The Scholarship Of
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, The Golden Trade of the Moors, an
older work by E. W. Bovill, is still a reliable overview.
Here are three subject areas where a world history perspective
Slavery and Its Abolition. A generation ago, most historians
in the US studied slavery in a US context. Little was known
in this country about the history of slavery elsewhere in
the Americas, let alone the history of slavery in Africa
and the rest of the world. Because of the scholarship of
the last thirty years or so, we know a great deal more about
slavery and slave trade in Africa than we did a few decades
ago. Paul Lovejoy’s Transformations in Slavery is an
important survey of slavery in Africa, while Patrick Manning’s
Slavery in African Life and John Thornton’s Africa
and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World provide
large scale syntheses. Philip Curtin’s The Rise and
Fall of the Plantation Complex is a reliable overview of
this important topic in Atlantic and world history.
For slavery in the Americas, an essential entry
point into what is now a vast literature is Robin Blackburn’s
two volume survey: The Making of new World Slavery and The
Overthrow of Colonial Slavery. These studies help us understand
what a huge impact anti-slavery movements and ideas had on
the politics of the nineteenth century world. Dale Tomich,
Through the Prism of Slavery, which examines nineteenth century
French and Spanish Caribbean slavery, is a thought-provoking
recent addition. The study of the post-Civil War Reconstruction
period has become an important area for comparative work.
Eric Foner’s Nothing But Freedom is a widely used overview
that examines the U.S. experience in the wider context of
the abolition of slavery in Haiti and Jamaica. Other studies
that follow this comparative approach include Thomas Holt’s
The Meaning of Freedom and a collaborative work by Holt,
Frederick Cooper and Rebecca J. Scott titled Beyond Slavery.
It looks at Cuba, East Africa, and Louisiana.
History of the World Economy. A second major focus of world
history research has been the history of the world economy.
For a long time, historians were impressed with the centrality
of Europe in the emergence of the modern world. One statement
of this approach is Eric L. Jones, The European Miracle,
2nd edition. More global, but still shaped in important ways
by a Eurocentric perspective, is Immanuel Wallerstein’s
enormously influential three volume work The Modern World
System. Research on the Indian ocean economy prior to the
sixteenth century by scholars such as K.N. Chaudhuri gradually
encouraged historians to move away from the Eurocentrism
implicit in Wallerstein’s synthesis. An accessible
critique and reinterpretation of this viewpoint is Janet
Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony. More recently still,
historians have re-examined the role of the Chinese economy
in the pre-1750 world perspective. Works such as Dennis O.
Flynn and Arturo Giraldez’s Global Connections and
Monetary History, 1470-1800 have made historians more conscious
of the crucial role of silver trade in the fashioning of
the world economy after 1492. Particularly recommended is
Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and
the Making of the Modern World Economy. This book is an imaginative
effort to rethink the origins of the world economy from the
point of view of China. Finally, Robert F. Marks’ Origins
of the Modern World Economy is a brief and widely used survey
that emphasizes the deep history as well as the environmental
context of economic globalization.
World Environmental History. A third topic where we can readily
see the advantages of a global perspective is the history
of human interactions with the biosphere. Environmental
history is concerned with population growth, climatic change,
infectious disease, natural disasters, and the impact of
changing technologies. In World History for Us All we draw
on recent scholarship in environmental history, especially
works with a global perspective. These include Alfred Crosby’s
two books, The Colombian Exchange and Ecological Imperialism,
both of which are concerned with the diffusion of plants,
animals, and microorganisms across the hemispheres and
the consequences for humankind. John F. Richards’ The
Unending Frontier is a bold attempt to chart the transformations
of the world’s environment in the early modern period.
Edmund Burke and Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Environment
and World History, 1750-2000 (forthcoming) contains an
up-to-date summary of recent research. Brian Fagan has
written extensively on large-scale environmental change,
including The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization.
John R. McNeill has contributed an eye-opening history
of contemporary environmental change in Something New under
the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century
These are but three topics where the impact of a world history
perspective can be seen. As you explore World History for
Us All, you will readily identify dozens of others. World
history is an exciting teaching field shaped by research
at the cutting edge.
Abu-Lughod, Janet. Before European Hegemony: The World System
A. D. 1250-1350. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989.
Bentley, Jerry. Old World Encounters: Cross-cultural Contacts
and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993.
Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery. London:
---. The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery. London: Verso, 1998.
Bovill, E. W. The Golden Trade of the Moors. Princeton:
Markus Weiner Publishers, 1999.
Burke, Edmund, and Kenneth Pomeranz, The Environment and
World History, 1750-2000 (Berkeley: University of California
Christian, David. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
---. This Fleeting World: A Short History of Humanity. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing, 2008.
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.
---. The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex. 2nd ed.
Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.
Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel. New York: Norton,
Dunn, Ross E. The New World History: A Teacher’s Companion.
Boston: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2000.
Flynn, Dennis O., Arturo Giráldez, and Richard von
Glahn. eds. Global connections and monetary history, 1470-1800.
Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2003.
Foner, Eric. Nothing But Freedom. Baton Rouge: Louisiana
State UP, 1983.
Goldstone, Jack A. "Efflorescences and Economic Growth in World History: Rethinking the "Rise of the West" and the Industrial Revolution." Journal of World History 13 (Fall 2002): 323-389.
Holt, Thomas C. The Meaning of Freedom: Race, Labor and
Politics in Jamaica. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992.
Holt, Thomas C., Frederick Cooper, and Rebecca J. Scott,
Beyond Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina
Jones, Eric. The European Miracle, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge
Lovejoy, Paul. Transformations in Slavery: A History of
Slavery in Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983.
Manning, Patrick. Slavery and African Life. Cambridge: Cambridge
---. Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global
Past. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Marks, Robert B. The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Ecological Narrative from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-first Century. 2nd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
McNeill, J. R. Something New under the Sun: An Environmental
History of the Twentieth-Century World. New York: Norton,
McNeill, William H. The Rise of the West: A History of the
Human Community. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963.
Pomeranz, Kenneth. The Great Divergence: China, Europe and
the Making of the Modern World Economy. Princeton: Princeton
Richards, John F. The Unending Frontier: An Environmental
History of the Early Modern World. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 2003.
Thornton, John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the
Atlantic World. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.
Tomich, Dale. Through the Prism of Slavery. New York: Rowman
and Littlefield, 2003.