Considering World History

Is it more important for students to know the facts and themes of the world’s separate national histories, or to learn the more global commonalities among peoples?

Image by Oberholster Venita from Pixabay

When I was hired at the college over thirty years ago, the problem was simple: world history wasn’t about the world. It was designed as a “West and the Rest” course, and it was my job to teach it. Even though my training was in European and American history, I knew this was wrong. So I got heavy into curriculum development, established the North County Global History Project, and brought together as many practitioners of world history as I could to learn how to globalize the course.

We did well, although there were few textbooks to support the approach, because we happened to be at the epicenter of global history. The leaders were scholars like L. S. Stavrianos at UC San Diego and Ross Dunn of San Diego State University (who spoke at one of our conferences).

The central difficulty is that it is impossible to “cover” the history of whole world in one year (to 1500 in the first semester, then 1500-present). It’s too big. So historians, scholars, and teachers developed different frameworks to teach it. Most tried to retain some sort of chronological structure, although a few were thematic. Ross Dunn’s World History for Us All project remains a great example of how to expand eras of time so they become more thematic.

But by then it didn’t matter much to me, because I had hired world historians (good ones, who understood global history) to teach the course, and I went back to doing European and American history, including History of England and History of Technology. My efforts turned toward online teaching instead over the last two decades. But now, with enrollment declining, History of England and History of Technology no longer draw enough students. So I’m designing courses in World History.

I wish I could say redesigning, but the way I was teaching it before isn’t how I want to teach it now.

I wanted the setup to be similar to my other online classes, which all have readings, a discussion of primary documents using social annotation, lecture notes or quizzes to check comprehension, student collection of primary sources, and writing assignments based on those sources. But it became clear early on that this wasn’t a good idea.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

This is because the textbooks (both traditional and open) still try to hang onto regional and national narratives, meaning you get a “touch down” version of history, where you first touch down in Europe, then China, then India, etc. The book may be really good at making connections among societies, but the fact is that if this week your chapter is on India, and next week on China, you’re not going to get those connections.

So I designed a Discussion Board to bring together larger themes. It takes a bit for students to get used to it, since I’ve asked them to consider events and people from the textbooks as examples of certain thematic dichotomies, or concept sets, that I’ve created. Their job is to choose one side and present an example, then present a counter-example for something a colleague posts. The concept sets are:

  • individual achievement / community values
  • environmental degradation / respecting the environment
  • justifications for war / actions toward peace
  • expansion of trade / emphasis on local needs
  • racial distinctions / promotion of diversity
  • technological change / traditional technologies
  • political power / political opposition
  • short-term goals / thinking of the future
  • secularism / spirituality
  • search for knowledge / acceptance of limited understanding
  • creativity / suppression of creativity
  • outsider being accepted / insider being rejected

I am doing this instead of what I usually do: provide primary source documents for each chapter and have students comment on them in Perusall. I intended to do that at first, setting up documents, this one from Meiji Japan, this one from the English Civil War, this one from Qing China. But then I realized that undermines what I find important about teaching world history.

Providing such sources encourages a focus on detail in an individual country or culture, but does nothing to emphasize the commonalities among all humans. Our view of the world needs to get bigger, not smaller, and the less time students spend on their schoolwork the more we have to be efficient about our goals. In a time of increasing divisiveness, emphasizing our common humanity is more important. And since I believe taht global understanding is furthered by working on what we have in common rather than trying to accept our differences, my pedagogy should reflect that.


2 thoughts to “Considering World History”

  1. Shouldn’t history be history and anthropology be anthropology? Or sociology sociology? I think if we try to teach everything, we end up teaching very little. (And of course it’s ridiculous that World History is reduced to two courses.)

    1. Disciplines interact with each other continually. History as a discipline is centuries old, sociology and anthropology newer, but all inform each other. All disciplines contain a form of bias or perspective, and thus not only the evidence but the needs of society change how it is taught over time. This is true of anthropology, which arguably set up the concept of race, and sociology, which nimbly adapts to what it perceives as society’s needs. No discipline can afford to ignore its social context. Some might teach history to provide civic education within their nation’s norms, and even world history has been used to serve this purpose by comparing the host country to the rest of the world (favorably, of course). While I respect that perspective, my view is that it should be inherent in world history that we do it to increase global understanding, precisely because it is impossible to teach everything. I actually don’t have an argument with teaching the history of the world in a year (H.G. Wells tried it in a two-volume book); rather I have a distaste for disciplines in general, which divide knowledge more than they combine it.

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