Tuesday, May 31, 2005

New and Improved -- It's History!

New and Improved -- It's History!



As someone currently on the job market, I've noticed more and more that History departments are looking for people who can teach World History. World History has replaced the Western Civilization survey on many campuses, and is generally preferred. The problem for most of us is that World History is a fairly new field, and there are only about five (I'm pretty sure) departments in the country that offer graduate study in the discipline. So really, the vast majority of job candidates who claim to be "World Historians" are probably lying. I've never claimed to be a World Historian. I say that, given the fact that few people are so trained, my background (I do have a non-western field on top of the pre-modern stuff) and teaching experience make it possible for me to teach it as well as anyone else, and better than most. I try to give specific examples of the important approaches World History does have to offer, and why I prefer certain textbooks and source material. More than that, I cannot do. I will not lie to get a job, no matter how much I want it. But I worry that there are people who will, and will get the job, and who probably understand the discipline less than I do. It's not that I don't understand it -- I just don't know that I think it's the best way to teach what may be the one History course students take.

For many people, especially non-historians, there might not be much of a difference between World History and the History of the World. For others, there is a huge one. As I understand it, the creation of World History as a field came in response to a realization that we live in a global society and, as members of a dominant culture, know and teach far too little about other cultures. I completely agree with that. But I also think that, to a great extent, my own period of study is every bit as remote to the average student as is the history of dar el-Islam. In my own experience, the past really is a different country, and it is the discipline and methodology of history that are central to my teaching. Students who learn the kinds of questions historians ask of their sources and who learn to use those questions to construct a narrative will be able to use those same skills to study the history of any area or people. It is those same questions that Eric Martin seems to discard, telling faculty that they must allow students of World History another framework for their studies than the one that's been pretty much accepted since, oh... Thucydides. To be fair, he does not want to discard all of historical method as most of us know it, but again, he seems to argue that World History really is the way of the future, and in fact a better approach. In the newest World History Connected, Martin discusses this very different approach:
World historians practice a way of thinking defined by these two sets of characteristics: the inclination to ask big questions about how the world works as a whole and the interest in developing innovative techniques to answer such large-scale, complicated questions. Thus far, world history as a way of thinking has been primarily described as an intellectual characteristic shared by professional scholars engaged in the field. However, there is a much wider demand for the kinds of thinking skills that world historians practice. For example, world historians have developed ways of thinking about the kinds of big-picture questions currently being asked by the U.S. public, including why the attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred, and how effective the war on terrorism has been in decreasing the chances of a repeat disaster. There is public concern as well about whether the U.S. is a liberating force or an occupying power in Iraq, and whether or not Iraq is 'another Vietnam.' Americans are wondering about the causes of -- and the solutions to -- the economic problems facing our communities in globalng economy, and why people in some countries are rich and poor in others. They are asking about the relationships between producers and consumers, and about the nature of globalization and how it affects communities. World historians practice a way of thinking that provides the conceptual tools to address questions of such magnitude and complexity: few other fields can say the same.

Really? I certainly agree that we live in an increasingly global society and that it behooves us all to know more about the people we interact with. If nothing else, it helps one (or countries) avoid horrible cultural gaffes. But I have to ask the question: what is more important? History of the World, or World History? I do wonder about the tacit assumption by most of the World Historians I've met that global history is intrinsically better than any other history, especially the Eurocentric type. I admit that this may in part be because I am a medievalist and am therefore probably guilty of Eurocentrism. But I am coming more and more to question whether World History is not itself marred by its own blind spots. These blind spots are not rooted in Eurocentrism, per se, but instead in Americanism and Modernism (in the sense of a Modern historian's approach to the subject). I say Americanism because really, World History is 'owned' by Americans and framed by the questions of what matters to America and Americans as a culture even more dominant in today's world than "The West," and because, although there are many non-American scholars now working in the field, from what I can tell from listservs like H-World, they are generally ignored. In terms of the Modernist approach, I think that there is an implicit desire to see things in terms of progress and event-based relevance that is arguably alien to a Classicist or Medievalist (and to many Early Modernists).

My historical playground is one that assumes that our ancestors lived in a very different world. My colleagues and I study our subjects pretty much in- and of themselves, for what they were and in the context of their times. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, we are generally able to be objective and yet find great relevance, not by comparing events like VietNam and Iraq, which is frankly very superficial on most points and masks many important details, but by trying to look at a different big picture, e.g., the history of a country and people who once were world leaders in thought and art and how their position in the larger world changed over time. And of course, understanding Iraq's history would still do little to explain 9/11, because the people who flew the planes into the WTC weren't Iraqis. You see, we're trained to look at lots of details that make it much harder to tie events like those of September 11, 2001 and the invasion of Iraq together into any big picture. That same attention to the small questions makes us much more aware of the myriad of events that might help to explain the long-term cultural interaction between Islam (in many forms and in many regional and historical varieties) and "The West." And, of course, to ask if that is the central question, or whether it's just the American version of Western culture that's the problem. But I digress.

To return to the idea of context, we should also consider whether there is a causal relationship between the rise of World History as a field a time when historians (and really, anyone in the Humanities), especially in the US, were finding it harder and harder to justify the relevance of their disciplines in a world of increasingly commercialized education. Rather than rising to the challenge and doing what our colleagues in the sciences do when it becomes clear that students need to learn more, i.e., to push for more requirements in the field, historians (again, mostly in the US, as History is generally considered necessary to a solid education in other countries, Charles Clarke notwithstanding) instead tried to do more with less, to revise the curriculum to reflect and include what had been missing, instead of increasing the amount of historical knowledge required for a degree. And thus, rather than saying simply, "We Americans do not know enough about the people we deal with every day. We should fix that," we said, "we know we aren't very marketable, so we will stop teaching those things that help explain why western culture became dominant, the same things that people in other, non-western countries know better than we do, and instead just try to fit everything else in." As an immediate afterthought, some of us then seemed to have bought into the idea that history as it existed had a problem because it wasn't relevant enough. The result has been mixed. Most World History texts are justifiably accused of being Eurocentric with some non-European stuff thrown in. And there has been a real attempt to create a viable field of World History. It is indeed global, but is it history?

It is not in the sense that Donald Kagan, in his recent Jefferson Lecture,understands. Rather, Kagan's discussion of method helps to show that History is largely relevant if 'only' in a human sense:
But unlike philosophers and their post-enlightenment offspring, the social scientists, who usually prefer to explain a vast range of particular phenomena by the simplest possible generalization, historians must be prepared to explain the variety of behavior in various ways. The well-known lines of the ancient Greek poet Archilochus present the two fundamental choices: "The fox knows many tricks, the hedgehog only one:/ one big one." This may work in the animal kingdom, but in the world of human affairs, wildly complicated by the presence of individual wills and of different ideas of what produces or deprives people of happiness and honor, in what does interest consist and of what there is to fear, extremely general explanations are neither useful nor possible. Historians, in the first instance, need to be foxes, using as many tricks as they can to explain as many particular things as accurately and convincingly as they can. Then, they should try to find revealing examples from the wide variety of human experiences to support generalizations of varying breadth. They should not expect to find the one big trick that will explain everything, but the lesser generalizations that can be tested by other understandings of the evidence and by new human experiences as they arise, which can still be interesting and useful. It is this mixed path taken by the historian, chiefly of the fox but with a necessary element of the hedgehog that promises the best results.

But where Kagan's fox must constantly deal with the fine details and change tacks to deal with different types of information, World History seems to be more of a Hedgehog with some vulpine traits. And relevance to the hedgehog is often merely relevance only in the sense of 'relevance to our students right now' -- despite the fact that World History purports to address a global society and our students, or at least mine, are a pretty heterogenous group for whom different events already engender different interpretations. My students from Ethiopia certainly have a different read on the Scramble for Africa than do my students from small agricultural town America.

Because World History necessarily focuses on a global scale, it only asks those questions that help to generate a Big Picture, not in the Braudelian sense, but in a sense that, more often than not, denies the beauty of studying difference and its causes in order to relate a oneness in human experience. Historians like Jerry Bentley have focused on cultural connections -- something that is hugely important. But the definition of separate cultures by World Historians seems most often to be one that is based more on race or geography than on any of the other factors that could and should define separate cultures. To an Ancient or Early Medieval Historian, for example, the different Germanic groups really are different. To a World Historian, they are often defined by their not having been Romans -- although again, for people who study them, there are crucial differences over time. Some of the Germans are really quite Roman! (and of course, Walter Goffart now tells us that we shouldn't even call them Germans ...) Those amazingly beautiful details that explain so much about the complexities of human civilization, at least in my fields, are just glossed over, and any semblance of truth is lost.

The same is true in the coverage of African and Asian peoples, as far as I can tell. It seems to me that we could understand much more about Africa today if we studied not simply the great African Empires and their interactions with European empires and Islam, but if we taught Africa as we teach Europe -- hugely diverse in terms of cultures and languages, social institutions and economies. Wouldn't that explain the situation in, say, Rwanda, better than a brief exposure to the Big Picture? Perhaps not. I'm not an Africanist. And I can't be. Because the truth is, no one can specialize and keep up with scholarship in everything. Trying to do so makes a mockery of the idea of specialization, and I say this as someone who teaches as a generalist but admits areas of weakness. If World History is to be a viable field, and not just a way for departments to pay lip service to relevance and the commercial value of education by hiring the untrained to teach the unknowing, why not make it a capstone course, something that really does build upon the disciplinary tradition of a couple of thousand years? Forests are beautiful from a distance, but it's our understanding and experiences of the trees and plants and animals that live there that make it possible for us to care about them.

28 comments:

Jonathan Dresner said...

Yes. There's a few "yes, but" moments, but mostly just "yes."

I say that from the comfortable position of a department that just hired a bona-fide World History trained Ph.D. to lead our World History teaching (most of us will still teach sections, but we'll have someone to look to for pedagogical and curricular leadership): it's a rare thing, and I'm quite proud of us.

I've been deeply grateful to the blogosphere, actually, since I started teaching World History: Many of my own training gaps (especially in US and Africa, India, Europe) have been at least partially mitigated by paying attention to the comments and thoughts of people in those areas, areas which I don't have easy access to experts in.

Anastasia said...

I thought we didn't do grand narrative anymore.

CatoRenasci said...

Egad. World History sounds pretty much like nonsense to me, or at least information that's not significant enough to spend one's time on. In reminds me of Jared Diamond's execrable Guns, Germs and Steel prating on about why we have more "cargo".

I say this as one who did his graduate work in Modern Europe (major field), specifically 18-19th c. intellectual history (specialized field), philosophy of history (outside field), and Modern US (minor field) back in the early 1970s.

I begin to think that a major part of the problem in history departments today, especially among rising scholars, is that almost no one who began their college education after about 1980 took the traditional survey courses in Modern Europe and American history before they began their more specialized work. For all the faults of those courses (mostly the faculy didn't find them interesting to teach, which coincided with the students demand for "relevance", which meant usually less rigor), they served an extremely valuable function in ensurint that almost all students had a common working knowledge of the background of our civilization (at least for the 48 hours surrounding the final) and, for those who like history well enough to have become historians, a very good overview framework upon which to build their knowledge.

In the old days, those of us in European history used to say that Palmer's The Making of the Modern World, was both the first book a freshman should read in history, and the last book a doctoral candidate should read before his exams.

Anonymous said...

so we will stop teaching those things that help explain why western culture became dominant, the same things that people in other, non-western countries know better than we do

Do they now? Because speaking as someone reading Chinese and Japanese history textbooks for high schools, it seems to be "they had guns and ships, and then there were some wars."

Another Damned Medievalist said...

That's great for your department, Jonathan! Please keep us posted on how/if the curricula and teaching styles change (or don't) as your new colleague settles in. It would be great to see it from a point of view of people working with a specialist.

Also, please give me the 'yes, buts' -- This isn't my best writing, and I'm not entirely happy with how it turned out, but I wanted to post it and get on with class prep!

Ancarett said...

Thank you for this essay -- it's wonderful to see someone give such consideration to the question.

Like you, I tend to be suspicious of anyone who promises me that some new teaching/research approach will provide the end-all. I reviewed a high school level "World History" curriculum for our province a few years back and while I applaud the effort to cover so much, I sadly realize that these courses have to abbreviate and study even more sketchily to get through material in a term or semester.

You've got me thinking on the topic of curriculum reform in the discipline which I'll probably blog on later this week or early next. Thanks again for the post!

Marc said...

Your bit about the Germans really nailed it. As Goffart and Geary have theorized, it seems the Germans were more united by being "not-Roman" than by being "German." If world history means focusing on groups based on an essentially continental basis (ie; Africa) it would seem a lot would slip through the cracks. In all, well stated, from one Damned Medievalist to another.

Anonymous said...

I find myself agreeing with much of what you said (and with some trepidation as I prepare to teach the world history survey for the first time this fall). But I wonder how much is a problem with world history as a field, and how much a problem with using survey courses as the introduction to history as a discipline. I've found teaching world history rewarding as an upper level seminar, precisely because I do have the time to look at how the trees and animals relate to the forest, and because my students do have the background to notice some of what is left out. But I suspect that my version of the survey will be much more history of the world.

AS

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I will, with respect, post a "Yes, but," though I will try not to go on and on because you already know how I feel about world history (if I remember correctly, I've commented about it here before). I am a World History proponent, and I think it is important, and don't agree with all the points you make here (although this is a great post and you make good points). My comment is going to come across as really scattered b/c I don't have the time to try to put it together into something more cohesive, but here goes... For one thing, in re: your points about modernism and Americanism - I think there is a real difference between people who are writing modern world history and premodern world history; I think some of the modernist problems you identify are more inherent (unsurprisingly!) to modern history, but don't apply as much to people trying to write big pictures of earlier periods (whose names are of course totally escaping me right now...). In this respect, I would agree with your disagreement with Martin - I haven't read the whole piece, but the paragraph you cite sounds more like puffing up the wonders of World History (contra people like political scientists) than anything incredibly productive. Nonetheless, I find some of the attempts to discuss premodern connections extremely useful/interesting (this may be of course because you really only have half the world to talk about! the Americas being really hard to integrate pre-Columbus. That's a whole different problem for world history, but I digress).

As for the Americanism - well, it may be a field populated largely by Americans. But then, medieval women's history is also something studied much more by Americans than by Europeans (with some classic exceptions, of course). If it (World History) is a subject created by Americans for the purpose of Americans better understanding the world, I don't see that as a problem. That doesn't mean I think non-American scholars should be ignored, but if we're going to make that criticism, we can apply it to a lot more fields (non-American fields) than just World History, I think.

More to the point, I guess, I am a World History proponent because I adamantly dislike Western Civilization as a survey. I find it extremely hard to get past the celebratory nature of the concept of Western Civilization. I have no problem whatsoever with studying European history (since that's what I do!) and have no problems with "European history to 1500" or something like that. But I really heartily dislike the "civilized/civilizing" that I find at the heart of any concept of Western Civ. I know that you and the folks commenting here don't teach it that way, and probably no one does teach it that way, but the whole concept still leaves such a bad taste in my mouth that I'd rather pursue something else. Partly this is because in the period that I study - the European Middle Ages - Europe was a pathetic little backwater compared with so many other world societies; I think it's still really important to be able to recognize that. I also think that as a medievalist it's only to my benefit to be able to draw connections and comparisons between what's going on in Europe and everywhere else.

That being said, I will agree that teaching World History is not easy, and is a series of compromises (as is much teaching, I guess). I won't claim to have arrived at some kind of great solution in my time teaching it. And yes, there can be a certain "oneness" that comes across in some world history stuff. I think the Bentley/Ziegler textbook, as much as I agree that it is the best one out there, really does make it hard to distinguish between one society and another. (They all keep experiencing population growth, specialization of labor, growth in social hierarchies, etc. etc....) On the other hand, I reviewed a world history textbook which should be coming out soon (I don't know when, I don't keep up now that I'm not teaching World) which did a MUCH better job of identifying unique and distinctive characteristics of different societies, without losing some of the valuable elements of B & Z.

In response to a few of the comments here: first, I really love Diamond's _Guns, Germs, and Steel_, and while I don't think it answers every question out there, I do think it presents a whole bunch of fascinating observations, which, if they don't always all work together, really do raise important questions. And I personally hate Palmer. But then I'm a social/cultural historian. And I come out of a program that actually does teach world history as an intellectual field (primarily a field in which one is going to teach rather than write a dissertation, but one which is taken extremely seriously and taught by people who are quite involved in world history as a scholarly field. So that also doubtless explains my perspective!).

In answer to Marc, I don't think most world historians would approach groups only on a continental basis. Africa is difficult, but it's definitely treated very differently according to region: North Africa is more part of the Mediterranean, east Africa part of the Indian Ocean trading basin, and then West and sub-Saharan Africa are treated as quite distinct regions. But I will say that Africa and the Americas are the hardest to cope with for world historians - at least in the premodern period; partly because of the nature of the sources that survive, which are very different from Europe/Asia (the lack of written tradition in Africa, for instance), and partly because while world history has tried frequently to focus on connections and interaction, you get stuck when you're talking about the Americas pre-1492 (you *can* of course talk about connections/interactions within the Americas). What I greatly dislike, and what happens in bad world textbooks I've seen, is lumping the Americas and Africa together because they don't fit the patterns of Europe and Asia. But good world history doesn't do that. (In supporting world history, I'm not claiming that every example out there works. Lots don't. But I still think it's a worthy endeavor.)

Finally, I think AS's point about teaching history through intro survey courses is a very good one. You can kind of intro students to history as a discipline through US survey, I think, b/c 1) they're pretty familiar with some of the basic outline, even if in an incredibly distorted way (even if Americanists would disagree with me, it DOES make a difference; teaching world history, students' reactions to Rome as opposed to, say, ancient India, are incredibly telling; they've heard of Rome, they've never heard of Harappan society; even if what they know about Rome is all wrong, it's still easier to teach Rome than Harappa); and 2) US history really isn't that huge a span of time. I agree that world as an upper level class is a much better way to go about the endeavor. Which is kind of contra my argument that Western Civ sucks and we should teach world instead; I guess I'd rather do away with such surveys altogether! But I teach at a school where I have that luxury (we don't teach world, but we don't teach western civ or US survey in the grand scheme as in most places - we do medieval Europe, Ren/Ref, 18th c., 19th c., and 20th; and for US we have colonial, 19th, and 20th c.).

Blah, blah, blah. Okay, so I did go on and on! Sorry it's so stream of consciousness, I have to run to a meeting now!

CatoRenasci said...

While we can leave our obvious disagreements on world history vs. western civilization, the virtue or lack there of of Guns, Germs, and Steel and The Making of the Modern World, aside for now (and probably forever, since we are unlikely to have even common ground, let alone reach agreement), there is a very important point which you made which I think needs comment:

You can kind of intro students to history as a discipline through US survey, I think, b/c 1) they're pretty familiar with some of the basic outline, even if in an incredibly distorted way (even if Americanists would disagree with me, it DOES make a difference; teaching world history, students' reactions to Rome as opposed to, say, ancient India, are incredibly telling; they've heard of Rome, they've never heard of Harappan society; even if what they know about Rome is all wrong, it's still easier to teach Rome than Harappa); and 2) US history really isn't that huge a span of time. I agree that world as an upper level class is a much better way to go about the endeavor. Which is kind of contra my argument that Western Civ sucks and we should teach world instead; I guess I'd rather do away with such surveys altogether! But I teach at a school where I have that luxury (we don't teach world, but we don't teach western civ or US survey in the grand scheme as in most places - we do medieval Europe, Ren/Ref, 18th c., 19th c., and 20th; and for US we have colonial, 19th, and 20th c.)

My issue is with your strong bias against survey courses. I know, they're not fun to teach, and the invariably represent compromises we don't like in our own areas of expertise. For students with a serious interest in history, I can almost agree that survey courses are a bad thing.

However, in my view, survey courses which cover the breadth of American and modern European history (or world history if that's your thing), taught along the lines of mainstream interpretation, are the most important courses taught to undergraduates.

For most students who are not going to be historians, or secondary school teachers of history, these survey courses represent the ONLY history they will study during their four years on campus. Hence, the represent our only opportunity to ensure that each graduate has at least been exposed to the things we as historians think they ought to know. Too many colleges and universities let students substitute history courses with more narrow focus, which may be more interesting, both to teach and to take, but do not make any attempt to be comprehensive.

Likewise, consider whether our purpose in our lower level courses is to teach history as a discipline or to provide a minimal body of working knowledge for those who will never crack a history book again.

My view is that while we should give students some sense that history as a discipline does not consist of finding one right answer, we should save really serious work in the discipline of history as a field of study for those who wish to be majors or at least minors in history.

But, then I'm a hopeless relic from the ancien regime.....

Another Damned Medievalist said...

NK -- I guess that's really the fundamental difference -- what you think of as Western Civ is so very different from what I think of as Western Civ. I don't see the "civilization" part in the same way. If it were a European History course, I'd feel constrained to stick to Europe, whereas in WC, I can talk about the Ancient NE, the Persian Empires, the spread of Islam, and, in the more modern sections, Asia, the Americas, and sub-Saharan Africa. But I admit that there is an emphasis on both how European cultures (which certainly change dramatically over time) influenced and were influenced by their cross-cultural contacts. It's just that there is a more coherent narrative structure, I think. And it really does do more to explain 'how we got to where we are,' which is something I think is really important for what might be the one course people take in the discipline.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

CatoRenasci - we're going to have to agree to disagree, because I feel entirely the opposite way. I would rather have students understand history as a discipline than as exposure to some discreet set of facts, going on the theory that if students acquire some of the skills involved in understanding/doing history, then they can learn/teach themselves what they want/need to know in the future, and apply those skills to other endeavors as well. So in this sense I'm anti-survey because surveys by their nature tend to be about teaching a set of facts, and I'm pretty skeptical about what students remember of that information once the final exam is over. And when I've taught surveys, students who have enjoyed the class and acquired a greater interest in/appreciation for history invariably say, "I didn't realize history wasn't just dates and facts," rather than "I'm glad I know more about topic x or topic y." (I realize I'm overstating the distinction between "facts" and the skills of history as a "discipline," but I hope you get what I mean.) But then I'm also exceedingly anti-canon, whether it's literature or history or whatever.

I mean, I do appreciate your point, because one of the things I needed to do in grad school was teach myself some of the narrative that I hadn't got in my undergraduate courses (because my undergrad didn't offer these big scale surveys - no western civ, mostly topics/thematic courses), but from what I saw of my grad student colleagues, it was a lot easier to pick up the narrative than it was for people who were grounded in the narrative to (for instance) grasp the concept of historiography. And if I hadn't gone to grad school in history, I don't imagine that the narrative I was lacking would have hurt me at all. (You mention a minimal body of working knowledge, but working in what sense? In what way does a working knowledge of the broad outline of western civ impinge on the average non-history-student's daily life, or at least any more than the kind of knowledge found in a more tightly-focused class?)

ADM, yeah, we do have a fundamentally different view of Western Civ, but I do understand what you mean. My problem is calling it "western" civ when you are moving all over the place (this is a cliched and sort of willfully obtuse criticism, but why are Mesopotamia and Egypt "western" in the ancient world and not at any later point? I mean, they don't move! I realize there's the argument to make about the influence that they have on "western" society, but I think that the connections are there partly because historians see them as there, they're not the only connections that can be drawn. If that makes any sense - it may not!). I just feel like if you're using those non-European regions to understand what's going on in Europe (or what becomes Europe), then call it European history. I don't have a problem with the endeavor or the narrative, just with the construct of "the West." Or more accurately, I find it no more useful a construct than "world history," and I think world historians are pretty conscious of the problems with this very new endeavor. Personally, I find world history a more satisfying way to think about "how we got to where we are," but that's depends partly on how you define who we are and where we are.

I should end my rambling by saying that I'm not really quite as anti-Western civ as all this comes off; it's just that frequently the two surveys - western civ and world - are posed as mutually exclusive, while I really don't think they are; but if I had to pick one, I personally prefer teaching world history.

But I promise that I will shut up about this now. :-)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

You don't have to -- You've made some great points, and I admit that they make sense to me. I don't agree with all of them, but then I've never seen World History work. I suppose I should also mention that today one of my not-really-a-tenure-committee mentioned that she thought I needed to lecture more and do less sourcework. I think that's probably true, because I tend to expect the students to get a version of the narrative from the text, then come in and work on sources, and then go from the sources back to the narrative and help form alternate versions of the narrative ...

CatoRenasci said...

New Kid - its difficult to compare our personal experiences since I had the traditional survey courses as a freshman and sophomore, taught pretty much as what we used to call "kings and battles" when I was in grad school. I rather enjoyed it (and had been a civil war buff - sparked by the centennial in the early 1960s), and found that when my study of history became more specialized and more professional, I was well served by having a thorough command of the narrative: it helped me put things in context, relating the history of ideas to the events they accompanied and societies in which they emerged.

In evaluating the theoretical and analytical work of other historians, it seems to me a thorough command of the facts is essential. After all, we must test the ideas not merely for their logical attraction, but for their faithfulness to the known facts. Well, at least that's the way I was trained back in the day.

I don't doubt your students were happy to have courses in which they were not held to master any body of facts, but I question how useful a familiarity with historical argument is when one does not know enough of the underlying factual information to know what constitutes a strong or weak argument.

I agree that many of the students who take but one or two required courses in history may not remember all of the information covered in the surveys, or even most of it. That's a pity, but I would argue that it is better that they have had the survey on the chance that they will have a somewhat coherent sense of the broad narrative, which can provide a context within which they can evaluate things that come to their attention in daily life. While it is true that it could be useful to teach students the ability to learn what they want/need to know on their own, I think we differ in that I am concerned with the 90% or so of those students who will never feel compelled to go teach themselves any more history. And, moreover, if they have no sense of the broad factual context, how are they to discern what's good, bad, or indifferent history if they ever do need to teach themselves? To do a reductio on the point, a student could pick up Dunning writing on Reconstruction and not be able to evaluate whether the facts used to support the interpretation are accurate or complete (in the sense of intentionally ignoring what's generally know, but argues against the interpretation).

Another Damned Medievalist said...

What's funny to me is that NK and I both seem to focus on a lot of the same things, CR. Probably 75% of my survey courses are about teaching the students to do history. But what I call doing history requires asking very different questions than those that Martin wants asked. And I do think mine are much better. NK -- are the questions you use to teach method the ones Martin talks about, or are they more the ones you teach in your more specialized courses? I ask because I think we're close to the heart of the matter -- Are the questions World Historians ask fundamentally different from those that Western/Euro Civ people ask (as Martin implies)? If they are, and the questions that the latter group asks are more in line with the questions asked in more specialized areas, and/or more in line with 'traditional' history, which ones are the more important ones for students to learn in their single class? And if you are teaching the latter group of questions, are you then teaching World History (which seems not to be possible in Martin's view)?

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I won't go into this *much* more, but I did want to assure CatoRenasci that my courses are not entirely contentless. My students do have to learn information/facts, if not a grand narrative of the sort that tends to emerge from survey courses. So I did not mean to suggest I am entirely anti-facts - just that I don't think there is one set of them floating around that a student is required to learn to be properly educated. Any number of different sets (or subsets) of information will do. (I wouldn't know whether Dunning gets his/her facts right in writing about the Reconstruction, either, but that doesn't say anything about my understanding of history.)

CatoRenasci said...

ADM, NK - thanks for your thoughtful respones. Let me pose a question that I think goes to the heart of my concerns:

A frequent complaint about even educated Americans is that we don't know much about history -- I'm not sure how you'd phrase it; in my day we talked about a lack of an historical consciousness. Setting aside those students (like the three of us at diffent times and places) who love history more or less from the get-go, do you think that the fundamental changes in the way history is taught to lower division students over the past 3 years (i.e. abandonment of 'grand narrative' survey courses, substituting more narrowly-focused classes in subsets of historical inquiry which in many cases did not exist 35 years ago), and focusing much more on historical method than specific content) has resulted in raising the level of historical consciousness in the average holder of a BA or BS (in subjects other than history) from reasonably good American liberal arts colleges and universities?

I've seen surveys (which I don't have to hand) that suggest not, and the anecdotal evidence I see in students suggests this is not the case.

CatoRenasci said...

oops, that was supposed to be 30, not 3 years.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I'm not in the best position to comment, since I'm a product of exactly the changes you describe. But I guess my short response would be, how do you define historical consciousness? I would define it as understanding how to approach history, so I would argue that yes, the changes you describe have been successful. My take is that you can learn how to approach history with any set of facts/information - there's no one set of facts that should necessarily be privileged. I realize that there are other ways to define historical consciousness that would look at the results differently.

I should add that I'm not advocating utter ignorance of historical events of the past, but I would have no problem with a student fulfilling their college history requirement by taking, say, Chinese history, and not taking US or European history. That student may never go on to take any more history classes, but they will acquire tools for dealing with historical concepts. If they find that in future they need to know, for instance, what happened in the American Revolution, they will be able to cope with figuring it out. But while this may sound like anathema, I would not privilege the American Revolution (or medieval Europe, for that matter) as a set of facts that a student (an American student?) HAS to know.

Perhaps it's worth pointing out that I do not at all believe that the role of studying history is to create informed citizens per se. I'm all for creating critical thinkers who can decide for themselves what they want to do with their critical thinking skills.

CatoRenasci said...

NK - we are indeed coming from very different places. To address your last point first, I think that teaching historians have a responsibility to provide students with a sound (i.e. within the mainstream of best historical practice) overview/survey/basic understanding of the history of both the civilization of what is generally referred to as the "West" -- since it is so dominant in the modern world -- and of the United States -- in order to understand our institutions and their origins. I think this is especially important for those students who will not pursure any further study of history.

I'd suggest we think about approaching this more or less the way mathematics departments separate the teaching of introductory calculus into courses designed for liberal arts/social science students, engineers and physical science students, and mathematics majors. The course for majors typically is taught from a very theoretical perspective, focusing on important theorems and their rigorous proof. It is designed, as I understand it, to inculcate what advanced mathematics texts always say is the only prerequisite: "mathematical sophistication" On the other hand, engineering-oriented courses focus on results and their practical use (hence the derisive term "cookbook" classes).

I worry that by trying to teach historical method (beyond the sort of "problems" approach that has included the contrasting views of major historical thinkers into survey courses) to students who do not intend to study history any more than they have to, and by letting them substitute very narrowly focused courses for surveys, we're doing them a disservice.

Defining historical consciousness isn't easy. I'm tempted to fall back on Justice White's famous comment on pornography: "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it" , but that would hardly be fair. As I understand it, an historical consciousness means having an undestanding, a sense, of the deveopment of the modern world and of the major players in that development, of the ideas that have shaped our civilization. Another term is a "sense of history" - of the role of the past in shaping who we are and how we think. All very vaporous, I'm afraid.

I guess I'm also very old fashioned in thinking that one must know oneself -- in this context, know the history of the West -- before one can know others.

Anonymous said...

I think that your comparison to mathematics gets at my main worry about the survey course as often constituted. How are we to inculcate any sort of historical consciousness (however defined), or indeed attract any majors besides those who come in loving history, if the survey class is devoid of all that makes history interesting as a discipline? The math for non-math-people classes are known to be terrible for anyone actually interested in the subject. High school history does a good enough job at convincing people history is all boring names and dates; I'd sacrifice a good deal of content (though not, of course, all) to avoid having survey courses do the same.

And to take a stab at ADM's question, I do think the questions define world history as a research endeavor, but perhaps only in a trivially true way. I tend to divide it more by the scope of what I need to look at to answer the questions-- when the answers to my questions are found within Europe, then I am a Europeanist. When my questions require looking at the rest of the world (which is reasonably often since I look at cartography) then I get told that I am a world historian. The questions themselves are not different in kind, though there are certainly some questions that can be asked only at one level or the other.

But perhaps that simply means that I am not really a world historian, at least as Martin wants to define it.

AS

CatoRenasci said...

I think that your comparison to mathematics gets at my main worry about the survey course as often constituted. How are we to inculcate any sort of historical consciousness (however defined), or indeed attract any majors besides those who come in loving history, if the survey class is devoid of all that makes history interesting as a discipline? The math for non-math-people classes are known to be terrible for anyone actually interested in the subject. High school history does a good enough job at convincing people history is all boring names and dates; I'd sacrifice a good deal of content (though not, of course, all) to avoid having survey courses do the same.

You make a fair enough point that more often than not both traditional survey courses and math-without-tears courses are badly taught and turn people off from the subjects.

However, in mathematics, the solution is self-evidently not putting the math-phobic into courses for math majors, simply because those math-phobic students would simply fail and likely get nothing useful out of the courses. Because history is substanially easier to do than mathematics (having done some math at the graduate level as a grad student in mathematical economics as well as grad school in history), it's not so obvious that we are not serving our students well when we put them in courses for majors that are more enjoyable to teach and hence probably better taught and more fun for students.

Moreover, the fact that something which needs to be done is not done well (e.g. history survey courses) is not any sort of valid argument that it ought not be done. Rather, historians need to consider why so many survey courses are simply bad.

One of the reasons students come to liberal arts colleges and universities is that they don't have a very clear idea what it is they need to know to be educated. I think when we don't lay out survey courses that introduce them to our/their history we fail in our jobs as educators. When I was in graduate school, I remember that most of the department's "big guns" -- prominent historians with national and internationl reputations -- took the survey courses very seriously and prided themselves on doing a good job teaching them on a regular basis.

I very much liked your response to ADM's question about world history. Only the narrowest gradgrind would limit himself or herself to a narrow speciality or particular geographic or national historial division for the answers to questions that arise. Certainly, great historians have always cast their nets broadly and followed the inquiry wherever it led. Your answer makes a strong case, I think, that historians need to have at least a sound working knowledge of historical work outside of their particular fields -- how else will they know when and how to start looking afield for answers to their questions....

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I guess I'm also very old fashioned in thinking that one must know oneself -- in this context, know the history of the West -- before one can know others.

I had a grad prof once who explained that the reason he studied modern Japan was that the best way for him to understand himself, was to study what he was not. FWIW. :-)

CatoRenasci said...

NK - Japan is an interesting case... I was fortunate enough to study Japanese history with the greatgrandson of one of Commodore Perry's officers, whose family had maintained strong ties in Japan ever since, who had taught (in Japanese) at Wasada, and who had known (or at least met socially) virtually every important player in Japan from the 1920's through the 1960s, including Hirohito. (Long since passed away, I always thought it a pity he did not publish more.)

sm said...

My aging eyes did not allow me to read all the brilliant stuff, but here are a few comments from yet another medievalist who has recently taught a WH survey, 1300-present, after cutting teeth on a survey of Islamic Civilization.

1. ADM, you are probably better prepared to teach WH than most modernists, because an awful lot of them don't know a damned thing before about 1500, and feel no obligation to do so. What kind of medievalist knows nothing about the modern period?

2. My university still teaches 1st year surveys, and I'm glad it does. I enjoyed doing World History last year, it forced me to put 9/11 in a big perspective. Also the Industrial Revolution. Also the Taiping Rebellion. God it was fun. Helped to have a pre-tested, brilliant textbook (Tignor et al Worlds Together, Worlds Apart).

Of course, it helps to have a point of view on the big picture. If this be "grand narrative," make the most of it.

3. A lot of "non-Eurocentric" WH is just as Euro-centric as the other stuff, except all the signs are reversed. Europe bad, everything else good.

4. Despite comment #3, I too have a hard time with the idea of Western Civ, especially a WC course that begins with Sumer. I teach a course that begins with Sumer -- earlier actually -- but it's called "Ancient Civilizations."

On WC, I'm with Gandhi -- "I think it would be a good idea."

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Me, I could leave out much of the Ancient Near East ... except that it's so great for introducing ideas of legal class, polytheistic religion, empire, slavery, etc. And, of course, the roots of the Bible. I tend to talk a lot about religion in terms of debunking popular misconceptions (one of them being that Catholics aren't Christians ...)

Maybe we should call the course "History of Western Culture"?

Phlebas said...

I realize I'm a bit late to the fair, but I'll venture a few comments anyway.

(1) ADM, I think you are completely correct in the original post when you point out that World History, at least as a survey, operates on such a high level of generalization that it becomes almost meaningless. 'Who the whole world will embrace/ little thereof he shall distrain.' The same is too often true of European Civ./Western Civ. as well, of course, but expanding the frame to embrace the globe simply exacerbates the problem. This is particularly true of World History before the 15th Century, which (like it or not) tends to focus on a set of largely autonomous civilizations. Making too much of the connections between them seems unwise pedagogy. I've sometimes wondered if a better solution would be to abandon narrative altogether for the first term of a World History survey and look instead in a comparative way at several examples drawn from different world civilizations. But this would be closer to historical sociology than to history, and probably bore and confuse college freshmen no end.

(2) On the Western Civ. versus European history survey--I think in practice there is very little difference. I spent some years teaching at a place which called the first term of its survey 'The Rise of Europe.' Most lecturers used Western Civ. textbooks, readers, and syllabi. I was an odd duck for starting my class ca. 1000 B.C. rather than in Sumer and pre-dynastic Egypt. The Western Civ. idea may have chauvinistic and even racist in its inception, but I've never run into someone who actually taught the class that way. Post-modernism sometimes makes us so aware of the genealogy of our ideas that we forget there is such a thing as the genetic fallacy.

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