Prologue and an Apologia

I have been teaching World History for over 20 years and during this time period I have used many different books that employ differing pedagogical approaches.  In my own research and writing as a historian, I have been deeply influenced by both global and social historiographic approaches to world history.  Instead of seeing the world (and world events) as isolated to specific regions or countries, I pay special attention to exchange relationships that transcend the boundaries of the nation-state.  In the beginning of my teaching career, I thus gravitated to textbooks that adopted this approach.  I was especially drawn to books that highlighted patterns in world history.

To my surprise, however, I found that these books were not nearly as successful with my students as I thought they would be.  I struggled for years to figure out why my students who successfully passed my World History course struggled to understand the significance of what they had learned.  For example, while they were able to compare and contrast indigenous encounters with colonizing forces in Asia, the Americas, and Africa, they had little understanding of why this was important or even how it fit into the overall flow of historical events.

My reflections on the successes and failures of the textbooks I had been using led me to the conclusion that my students were missing a basic understanding of the “world” as it exists now and as it has changed through time.  For most of my students, the last world history course they took before entering my College classroom was in 9th or 10th grade.  I suspect (although I have not tested this theory) that many of them would be hard-pressed to find China or South Africa on a global map.  I became convinced that teaching “linkages” and teaching students to look for “patterns of world history” was only effective if and when they understood the basic geography of the world and knew the “basic” facts of world history.

This brief overview of my teaching career helps to explain the approach I have taken in this textbook.  I remember the first day of my ancient Greek language course in graduate school.  The professor said, “I want you to know that much of what I am going to teach you this first semester, I will be unteaching you in future semesters.  But before you can learn the many variations in grammar, you first have to learn the basic rules.  I can only show you where the changes are once you understand the basics.”  In some respects, this is what I do in this textbook.  The goal of this textbook is both simple and challenging.  When students are done reading this book, I want them to understand the basic geography of the world.  I also want to know the names of the important people and events that occurred in modern world history and to appreciate their significance.  Most importantly, I want them to have a sense of how the world changes over the course of five centuries and the reasons for these changes.

I have thus made several pedagogical choices that may seem at first perplexing to the modern historian. Here is my apologia in explanation of how I have structured and written this book.

  • First, I have used the somewhat archaic system of “centuries” to present the material. I have done this for a simple reason.  It is a time-system that my students can understand.  It forces them to think about time and helps them understand how the world changed over time.
  • Secondly, I have broken each chapter down into geographical sections and have used the nation-state as an organizational tool in the chapters on the 16th through 19th centuries. As a global historian this was difficult for me to do at first and I sought to find a better way to tell world history.  But again, the needs of my students ultimately convinced me to adopt this approach.  For better and/or worse, my students live in a world of nation-states.  The news they listen to and/or read talk about nation-states, the people they meet who not born in the US identify themselves as coming from nation-states, etc.  If one of the goals of world history is to help my students better understand the world in which they live, knowing the history of nation-states is critically important.  In addition, adopting this approach ensures that students are exposed to the history of regions, peoples, and countries that are frequently not mentioned in world history textbooks.
  • Finally, this textbook accepts as a “fact” that European expansion is a key factor in modern world history. I am extremely sensitive to the dangers of a Euro-centric approach to world history.  I am old enough to have been taught this way when I made my way though high school and college.  I understand all too well the dangers of presenting a view of the world in which Europeans (and Euro-Americans) are the only ones who make significant decisions and/or initiate change. My initial attempts to teach world history from a global perspective sought to avoid this.  However, once again, the needs of my students ultimately forced me to change my approach.  I realized that my students knew little about European expansion and its impact on indigenous peoples and cultures.  For example, they did not grasp that the settlement of North America as an act of colonization because they were not taught to see it in this way.  They had little to no understanding of why terrorist acts happened in the 21st century because they did not know the story of Euro-American imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Without this basic historical knowledge, they were ill-equipped to understand the more complex ideas found in many global history world textbooks.  The story told in this textbook thus emphasizes the significance of European expansion in the modern era.  I attempt to do so without falling into the trap of showing Euro-Americans as the only active agents in world history.  I endeavor to present non-European peoples as culturally alive and vibrant.  At the same time, I do focus on the cultural and political interchange been European and non-European peoples precisely because I believe that this historical narrative is essential for my students to know so that they are better able to negotiate the many challenges of the world in which they live.


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