Why Western Civ (courses) Suck
1. In Western Civ. you miss out on the Eastern roots of Christianity. Let's face it, a lot of Christian doctrine is rooted in Zoroastrianism, a Persian religion most people have never heard of, Yet it was the first religion to have a judgement day, heaven and hell, and monotheism. You can trace these ideas as they flow into the mystery religions, particularly after the melding of Greek and Persian ideas under Alexander the Great and his successors. Thence, from the mystery religions to Hellenistic Judaism and finally onto proto-Christianity and Pauline Christianity.
2. You miss the economic interconnections of the Old World as it developed from Han China/Imperial Rome through to the beginnings of the Columbian Exchange. These interconnections effected everything from the fall of Rome (due in part to a trade deficit with China) to the spread of Islam into East Africa and what is now modern day Indonesia and the Philipines.
3. You miss out on the Byzantines. The Byzantine empire (or the Roman Empire as they called themselves right up until Constantinople fell) is a fascinating state to study that influenced early Islam and, of course, Russia and Eastern Europe. More importantly, when Western Europe was mired in the horrors of the medieval period, Byzantium kept Roman learning alive and added Arab geography and Indian mathematics (via the Arabs hence, Arabic numerals) to the canon.
4. China. Even well into the 18th century the Chinese economy was larger than all of Europe's combined and into the 19th century Europeans ran a massive trade deficit with China. A world history course doesn't just ask, why Europeans came to dominate the globe in the 19th century, it also asks why didn't China? Plus Zheng He is really cool. Even better, our modern notions of the Civil Service are based on Westerners visits to China and their understanding (or misunderstanding) of the Chinese examination system. The Opium Wars seem less a triumph of western military prowess when you realize that they were a relatively minor concern to a Chinese government mired in the Taiping rebellion in which as many as 20 million perished.
5. The Columbian Exchange (also called the American Exchange). If ever there was a world transforming event this is it and it is truly global in impact. From the trans-Atlantic slave trade, to the adoption of the sweet potato in China (which helped prevent industrialization) to the massive die-off from disease the effects on world population distributions are extremely significant and only make sense when looked at globally.
These are just a few of the ways that the World History lens rearranged my understanding of the past. And I don't think I could teach Western Civ ever again. Not because I think Democracy is bad or I hate the Enlightenment, in fact I'm rather fond of both. It is just that there are better and worse ways of looking at the past. And of the two, World History explains more things better.
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Julie A Hofmann - 8/10/2004
Not really, since the West and its history are pretty much based around Europe and the political, economic, artistic and intellectual developments of its several and changing components -- at least until relatively late. Also, while I see the Ancient Near East, Byzantium, Islam, Exploration, etc., as integral to a WC course, I certainly don't think they'd be required for a Europe course. But then, I think a Europe course might be a bit silly. WC is based on an idea of the development of certain mentalities and traditions -- there is no particularly "European" tradition, I would argue, until the modern period, and then much of it seems to me to be in response to the strengthening of what is now the EU and in the face of an equally modern trend towards a US-domination of cultural values.
In my mind, it's not just "courses in European History" that help -- it's which courses. The best WC courses I've seen and or taken are taught by people whose primary training is no later than Early Modern. That's totally anecdotal, folks, so please don't feel offended. I think this is because a lack of in-depth experience and the world-view that draws people towards the modern period tend to resemble presentism much more than I'm comfortable with. In such classes much time seems to be spent either drawing comparisons to what we have now, or debunking the idea that "we got x from y." In this sense, I can see your argument that WC has a tradition of being US-centered. The modern intellectual history-leaning professor, for example, not having the in-depth background in many of his primary sources or historiography, is very likely to teach Greek political philosophy in terms of Plato and how Greek (not Athenian, usually) democracy is NOT LIKE OURS -- that is, trying to find relevance in what it wasn't than in explaining what it was and letting the students draw their own conclusions. I find the same can be true when dealing with the finer points of Christianity and its history and influence -- or the Crusades and the incredibly complex relationship between 'Europe' and Islam (which Islam isn't usually mentioned).
In terms of teaching World rather than Western -- I think few people are qualified. WH as a specialty is still fairly new, and even the specialists argue about what it means. Just from the traffic on the WH list at H-net, it's clear that there's a lot of concern that WH as taught in the US is still far different than WH taught in other countries. Re Japan -- why would you teach Japan's feudal society first? I ask only because I find chronology helps the students, and freshmen especially tend to think of it in terms of 'classroom order = event order." I have a hard enough time reminding students that, for example, the Twelve Tables are promulgatedafter Pericles 'moves the treasury of the Delian League for safekeeping' and before the Peloponnesian War starts. I certainly don't want to jump backwards and forward through centuries if I can help it! Just looked at the above and thought I should clarify -- I'm not sure WC can be taught as a modern course. The colonial and post-colonial worlds are, in my mind, the period of transformation to a more sensible WH format. In terms of organization, I find it more sensible and simple (not having done a lot of modern History) to focus around the interaction of cultures in the Western tradition with those they dominated (or tried) and how that changed the cultures of the colonized during and after colonization -- not to mention the differences between Early Modern colonization and Modern. But again, this is where I'm not quite as well-versed, so it makes sense to me to look at Imperialism, industrilization, colonialism, nationalism, etc., and how those sentiments often spread from the Western tradition but then took on new lives of their own in other countries and developed differently according to whatever unique circumstances obtained. Still -- I'm not sure that's really WC in the same sense that it's WC before, say, 1800.
David Lion Salmanson - 8/10/2004
How is it what you are teaching different from a European History course? What makes it "Western Civ?" I really like what you are talking about teaching, but I don't see how it differs from a really good European history course.
The other thing, I would say, is "in it's proper context" for Japan. I tend to teach Japanese feudalism first and European feudalism second. Helps destabilize the 9th graders notions of Camelot and all that if they start with the "other" and then are able to rethink what they think they know.
Actually, I would be way more qualified to teach Western Civ than World. Much more coursework in European history in both undergrad and grad school, particularly with the intellectual history that, I would argue, is at the heart of a Western Civ course and I think that is true for most teachers, which is not to say that it is enough, just more than world.
I think you have moved beyond the trope of Western Civ though, and into something else, Europe and the World?
Julie A Hofmann - 8/9/2004
Nope -- I'm as Murcan as someone born in Miami can be. I think you misunderstood my comments on High School education, though. I meant that, since you teach in a private school, your students are more likely to come out with a better knowledge of History than the average public school student. I get those students as freshmen, and find WH much less workable. How can you teach or understand the big picture in any meaningful way unless you actually have the facts about the smaller picture?
As for your assertion that, 'There is still a big legacy of "Western Civ culminates in the US as greatest nation in the world and fulfiller of destiny, cultural and political evolution etc. etc.." in the Western Civ narrative as taught around here,' I can't agree. I've taught at four different colleges of differnt levels, public, private, and religious, so far and have never seen that to be the message, nor have I seen it to be a driving force or pressure for any of my colleagues at different schools. I agree that it seems to be one of the driving forces behind the new 'teaching American History' initiatives, but not WC. In fact, most WC classes in my experience (and most WC textbooks, for that matter) don't talk about the US much at all -- because that's AMERICAN history, and most WC instructors aren't Americanists.
So anyway, I was mostly talking about what we college faculty deal with, not the dismal standards in high school. That said, I really think that many of the people who feel WH is superior to WC feel that way because they just don't have the background to teach WC in a meaningful way.
WH allows, in its worst practices, allows the building of a big picture that may sound cool, but adds little meaning to the actual understanding of individual cultures and peoples and their unique histories. In some ways, it can even deny those cultures their voices. For example, a WH class might decide to teach (pax to the medievalists, this is part of my point) about feudal governments. So it's time to compare and contrast Europe and Japan. Cool. Students find it 'relevant' in the sense that bushido and the samurai are familiar, as are knights in armour. But the comparisons are and must be pretty superficial and meaningless at the high school or even lower division level. Why? because the average WH class (and textbook) doesn't allow for the background detail to make those comparisons. In WH, even if Europe is treated as separate from Asia, it is still pretty monolithic. Europeans are Europeans are Europeans; the hugely different cultural influences brought in by Rome, by the Celts, by migrating Germans, Christians, pagans, or Muslims (because Iberia always gets short shrift till the late 15th c.) are never given their due, and students tend to learn the fallacy that there was such a thing as "the Feudal system" all over Europe. WC texts and classes tend to at least explain that the term feudalism is problematic at best, and that it happened over a long period in lots of different ways in different places. Without this kind of knowledge, how can we expect students to adequately look at Japanese feudal society, which is far more organized and self-contained and developed for a whole bunch of different reasons? In order to serve a big picture organization, such details as time, place, and context, not to mention the possibility of cross-cultural contact, have been left by the wayside.
I will grant that many WC courses don't go into much detail on Japanese feudalism unless the instructor is interested in Japan, but as more and more primary sources become available (again, thanks to Paul Halsall), more WC faculty seem to be including 'the other side of the story.' I know that I am not the only person who teaches the "f-word" during Europe's middle ages and then, in its proper context as part of what Japan is like when those pesky Europeans get there. By doing that, my students can make the comparisons AND discuss why or why not those comparisons might be valid.
Again, I think WH tends to sell short the importance of History as a discipline. You say that,"The most important thing we can expose our students too is not the stuff (which tends towards memorization) but the method, the way of thinking." I don't disagree, but I think you do your students (and your well-trained WC colleagues) a disservice if you think they can have the method without the stuff. The stuff is important -- but people who think history is all about the stuff piss me off no end. On the other hand, history should also be about achieving some degree of truth. Historical method relies on understanding context and silly concepts like time and place, or at least that's what I was taught. If a person is qualified to teach WC (back to the point of my post above), he has no trouble showing," ... students that the past is different and it is different in different places."
Back to my original point -- it's not necessarily that WC sucks -- it's that too many people who don't know the field are teaching it. If you can't see that, from its origins on, WC is about the interaction of different peoples in different places (because Europe is more a geographical designation than a historical place) doing things differently; interacting peacefully or violently or sometimes not at all with each other and with non-western peoples; sometimes developing or reacting to events similarly, sometimes very differently, then perhaps you (in the general sense) shouldn't be teaching WC.
If you think WC sucks, ask yourself if it's because you feel too inadequate (as I would if someone asked me to teach African or post-colonial US or Latin American history) to go beyond the comfortable and superficial. Easier is not the same as better. WC doesn't suck if the teacher knows what he's doing and the students want to learn.
David Lion Salmanson - 8/9/2004
You are a Brit, right? One, the tip of is the use of the word "maths" and two because in the US, no state standards for Western Civ, (in the states that have them at the high school level) look anything like what you are describing. There is still a big legacy of "Western Civ culminates in the US as greatest nation in the world and fulfiller of destiny, cultural and political evolution etc. etc.." in the Western Civ narrative as taught around here.
As for subject matter expertise, at the high school level it is overrated in your post (although underrated by credentialing organizations, you listening NEA?). The most important thing we can expose our students too is not the stuff (which tends towards memorization) but the method, the way of thinking. I didn't even realize that there were people out there who did not think historically until I started trying to teach them history. So, it becomes a set of questions that "why didn't China dominate" (to which you ably answered, it never occured to them) becomes a way to show students that the past is different and it is different in different places. Once you do that, you get rid of all those essays that start with "people have always" "since the beginning of time" etc. etc. and you are on your way.
Robert KC Johnson - 8/6/2004
Julie's point on this issue is, I think, well-taken: I'm trained as a 20th century Americanist. I can teach a western civ class without too much problem, but it's definitely the class that I'm least comfortable teaching. World history is so broad that it is virtually impossible for any teacher ever to be teaching anything relating to their intellectual specialty, and I don't think we're at our best in those occasions.
I'd also agree with Julie that one response to this might be to point out the difficulty of any one-size-fits-all survey. I'd have no particular objection to a world history class being taught--my concern is when world history becomes the "required" history class. If this is all students are getting of history, I'd be worried.
I realize that the situation at the HS level is much different here, since students also usually get one or two years of US history. Even there, though, I'd much rather see a curriculum that featured more in-depth courses on, say, Europe and Asia. Students would cover less material, but they'd get much more depth in what they did cover.
Julie A Hofmann - 8/6/2004
Sorry, David, but I'm with Oscar to some extent. I've taught WH and WC for several years, and can see the advantages to both. However, I find that, in the less rarified atmosphere of public education, WH can be far less successful. You have the luxury of several years to cover different aspects of the world's history, because most private schools require it. Many colleges only require one or two quarters of History -- and some not any (e.g., in my state, it's only one of many courses that fulfill a "Social Science" requirement)Bentley may be the best WH text out there, but for students with no background in ANY of the chronology or geography, the thematic approach is next to useless.
I also suggest that perhaps you find that WC sucks because your own training may not have prepared you adequately. If I needed to, I'm sure I could prepare courses in, say, 19th c. America, but by a trained Americanist's standards, I doubt they'd come up to snuff. I don't know the big historiographical debates and have no idea of the current scholarship. In fact, I'd have to rely on my own undergrad experiences and most likely textbooks suggested by Americanist colleagues. It might be good enough to pass muster in a high school class -- even an AP one, but would be a far cry from what college students deserve.
From your post, it appears that you are in the same boat. My own (admittedly anecdotal) experience tells me that colleagues who are more comfortable with WH tend to have been trained as Americanists, Europeanists focusing on the Early Modern era forward, and other non-Western fields. For those of us who studied Ancient/Medieval or Medieval/Early Modern Europe, it isn't that much of a problem. We're familiar enough with the subject that we know our approach is valid and can choose primary sources that make Western Civ relevant to our students.
Moreover, despite your assertions to the contrary, I don't know anyone (except one stubborn classicist) who doesn't start the first part of WC with the Ancient Near East because we KNOW how important that background is. I also don't know anyone who thinks WC can be taught without the forays into pre-Columbian America, Africa, and Asia. As for ignoring Byzantium and Islam, that's just plain silly. It may have escaped your notice, but a HUGE part of Islam's history occurred in the west, so, well, it IS part of WC. And the Carolingians and Ottonians, not to mention the Crusades and the conversion of the Balkans and Russia, are pretty damned hard to discuss without bringing Byzantium into the picture. If nothing else, Byzantium provides great characters and essential background to the development of Christianity.
Regarding China -- I'll see your China and raise you a Japan and India. Granted, one of my fields is East Asia, so I tend to do a bit more than some of my colleagues, but I still don't know anyone who ignores them totally. The point here is that we focus more on valid interaction and what our sources tell us about those interactions, and therefore tend to discuss Asia more and more as the interactions (and primary sources) become more common. The "meanwhile, back in the Ming Dynasty, Zheng He was doing some pretty cool stuff" (not nearly so cool as Menzies would have us believe) approach doesn't work. I'm not even sure if your question about why China didn't dominate the globe is valid -- in either the WC or WH sense. It pretty much assumes that there's some kind of natural inclination for cultures to try to dominate, when there is plenty of evidence, not least in Asia, that the norm was for limited domination, consolidation of rule, and then an attempt to preserve relative isolation in order to prevent the threat of alien influence. In such cases, where interaction and therefore cross-cultural influence is somewhat limited, why would we WC faculty need to discuss those cultures in great detail? So pre-Modern China may not get a lot of coverage, but by the time a good WC course gets to the Catholic Reformation and the Voyages of Exploration (which I'm pretty sure are related), there's no way NOT to bring in not just Asia, but also the Americas and Africa. You can't explain how WC is influenced by those civilizations otherwise. By the 19th c. those discussions become even more necessary, and (again anecdotally) I don't know anyone whose modern portion of WC isn't pretty damned global, except that there, North America is often given less attention because we do tend to assume some knowledge of modern American history in our students.
I am not trying to speak for all my WC-teaching colleagues, and am sure that there may be more than a few who disagree with me. However, I think that David's argument is built on a bunch of straw men. He has described a badly taught WC course and held it up as the norm. I am sure that such courses do exist, and more often than we would like to think. I would suggest, though, that this is more because we have allowed our discipline to become cheapened by not demanding expertise among the people who teach it at the K-16 levels, than because WC is inherently sucky. While our colleagues in Maths and Sciences (and even some of the social sciences) have gone to great lengths to justify more requirements in their fields, we have not. WH tries to answer the call to make History relevant in an increasingly interconnected (i.e., globalized) world. Perhaps we would serve our students and ourselves better by promoting the ideas that: 1) there's more history to learn than there used to be (both time-wise and geographically); 2) the answer is not to try to cobble together all of that history into the same (or often less) course time than was the norm 20-30 years ago, and; 3) Historians specialize in areas that are really pretty broad, but it doesn't mean that any historian can teach any history course. We don't expect Nuclear physicists to teach Biology, nor do we expect that a World Language teacher whose proficiency is in Romance languages to be able to teach Chinese, after all.
David Lion Salmanson - 8/6/2004
We use Bentley for the Honors course, I think you use Spielvogel and Duiker for the AP but I am not sure.
David Lion Salmanson - 8/6/2004
David Lion Salmanson - 8/6/2004
Your points are very well taken. Again, because I have the time, I can spend a fair amount of time on the rise of the nation state. I think our AP class uses Bentley. What I'd prefer to see is Western Civ ditched in favor of the Roots of American Thought (sort of a great books with some history) that would cover maybe, Socrates, Plato, Aquinas, the Scottish Enlightenment, Constitution, etc.) more of a Phil or Poli Sci class with some history thrown in. I think that would accomplish the ideological aim of Western Civ without the largely illegitimate history trappings.
Jonathan Dresner - 8/6/2004
There are a lot of ways to do this, of course, and you're right that a lot of WH theory seems to ignore the existence of political boundaries and issues in favor of economic and cultural transfers and continuities. But that's more of a reaction to the unreasonable objectification of the nation-state by so many historians (and nationalists); it's very important to make sure that our students realize that nation-states (and that term is problematic itself) are not the only way to organize the world, conceptually. Eventually we'll develop a synthesis that works.
For now, though, the development of the nation-state is a very prominent component of my WH since 1500 course, and comes up as well even in the earliest stages of civilization (after all, definitions of political units is some of the earliest history we have). The different models of social organization, communities, kingdoms, empires (and there are different kinds of empires, too) have important implications. Without the nation-state, how can you explain European imperialism, and the 'age of exploration'? Without the nation-state, the 19th century is just trains....
My world history courses have, in the past (I"m thinking of dropping it) involved a final paper that was a survey of the whole history (to or since 1500) of a currently existing nation (as defined by the UN member list). This is, admittedly, a corrective to the oddities of the survey, but it also (especially in the pre-1500) complicates the definition of 'coherent unit.'
I don't think I'm that atypical, either.
Robert KC Johnson - 8/6/2004
Regular readers of Cliopatria will no doubt anticipate that I am less keen on the world history pattern than either David or Jonathan. (I would agree, however, that the Bentley book is a very godo world history text.) World history as a required history course seems to me a rather dubious strategy, as it is common in world history surveys, to, essentially, write the nation state out of history.
At Brooklyn, we have a Western Civ core course requirement. I'm not thrilled with this course, either, but at least it can be narrowly enough tailored so that the course coheres.
There also seems to me an enormous difference between world history and Atlantic history. I know that the book is somewhat dated now, but Peggy Liss' Atlantic Empires remains for me the model of how to write transnational history. Liss (and other first-rate Atlantic historians) make a convincing case for their topic by presenting a multi-faceted history that takes into account both transnational and national bases. I don't see world history doing that very well.
Ben H. Severance - 8/5/2004
Thanks for the suggestions. I'm not sure when I attempt another World History course, but you make a good case. After all, I don't teach U.S. history state by state , though sometimes colony by colony in the pre-Revolution period. I must confess though, that in preparing for a world history course, I find it easier to examine individual civilizations before looking at broader themes that cross over from one to the other. The next time round, I'll probably run a military development angle; it's the aspect of history I'm most comfortable with. Anyway, thanks again.
Jonathan Dresner - 8/5/2004
There is still some value in taking individual societies as units, within the context of the broader trends. I hate to sound like a shill, but the Bentley/Ziegler textbook does as good a job as any I've ever seen, using civilizational stages (very broadly defined) for meta-organization, then within those stages breaking up the world into civilizational regions that mean something (instead of just following current national borders), with the occassional chapter that breaks all the boundaries (Mongols, for example) to talk about whole-world issues.
The entirely generalized world process model seems to me likely to produce students who don't actually know anything. But that's me.
David Lion Salmanson - 8/5/2004
You made one of the classic mistakes (one I made in my first go around)in World History, hitting it country by country rather than looking at things in a what we might call a World Historical View. Consider trade, you can go quite in depth in a world history course on the Indian Ocean trade and how it operated, how it changed over time, etc. Another topic for in-depth study is disease. The tricky part to world history, I think, is to "think without borders" so it's less about the Mughals and Ottomans than about say 1. The spread of gunpowder 2. How societies organize succession and 3. what constitutes religious tolerance and then you find the Mughals coming up again and again.
I am about to use Worlds Together Worlds Apart with my CP class and am very eager to see how it goes.
Ben H. Severance - 8/5/2004
I tip my hat to you gentlemen and your laudable efforts to present the global picture for students. Personally, I regard the task as unwieldy, but then my one foray into the arena was not pleasant. Trying to cover Spain, the Aztecs, and Incas one day, both the Ottomans and the Mughals on another day, and then the Mongols and Chinese, etc... It was a relief to get into the 19th Century, at which point I basically shifted over to Western Civ., plus Japan. Admittedly, my organizational approach was a big part of the problem, but all the while I kept thinking back on the advice of one of my mentors: "Do more with less." I am an Americanist and love the U.S. surveys where I can delve into great detail on a narrow slice of history. Imagine THREE whole lectures on the Civil War and TWO more on Reconstruction!
In the end, the strength of any course rests on what the instructors choose to teach and how effectively they connect with the class. I prefer vertical lectures where I can go deep into a topic as opposed to horizontal lectures where one can only hit the surface. "Teach 'em the themes and concepts" another mentor once told me, but without the facts and details, the big picture falls flat like skin without a skeleton. But again, to you who can do world history and do it well, my highest compliments.
Jonathan Dresner - 8/5/2004
I agree, Oscar, that the survey is not a substitute for serious study of important specifics, but I made the same transition that David did: after three years teaching Western Civ and East Asian Civ, I moved to a school where World History was taught (and Asia was taught entirely as country-based courses, instead of mushed together), and the more I studied World History pedagogically and as a field in history the more I've become convinced that it is an essential component of our training. We use Bentley/Ziegler's textbook -- partially because they're at Manoa and it includes decent coverage of Pacific societies -- and its the first textbook I've ever used that really divided things up in truly world-perspective ways.
Yes, it's very important to study specific times and places, and yes, the West is a very, very important component of contemporary society (which is why there's so much of it in the World survey anyway). It's entirely possible to teach Western Civ in a way that integrates some of the World History lessons, and some real value in doing the West as a coherent unit. But it's rare, very rare.
I think we're in a very destabilizing period with regard to World History and Western History: new theories, rubrics, processes are being articulated, and only poorly integrated into our master narratives. It'll be a while before it shakes out, but it's sure fun to see the field grow.
David Lion Salmanson - 8/5/2004
I have the luxury of doing it over two years so I really can linger on some things. I get to spend close to two weeks on Rome (sometimes more sometimes less) meeting every day. And that doesn't include Byzantium or the time for the "trace" essay on Greece v. Persia and Rome v. Carthage. I also get to spend a fair amount of time on the Enlightenment. From the traditional narrative, I lose 1848 (which I never understood all that well to begin with honestly). And the world stuff creeps in to my US classes but usually in reverse (remember this for next year, you'll learn a different perspective on it. I am curious as to what secondary text(s) you use and what primary documents. One of my favorite exercises in the post 1492 class is a comparative assignment on Kipling's the White Man's Burden and a statement by "The Boxers." Also, how much does Paul Halsall's website rock? That much and more. He completely changed what we could do in a high school classroom.
Oscar Chamberlain - 8/4/2004
There are some odd assumptions in this posting. I know people who teach western civ who include the material in points 1 and 3. Some do a great deal on point 5 (though they may not get to China) The World perspective (or at least a wider definition of Western) is very much a part of most Western Civ courses today.
The World perspective is even entering US courses. My teaching of the development of the Atlantic trade network has been radically changed because I have been teaching the World survey. The process of developing that survey has been, and remains, a tremendous source revelation to me. I am far from alone.
But there are times--in the World survey--that I long to build Rome in more than a day, that I want students to understand how profound the impact of the Enlightenment was, and I think that students need to see the roots of the culture that they live in, a culture that is Western, as well as a part of a wider world.
In a perfect world (at least for historians) students would take courses with both perspectives. In our imperfect world, I'm not quite willing to exault either course over the other. As a student and teacher, I have learned too much from both.
- David Rosand, an Art History Scholar Whose Heart Was in Venice, Dies at 75
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