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 The Scholarship of World History

World History for Us All has a double research base: the most recent scholarship in world history and the cognitive issues of how children learn history. This essay reviews briefly the scholarly field of world history and its application to teaching. A bibliography for further reading is also included.

Approaches to the Past

In the past century and a half, historians have adopted exacting standards of research and inquiry. The laying down of professional rules for gathering, analyzing, and interpreting evidence has benefited world history as a modern field of scholarship. This commitment to rules of evidence separates the “new world history” from the older tradition of “universal history” associated, for example, with Arnold Toynbee. Universal history closely joined the study of the human past to religion and philosophy, specifically the search for general historical laws or patterns that might reveal the total meaning and direction of the human venture, past and future. Heavily burdened with what we now see as questionable theories of knowledge, universal history no longer has many advocates. William H. McNeill made a key contribution in 1963, when he published The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community. McNeill was influenced by Toynbee, but his sweeping narrative rested on solid professional methods.

The scope of historical research has expanded over the past century from political, diplomatic, intellectual, and institutional history to embrace many new approaches. These include social, cultural, gender, and environmental history. This broadening of the historical discipline is a reflection of the entry of many more women, minorities, and people of working-class background into the academic professions. It also reflects new trends in society, notably the increasing immigration into the United States of people from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. These trends have reshaped the ways in which we see and understand the past. They have led the historical profession to accept the idea that the whole world and all its peoples, not just Europeans, Americans, and male governing groups, should be open to historical inquiry.

Sweeping changes in the discipline of history have also included an expansion of the range of appropriate scales of research—scales of both time and space. Until quite recently, nations have been the primary frame in which most histories were written. But the end of colonialism and awareness of the growing economic and cultural interconnectedness of peoples have set off a kind of intellectual Copernican revolution in the way we think about the world. That is, historians have begun to imagine geographical frames beyond the nation-state and the civilization. Specifically, they have been exploring the modern and pre-modern histories of Africa, Asia, Native America, and Oceania, which were previously neglected. Efforts to “re-vision” the world as a space in which humans interact and intercommunicate have led us toward the necessity of devising larger geographical frames—what we call in the History, Geography, and Time section of this curriculum “Big Geography.” This is the idea that the world as a spherical whole, and not just particular land masses or regions, has a geographical personality with which students should be familiar. The setting of world history is ultimately the earth and not just parts of it viewed one after another.

The dismantling in the 1960s and 1970s of the European, American, and Japanese colonial empires, together with the inescapable fact of globalization, have led to an expansion in the temporal scale in which history is written. In place of older historical narratives that placed Europe at the center, and viewed it as the motor of world history, scholars have begun to rethink Europe’s “moment” of political dominance. A world historical perspective can enrich our understanding of how we humans have been mixed up in one another’s lives for a very long time, and it points to the fundamental unity of humankind.

More generally, trends in the natural sciences have dramatically reinforced the expansion of time scales. As cosmology, geology, evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, and genetics have concerned themselves more and more with explaining past developments, it has become possible to link human history to the history of the universe as a whole. This perspective is embedded in David Christian’s book, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004). Christian calls this perspective “Big History.” He argues that only the history of the universe can provide the appropriate frame within which to understand the human past.

A Big History perspective can help us to think outside of the usual chronological box in which humankind’s story has been told. For example, it prompts a reevaluation of the paleolithic period (what used to be called the “stone age”). From a Big History perspective the fact that 95 per cent of human history occurred prior to the rise of civilization prompts the questions: why did humans start to plant crops, domesticate animals, and build cities when they got along fine without these things for hundreds of thousands of years? Why did an industrial revolution occur less than 300 years ago? Why did world population start to rocket upward at about the same time?

The New World History

World History for Us All draws upon research in comparative, cross-cultural, and world-scale history since the 1960s. World historians have had an important role in encouraging teachers and students to examine important topics from a wider angle. The study of trade in the pre-1500 world, for example, has opened a window into the ways in which the societies of Afroeurasia were linked together via the silk road, the spice trade of the Indian Ocean, and the trans-Saharan gold routes. Many books have been written in recent decades to provide teachers and students with ways of tracing the links between cultures and civilizations across Eurasia. These include Jerry Bentley’s Old World Encounters; Philip D. Curtin’s, Cross-Cultural Trade in World History; and Ross E. Dunn’s The Adventures of Ibn Battuta. For the trans-Saharan trade, Ralph A. Austen’s, Trans-Saharan Africa in World History, .

Further Reading about the New World History

Abu-Lughod, Janet. Before European Hegemony: The World System A. D. 1250-1350. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989.

Bayly, C. A. The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

Bentley, Jerry. Old World Encounters: Cross-cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993.

Bentley, Jerry H., ed. The Oxford Handbook of World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Burbank, Jane, and Frederick Cooper. Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Burke, Edmund, and Kenneth Pomeranz, eds. The Environment and World History, 1750-2000. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Christian, David. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

---. Origin Story: A Big History of Everything. New York: Little Brown, 2018.

---. This Fleeting World: A Short History of Humanity. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing, 2018.

Conrad, Sebastian. What Is Global History? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.

Crosby, Alfred W. The Colombian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport: Praeger, 2003.

---. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

Curtin, Philip D. Cross-Cultural Trade in World History. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel. New York: Norton, 1997.

Dunn, Ross E. The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Dunn, Ross E., Laura J. Mitchell, and Kerry Ward. The New World History: A Teacher’s Companion. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. New York: Harper, 2015.

Hodgson, Marshall G. S. Rethinking World History: Essays on Europe, Islam, and World History. Edited, with an Introduction and Conclusion by Edmund Burke, III. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Hughes-Warrington, Marnie, ed. Palgrave Advances in World Histories. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Lewis, Martin W. and Kären E. Wigen. The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Manning, Patrick ed. Global Practice in Word History: Advances Worldwide. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2008.

Manning, Patrick. Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Marks, Robert B. The Origins of the Modern World Economy. 4th ed. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2019.

McNeill, J. R. Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World. New York: Norton, 2000.

McNeill, J. R. and William H. McNeill. The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003.

Northrop, Douglas, ed. A Companion to World History. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Pomeranz, Kenneth. The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000.

Richards, John F. The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Sachsenmaier, Dominic. Global Perspectives on Global History: Theories and Approaches in a Connected World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Spier, Fred. Big History and the Future of Humanity. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. A Concise History of the World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

---. Gender in History: Global Perspectives. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Further Reading about Teaching World History

Bain, Robert B. "Challenges of Teaching and Learning World History." A Companion to World History. Edited by Northrop, Douglas, 111-127. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Burke, Edmund III, David Christian, and Ross E. Dunn. World History: The Big Eras: A Compact History of Humankind for Teachers and Students. Los Angeles: National Center for History in the Schools, University of California, Los Angeles, 2012.

Burton, Antoinette. A Primer for Teaching World History. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2011.

Cajani, Luigi, Simone Lässig, and Maria Repoussi, eds. The Palgrave Handbook of Conflict and History Education in the Post-Cold War Era. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

Dunn, Ross E. "The Two World Histories." Social Education 72 (Sept. 2008): 257-263.

Dunn, Ross E. and David Vigilante, eds. Bring History Alive: A Sourcebook for Teaching World History. Los Angeles: National Center for History in the Schools, University of California, Los Angeles, 1996.

Getz, Trevor. "Teaching World History at the College Level." A Companion to World History. Edited by Northrop, Douglas, 128-139. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Nash, Gary B., Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn. History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

"The New World History: How Can We Bring Our Students’ World into the Classroom?" Social Studies Review 49, 1 (Spring/Summer 2010).

Roupp, Heidi, ed. Teaching World History in the Twenty-first Century: A Resource Book. New York: Routledge, 2010.

"Teaching World History." The Source: A Quarterly Publication of The California History-Social Science Project (Fall 2014).

Stearns, Peter. World History: The Basics. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Stearns, Peter N., Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg, eds. Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

World History for Us All, National Center for History in the Schools, University of California, Los Angeles,