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The Case for Deepening World History

My postings on “Contending Voices” are intended to link my world-historical research and teaching efforts to wider social concerns. For most of 2021, I concentrated on “debating today’s social priorities—focusing especially on issues in ideology.” I believe those essays made some valuable points on the importance of ideology in our day. Yet I felt a need to take a six-month break and rethink the focus of “Contending Voices,” deciding to focus more specifically on the teaching of world history. This post is my first since shifting the emphasis of the blog.

Millions of students around the world, along with many thousands of teachers, study in courses on world history. Those courses have their strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, they introduce many people to different parts of the world—and to their cultures—showing the interplay of global continuity and change. On the negative side, the subject matter is immense and daunting for teachers and students. Without enough exploration, debate, or problem-solving, students (even teachers) may fall back into categorization and memorization. And too often, the many methods valuable to world history are ignored.

To address this, I am calling, in effect, for deepening world history. And for enlivening it. I hope that my comments and pointers on world history will encourage teachers to invest more heavily in creating courses that are more comprehensive, more engaging, more analytical, more bottom-up, and less top-down, so that they build both knowledge and imagination among students.

What is needed in the study of history?

From an individual perspective, we each live one life, linked to the lives of others. If we look back, we see how much has happened in our own life and in the lives of family and friends. What should we hope to learn about a past life? Surely, we want background on the life we are in—and to plan in some way for the future. Understanding our own experiences gives us priorities for understanding the past. Yet others—those in authority—tell us what perspectives to adopt and what past evidence to weigh. Today we find ourselves in schools, as well as other structures such as networks, businesses, and governments. Our schools tell us to study history and to teach it. Further, schools now tell us that we are all human, and that we are more or less alike. These are the basics. But what are the specifics?

We can only hope that schools and courses will give information, and from that information we will find answers to our questions that are relevant to us as individuals—and relevant for humans at different times and places. It would be best if we could see what part of the past gives us the most information on what has happened and what to do. But how do teachers and students choose?

Understanding world history—a massive undertaking

From an academic perspective, the task of understanding world history requires exploring a sample of past episodes and eras. History, after all, does not consist only of the biggest and most powerful organizations. It also includes many other pieces that exist at a smaller scale. To map the range of history’s possibilities, I propose four processes of change—environmental, biological, ways of individual human learning, and how organized groups choose and act. Then I argue that these changes take place along each of four axes of experience: time, space, the many topics in human life, and the scale from local to global. But can these logical structures improve world history courses?

Schools have complex and contradictory institutional tasks: they are to convey knowledge received from the past, yet they are also to equip students with skills in analysis and solving of present and future problems. Schools reinforce the norms of society but also debate and challenge society and its problems. So, as part of world history, teachers and students need to study the functioning of their schools and other institutions.

As students, we have questions about ourselves, our households, our communities, and what they do. What is fair? What is helpful? What problems have arisen? What changes have taken place and how? What protects us? What should we fear? How do we provide resources for ourselves and others? How do we heal illness? What do we seize and what do we share? How do we escape threats? How do we find love or gain recognition? These are questions about us but also about our fellow humans. They arise in arenas of work, play, ideas, family, networks, exchange, authorities, and communication.

Other questions arise from the prior study of history and the natural and social sciences. Of these issues, I propose to focus on cooperation and competition, violence, individual behavior vs. group behavior, ideals of equality, and realities of inequality. While we need to explore categorization and discrimination by gender, ethnicity, religion, and “race,” we also need attention to human interaction with the natural environment.

The humanity of world history

I think it is good to call this academic endeavor “World History” or “Global History.” (Both emphasize the extent of our planet.) But it’s important to remember that the main participants in human history are the humans, not the planet. And who are humans? A species, a life form composed of similar individuals with genetic and phenotypical composition. We reproduce by sexual contact of male and female; are nurtured through life by humans distinguished by age, gender, and social role; and death may come at any point up to roughly a century. Individuals comprise populations, form communities, and conduct varied activities.

A comprehensive, bottom-up look at these elements of human life may help us to see broad patterns of change—what has gone well and what has gone poorly for our species. Necessarily, the results of our historical study will help us diagnose and solve the very serious crises that humans now face on several levels.

As usual, there is too much to cover. But in the coming months I will take this bottom-up approach to explore the principles, problems, and possibilities of world history in more depth—as these issues might be presented to the next generation of students. I will try to make each essay a self-contained look at a specific topic, such as the evolution of households, the first settlement of the Americas, the United Nations, and history and anthropology. Overall, I am hoping to present an overview of human history.

6 thoughts on “The Case for Deepening World History”

    1. Thank you, Jerry. As you know from your own work on psychohistory of oppression by race, gender and class, it’s a real task to present the complexity of social issues yet inspire teachers and students to apply them practically.

  1. A wonderful exploration! Last week, I was again struck by how much intrinsic motivation my students have for the questions you sketched out in part three. Students want to learn World History when it is presented through these lines of inquiry.

    1. Thanks for these insights into your students responses to questions about their own lives and communities. Do they also see a way to take a next step – that is, by choosing topics they want to explore to answer their questions?

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