Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A More Holistic View of History

Old World MapThere has been a debate for some time whether the teaching of history has been too Eurocentric, viewing economic, political, scientific and other achievements from a Western perspective.  I once scoffed at that criticism but not any more.

Up until a generation ago, Western civilization survey courses—usually offered in two parts, roughly divided at 1650—were a staple on most college campuses.  But that has changed, and there is a growing emphasis on replacing them with world history classes.

Having taught Western civilization and world history courses, I am convinced that a broader, more global approach to learning the past is far more valuable.  Students register for history courses for many different reasons, but I would urge them to opt for a world history course whenever possible.

One argument for gaining a worldwide view is that it presents a greater opportunity for seeing more manifestations, good and not so good, of the human experience.  Also, a broader study allows for comparisons.

Historians, for good reasons, seek to compartmentalize history, whether by time or region.  We look at antiquity, the Middle Ages, the rise of the modern state, etc.  But chronological confusion results when the Renaissance and the overlapping medieval world are treated independently. 

It is also understandable that scholars have placed high importance on, say, the contributions of the Greco-Roman world—which are very significant—or the indebtedness that the United States has to the constitutional development of England.  Still, parochialism should be avoided.

My world history students are surprised to learn about the achievements of the Chinese in such areas as papermaking and printing.  The treasure fleet adventures of Admiral Zheng He in the early Ming dynasty always amazes them.  So, too, that Japan probably provided the first novel, The Tale of Genji, nearly 1,000 years ago.

But beyond understanding the various contributions of different societies, the study of world history also allows us to look at global trends and interactions, such as  trade.  I like to encourage my students to examine the early exchange of such commodities as spices, tea and even tulips.  Although we have a more sophisticated form of it today, the globalization of trade goes back hundreds of years.

Historical exhibits are helpful in understanding the interaction between the East and West.  The Silk Road, linking China with the Middle East and beyond, offers a prime example.  I saw a very fine exhibit on this subject at New York’s Museum of Natural History in January 2010; the visualization of the economic, cultural and intellectual connections was most instructive.  See:  http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/silkroad/

Unfortunately, one weakness in studying world history is sometimes the textbook.  I have found two common deficiencies:  (1) in an effort to cover  a little of everything, too little attention is given to some key societies, perhaps the Romans; and (2) enthusiastic scholars might imply that all societies have had the same or similar impact on world history.

Still, it is up to the professor to help place things in their proper perspective.  While history majors may eventually take courses in both Western civilization and world history, students looking to satisfy a general education requirement may want to think globally.

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