Christopher Monty

                                                                                                                                                Department of History




Bringing World History Research into the Classroom


The question of how best to teach world history is a topic of central importance to historians, young and old alike.  The most pressing problem faced by both established scholars and emerging professionals is the lack of training in world history.   Disciplinary training in history continues – for the most part – to revolve around traditional chronological and regional boundaries; and this leaves historians in the uncomfortable position of being highly trained specialists who must teach a subject in which we have very little training.  This more than anything else, I believe, accounts for the tendency of many to fall back on a traditional, narrative approach to world history courses, which have at their core the dreaded textbook/document reader dyad.   While textbooks (some more than others) do have the virtue of being inclusive, of making an effort to incorporate all of the world’s major regions into a narrative of global developments, I want to argue in favor of a more skills-oriented approach to university-level world history courses. 

                The focus of this paper are the two core issues raised by the recently published volume, edited by Ross E. Dunn, The New World History: A Teacher’s Companion: what are the goals of the world history movement, and what kinds of pedagogical strategies are best suited to the achievement of these goals?  As expressed by the authors in this volume, the primary aim of world history courses is to overcome the ethnocentrism and phallocentrism of traditional Western Civilization courses by giving students, instead, a “…clear and vivid sense of the whole human past.”[1]  While agreeing with the general intention underlying this position, I must point out that most historians remain poorly equipped to do an adequate job of this; and courses based on textbook readings more often than not provide at best only superficial outlines and at worst caricature-like snapshots of the “whole human past.” 

                I want discuss the relative merits of two different approaches to teaching world history courses.  First, I want to propose shifting the focus of such courses to historiography.  After reading some of the debates spurred by the publication of David Landes’ most recent work, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are so Rich and Some So Poor, I was struck by the idea that perhaps the best way to teach world history survey courses might be to expose students to the different interpretations put forward by historians to explain significant events and processes (in this case, the so-called “Rise of the West.”).[2]  Such an approach has much to recommend it, in my view.  It would allow instructors to integrate recent research in world history into the classroom, and would also shift the focus of such courses away from mastering a body of information (i.e., memorizing facts from a textbook) to developing analytical and rhetorical skills that will help students both in their other academic ventures and in their everyday lives.  Secondly, I hope to generate discussion about some of the ideas for comparative and thematically focused courses discussed by the various contributors to The New World History: A Teacher’s Companion.  These include, for example, comparative regional histories; the history of migrations; the history of disease; environmental history; gender and women in world history; and the diffusion of technologies.

[1] Daniel Headrick cites this formulation of the task of world history survey courses in a recent review of the book in the Journal of World History 13:1 (Spring 2002), p.184.

[2]  See, for example, Gail Stokes, “The Fate of Human Societies: A Review of Recent Macrohistories,” American Historical Review 106: 2 (April 2001), pp.508-525.