The reviews I have been posting for the last few months, centering on Pacific history, come out of my exam reading for a field in Pacific History. However, it was not actually strictly a field in Pacific History, but rather incorporated a component of consideration of how to incorporate the Pacific – so frequently overlooked – into World History. Or, simply, to do a Pacific field in order to not only have it (a) inform my Japanese & Okinawan studies, and (b) allow me to hopefully be able to teach Pacific History courses in future, but also (c) to have a deeper knowledge of the Pacific to incorporate into my World History courses.
So, getting to the point, here is a response essay I wrote some time ago, with some just very preliminary thoughts on how to approach thinking about, and organizing, a World History course. I’ve TAed for a Global Survey of Art History, and for World History 1000-1700 CE, as well as for Western Civ 1000-1700 & 1700-present, alongside numerous East Asia-centered courses, but I have yet to teach World History myself in any form. So, I imagine that if/when I get to TA for the first third or the last third of World History (Prehistory to 1000, or 1700-present), I’ll have more thoughts… But, for now:
What is “world history?” What is the intention, goal, or aim of a “world history” course?
Is it (1) to convey some kind of narrative of the history of human societies that encapsulates in some fashion all human societies in history, whether in general or on average? Whether by way of a linear sense of progress, or a less straightforward approach, this could be a narrative of the development of kinship groups into clans or villages, then into chiefdoms, with some societies later becoming kingdoms, empires, republics of one sort or another, also addressing the matter of the modern “nation-state.” Is the goal of world history to cover some broad-ranging all-encompassing narrative such as that?
Or is it (2) to discuss more specific historical themes which emerge in specific periods, such as nationalism, Orientalism & racism, colonialism & imperialism, and modernity, with the particular aim of combating old stereotypes, Eurocentric worldviews, and the like, in order to produce more racially/culturally sensitive, critically-thinking, and globally-minded citizens?
Or, is world history about (3) providing a glimpse into a number of different cultures, so as to both inform students about the peoples, places, and cultures of the world they live in and inspire them to perhaps develop a deeper interest and to seek further knowledge?
The first type of class might be the best of the three for providing some historical background and context for courses in social sciences which might focus overmuch on more recent and contemporary events and political/economic/societal structures. The second might be the best of the three for preparing students for History and other courses which require critical thinking and which engage in difficult or complex socio-political issues, such as race and historiographical issues; such a course would, ideally, also help prepare students to be good global citizens more broadly, less racist, less US- and Euro-centric, and more nuanced and critical in their thinking about political, cultural, and social issues both domestically and internationally, and in interactions in their own lives. Finally, the third type of course, I can imagine, might best prepare students for knowing which upper-division courses they wish to take in History (or Art History, Music, Theatre, Politics, Economics, or a number of other disciplines), and might inspire them to travel, to take up interest in particular art forms or historical topics, perhaps even to pursue a job or career related to a particular culture (e.g. cultural or arts organizations, diplomacy, etc.).
A portion of a timeline of Korean-American history, at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle. An important history all too overlooked, and not actually representative of the kind of core canon I’m talking about here. But, visually, I think it’s evocative of the idea of a timeline of canonical events to memorize.
A fourth approach, once standard but now widely rejected, involves teaching a particular canon of names, dates, events – in short, facts – with the chief outcome of instilling in students a basic, common, shared knowledge of key referents, allowing them to understand, or “get,” references made in popular culture, the news, and the like. There is, admittedly, some appeal to this approach, insofar as there is a certain fear or disappointment that our students should be going out into the world with no idea (or, only a distorted, pop media informed idea) of who Genghis Khan, Charlemagne, or William the Conqueror were, or what is meant by “Elizabethan.” The impact of this is very clear already, as we look back at older sources – pop media, literature, news – and see them making reference to things that we ourselves aren’t very clear on. And what historical referents we do share today are so watered down into stereotypes that few can really be expected to know anything proper about the history of that subject. To take just one example, let us hope that the average person on the street (or the average student on our campus) has at least some vague sense of that Henry VIII had a lot of wives, and that he killed several/many of them (hilarious!). But do they know anything at all more than that? Is Henry VIII a historical figure, or a caricature? In any case, this fourth approach is lambasted by nearly all of the historians in Ross E. Dunn’s The New World History, and rightfully so. Such a canon, as it already stands, is terribly Eurocentric, and even if some more global canon were to be conceived, by what criteria are we to choose? And unless there is consensus in the choosing, it won’t serve the purpose of being a commonly shared knowledge. And, in any case, a course that focuses too overmuch on simply trying to cover everything certainly cannot cover everything – it’s impossible – and so would just become unwieldy, fractured, and confusing.
So, of the previous three, which should we be aiming for? Is there a way to balance these effectively? Most of the essays in The New World History seem to be focusing on the first two, and especially on political and economic narratives of cultural & economic interactions, the growth of trade routes & economic interconnectedness, leading eventually into colonialism & imperialism, and from there into other issues. Yet, is this the only narrative we can or should be telling?
A chapter on cultural history in Patrick Manning’s Navigating World History seems at first to offer a way towards a different approach, one which might more strongly forefront questions about the role of cultural practices (visual, material, and expressive/performative culture) and aspects of reflective culture (religion, ideology) in different (macro)cultures. Moving beyond the stylistic & formal obsessions of art history, and the disciplinary/departmental divides of art history, ethnomusicology, and theatre & dance, Manning suggests a cultural history approach which might focus on “what sustains traditions over time, and what brings about major innovations,” the role or meaning of arts and traditions in human societies, the different forms cultural practices or cultural production takes in different cultures, as well as how they developed and changed over time due to both internal forces and intercultural interactions. Manning stops short, however, of providing a clear way forward, by way of either examples of how a “world cultural history” course, or even a single lecture, might be conceptualized or organized, instead providing as he does throughout much of the book a dense, thorough, and at times extremely useful and interesting account of the historiography of cultural history as a set of approaches.
The Great Hall at Christchurch College, Oxford. What is the place of tradition in history? How do tradition and history lead to different parts of the world being what they are today?
Art historians, of course, wrestle with similar issues in their attempts to conceive and construct a more global/world approach to art history. As essays in James Elkins’ Is Art History Global? suggest, Eurocentrism presents even more of a difficulty for art historians than for historians. Not only is the master narrative of a Western-centered art history (from classical forms to their re-emergence in the Renaissance, the advent of perspective, the rise of realism, moving to abstraction in “modern” art, and so on) very powerful, but the very concept of “art,” at least as conceived by “art historians” in the Western tradition, is very much a Western invention. Even societies such as those of the Chinese literati, who have a written tradition of art criticism going back to the 5th or 6th century CE, did not conceive of “art” or “the arts” in the same way that Europeans did, and had to adopt new terms in the 19th century to refer to these new concepts adopted from the West (meishu 美術 and yishu 藝術, meaning roughly “fine arts” and “performing arts,” respectively, from the Japanese bijutsu and geijutsu, who engaged with these issues of modernity more directly first, and coined the terms first).
Many scholars of museum studies and of the art history of non-Western cultures have suggested frameworks for approaching the cultural products or practices of non-Western cultures not through the lens of Western aesthetic concerns (incl. form, symmetry, proportion, lines, taking the object in isolation as aesthetic object) but through a focus on its meaning within its native cultural context. However, while Elkins himself suggests the need for a “consistently non-Eurocentric art history” which instead of merely infusing Western art history with native concepts and categories, would instead abandon reliance on Western interpretive methods, Ladislav Kesner’s essay “Is a Truly Global Art History Possible?” reveals that many scholars (including Kesner himself) remain (perhaps problematically) attached to Eurocentric approaches and attitudes. Even as he suggests that art historians must consider objects within specific cultural context, asking “Why does it look the way it does? What did it mean to the people who made and used it? Why was it special or valuable for them?,” he also asserts that “only Western art history – unlike the Chinese antiquarian tradition or other culturally specific discourses on art and images – has been in a position to continually develop and be enriched by contact with other cultures and non-European art.” This of course ignores both China’s long history of intercultural interactions and the failure of Western art history theory to adequately adapt or change away from its own Eurocentrism. Further, while Kesner’s critique of culturally specific frameworks (e.g. categorizing a wide variety of things under the single umbrella of “Chinese art,” and then analyzing them using distinctively Chinese terms and concepts) as being “essentializing” may contain some merit, and is worth further thought, he then returns to assertions of the universal applicability of Western/European critical theory, psychology, sociology and the like, based on the notion that all people are people, and that therefore the understandings provided by these disciplines should apply universally – thus repeating, or reinforcing, the Eurocentrism fundamental to the issue.
The relevance of these art historical discourses for the cultural historian attempting to conceive of approaches to “world history” (within the History discipline/department) is not entirely clear. But, it has nevertheless given me much to think about. While I certainly have some ideas for which aspects or elements of the histories of particular non-Western cultures I might use to illustrate particular concepts within a world history class, and how their use can contribute to presenting a more powerfully non-Eurocentric or even anti-Eurocentric vision of the histories of the peoples of the world, much about the structure of such a course, the main themes or narratives, remain unclear.
All photos my own.