Getting the whole world into 'world history'

Survey courses entitled "World History" were for several decades a standard part of the liberal arts curriculum in many American colleges. The title was usually misleading, for in teaching practice "world history" traditionally meant the history of Western civilization, or simply Europe. The discrepancy between title and content, accepted blithely by most schools and textbook writers, reflected the ethnocentrism and cultural arrogance left over from an age, now gone, when the West dominated the globe.

Today, an increasing number of colleges and universities are offering world history courses which deliver what the title implies. Responding to the compelling facts of global interdependence and the rise of new centers of economic power in the third world, many historians and teachers of history have questioned curricular programs which center too heavily on European and American studies. Moreover, some schools, now building tighter core programs, are looking for fresh alternatives to the Western civilization survey, which fell victim on many campuses to the student activism of the late 1960s.

The aim of many of these new world history courses, however, is not simply to introduce undergraduates to African, Asian, and Latin American civilization as well as European, but rather to present a new set of organizing principles and tools with which students may begin to understand the history of the human community as a whole.

Some major universities -- Boston, Chicago, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin -- have had world history courses in their catalogs for a number of years. And recently such courses have proliferated around the country, sometimes as options or requirements in the freshman-sophomore core curriculum. PhD programs in comparative world history are few, though Wisconsin has had one since the early 1960s. The University of California at Santa Cruz has recently initiated such a program at the master's level. During the past few years, the American Historical Association has devoted sessions at its annual meetings to discussion of world and comparative history.

Last year the history department at the US Air Force Academy published a lengthy report entitled "World History in Liberal Military Education." The Air Force professors and other proponents of a world approach argue that in an age when national boundaries are irrelevant to the critical economic, ecological, and political issues we face, young people drastically need a global vision of humanity that traditional European and even third-world area studies courses do not give them.

They also argue that world interdependence is not simply a 20th-century development, but that all civilizations, including the West, have arisen as a result of complex interactions with neighboring, and often distant peoples and cultures. The global approach, moreover, involves study of major movements in history, such as the Mongol expansion, the Atlantic slave trade, or the spread of industrialism, as comprehensive social processes affecting many peoples, rather than as fragmented subthemes in the histories of particular nations or civilizations.

Some of the new global courses confine themselves to limited chronological periods -- the 20th-century world for example, while others examine the history of mankind from the Stone Age to the present in a single semester in order to put across the "big picture" with broad themes and generalizations supported by concrete examples.

Much discussion among world history teachers has concerned the problem of developing organizing principles to define what information should be included and what should be left out. A set of central themes is crucial in a course covering several centuries, or the millenia of mankind's history.

One answer, and the most widely accepted, is offered by Prof. William H. McNeill of the University of Chicago, whose pioneering 1963 work, "The Rise of the West," undoubtedly has had more influence than any other book in the growing global history movement. McNeill's approach is to conceive the vast area of Eurasia and Africa north of the Sahara as a single field of social interaction in which civilizations emerged and changed, not from purely internal dynamics, but as a result of "contacts and collisions" with one another.

Global history from early times to the end of the 15th century then becomes the progressive "closing" of this great intercommunicating zone, as civilizations and cultures developed ever more complex interlacements. Probably the chief obstacle to introducing a world history course into a university's curriculum is the understandable reluctance of faculties to tackle broad new areas of reading and lecture preparation when the academic system reserves most of its rewards for highly specialized research.

Some schools, such as the Air Force Academy, have solved the problem by teaming department members to share the burden of developing and teaching the course. At San Diego State University three instructors pooled their knowledge of world regions to work up a team-taught course and to create a central file of syllabi, lectures, and classroom materials that colleagues might use later as a foundation for teaching the course on their own.

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