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.