is believed on their authority.”2 He goes on to illustrate an example of this regarding Alexander the Great in order to eviscerate it for its absurdity. The book is filled with insights as Khaldun develops his theory of history and evidences it with a myriad of examples.
Khaldun’s theory around social solidarity is, at once, accessible and illustrative of complex historical thinking. It provides students with an example of the “big picture” that the AP World History course is designed to teach, it encourages thinking in historical comparison, causation, and continuity and change over time, and it is relevant to content from nearly every unit.
I introduce social solidarity in unit 2, alongside the Mongols. Their journey from nomadic tribe to massive empire follows Khaldun’s examples perfectly. It’s a comfortable context in which to discuss group identity, metaethnic frontiers, and secular cycles. In my experience, students find their first foray into philosophy of history to be enlightening and exciting. Next stop, historiography!
The general overview of Khaldun’s theory that I teach is below. Of course, there is a lot to unpack around each concept.
- Social solidarity is defined as a group’s ability to work together for a common goal.
- Social solidarity is built up through long-term struggle against a common enemy. This struggle usually occurs along a metaethnic frontier.
- Each empire has within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Empires will gradually lose their social solidarity over multiple cycles of internal strife.
These concepts return through in-class Harkness discussions, in the DBQs and LEQs that students write, and occasionally in National History Day projects. The purpose is not to argue that Khaldun’s theories are the only correct way of reading history, but to get students thinking about historical continuity and change in a larger, conceptual way. Students can see that history is as philosophical and analytical as it is factual. Analytical threads give structure to the curriculum and help students organize the mountains of historical details they have to learn.
- Ibn Khaldun on History (Primary Source Excerpts)
- Ibn Khaldun on Social Solidarity (Primary Source Excerpts)
- Conrad Demarest Model of Empires – Another framework for understanding the rise and fall of empires across time.
- Mongols & Social Solidarity PPT