Widths Within and Without

Kenneth Mills, June 2013

This is part of an online forum on a survey of historians' research interests by Luke Clossey and Nicholas Guyatt.  A description of the survey can be found here. More roundtables can be found here.

This provocation about geographical imbalance in historical research is most timely. And I will begin by proposing that it is a salutary thinking tool that goes well beyond hiring priorities in history departments for the following reason: Many find the study and interpretation of history, from a number of entangled disciplinary perspectives, near the center of the humanities writ large. As such, its condition is microcosmic, and the state of actual history departments symptomatic of an array of larger wholes. How we “follow the data,” in Woodrow Borah’s concise phrase, and how we approach the inextricable relationship between historical subjects and ourselves as interpreters, establishes the basis for how we think, speak, and act. Humility, perspective, and open-ended curiosity are beneficial in a polycentric and multilingual world in which interconnections and resemblances join departures and differences. 

Higher learning in the UK has faced waves of “quality assessment” and cuts in realms of study recently regarded as integral to its core mission. In the USA, an American Academy of Arts and Sciences commission has mounted a defense of the humanities and social sciences at a time of great uncertainty. In Canada, debate rages around the federal government’s encouragement of certain kinds of history. (Martial valour, an ahistorically facile view of the War of 1812, and sovereignty in the Arctic are apparently very “in.”)  If Clossey and Guyatt had in mind these recent attempts to engineer Canadian nationalism through history, their voices join chorus with other critics: Hello confident and distinct (and globally contextualized) Canada; hello wider world.

Clossey and Guyatt’s encouragement of “more cosmopolitan and wide-ranging history” directly bears upon a broader set of issues and a collective moment. As if on cue,  columnist David Brooks recently wrote as if "Western Civilization" courses and their ilk hold a magic monopoly on "old notions of truth, beauty and goodness," notions now threatened by politically correct professors and the academic reign of "race, class and gender."1 But surrounding the shifts in the humanities that Brooks caricatures and then laments lie what Clossey and Guyatt call “the history of five-sixths of humanity.”

Clossey and Guyatt are wise to mention that some historians are “extremely difficult” to categorize. For substantial hope resides in the fact that many of our strongest historians, even those identified with a particular region, are broadly engaged and deliciously impossible to contain within a ham-fisted geographical definition of their field. While an undeniable conservatism asserts itself in many position searches, the countervailing tendency screams louder. The most compelling historians push naturally and boisterously against rigid boundaries and inequities, even as their titles may proclaim easily defined specializations.

My own experience suggests two related things which roll into support for Clossey and Guyatt’s recommendation to increase (and, more importantly, integrate) “non-Western” expertise, though perhaps not in the way they expect. First, historians become most imaginatively connective when their pure curiosity is encouraged by the pursuit of larger conversations,  relevance, or, yes, even a job. A historian of colonial Latin America is, on average, more deeply informed about an array of interrelated subjects—Amerindian civilizations, the medieval and early modern histories of Spain and Portugal, of western Europe and of the Mediterranean, of western Africa, and of interactions between Asian, Portuguese, and other expansionist European actors—than is a peer who studies early modern Spain or Portugal. This state of affairs (with some notable exceptions) can be spotted across the discipline. Ask a historian of Vietnam, or of Africa. As Alan Knight has pointed out, while a student of the Mexican Revolution is bound to be conversant in particulars of the English and French and Revolutions, Eurocentricity and the pull of “cultural attachments” are such that she may not expect the same in return.2

And yet, we all know that the opposite can also be the case. The enfeebling condition of self-appointed exceptionalism, of self-containment, comes on for anyone, and comes on stealthily. Greater attention to wider world histories will help, but it will not necessarily create more satisfying history. Because of common purpose across fields and subfields, and an increasing likelihood of fruitful integrations and entanglements between us, it soon becomes self-defeating to set one (the Rest) against the other (the West). We are at our best when curious and learning, not when we pretend to know, much less dictate, what future students of history should study and how they should put it together. 

The most compelling students of this or that purported “center” (especially a self-described European expansionist metropole) will be those who develop an eye for connections in many forms, for multiplicities within a “Europe” or a “United States,” as well as without. Their connective instincts will keep pace with or exceed what is required by those studying and teaching the purported “peripheries,” their hiring and presence complementing, rather than coming at the expense of, these other colleagues and students.

Thus, second, the bright new integrative non-Western historians, for whom Clossey and Guyatt are calling, ought to join historians of Europe, the United States, and Canada in bolstering study of a wider world from vantage points within and without, and by encouraging wise future hires. The best of their predecessors have long been thus—far more expansive, connective, and “global” than the titles of their purported fields. Long before the “Atlantic Mediterranean” and the “Atlantic World” were growth industries, scholars like Fernand Braudel, C. R. Boxer, and John Leddy Phelan not only embraced multiple archives and expansive historical realities but also insisted on simultaneous attention to interaction in other oceanic regions. As for the history of Southeast Asia in a global context, consult Victor B. Lieberman or Anthony Reid. The Indian Ocean? Let’s not even start. And of course one could go on.

These widths within should not minimize the importance of Clossey and Guyatt’s challenge. They are dead right that the young historian of today lives in and naturalizes an increasingly international setting, and that her thoughtworld emerges from both the histories of the West and the entangled histories of the wider world. Plural perspectives and possibilities remain paramount, as does uncertainty. As Natalie Zemon Davis has written and long exemplified, radical difference is the very commonness of humanity; doing excellent history is another way of saying one seeks compelling stories and possesses the hunger to know. Making history is as much about burrowing into secret places with fewer facts as it is about simply creating order from records of the past.3 History departments do well to consider carefully such difficult, human things.

An important corollary to the authors’ study would vault their provocation outward, beyond the self-perpetuating echo chamber of the Anglosphere. While conditions are not perfect, one knows that historians in the United States, Britain, and Canada are privileged; all the more reason to explore much, much further abroad. To learn a language or three. How fares the connective inclination, the scholarly and teacherly instinct for larger integrations, in other linguistic communities, other academic settings, other parts of the world? What does wider world history look like in Tokyo, Tianjin, and Jakarta? Does the historian in Accra, Ghana, teach and study his city as a diasporic re-creation, as a layered African “site” of interaction, of exogenous and indigenous influence? Sometimes, “global” is closer to home. What do students (and citizens of the future) in Germany, in Greece, in the Netherlands, and in Spain now learn in university history courses about their purportedly shared European pasts?

—Kenneth Mills is a professor of history at the University of Toronto.


1.   “The Humanist Vocation,” New York Times, opinion, 20 June 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/21/opinion/brooks-the-humanist-vocation.html?_r=0 .

2.   Alan Knight, “Viewpoint. Revisionism and Revolution: Mexico Compared to England and France,” Past & Present 134 (1992), 160; 159–199.

3.   I paraphrase from Davis’ oral conversation with playwright Jo Strømgren in Bergen, Norway, 9 June 2010: http://www.holbergprisen.no/en/natalie-zemon-davis/natalie-zemon-davis-meets-jo-stromgren.html> and from her “De-centering History,” delivered on the occasion of receiving the Holberg International Memorial Prize in Bergen on 8 June 2010, and now published as “Decentering History: Local Stories and Cultural Crossings in a Global World,” in History and Theory 50: 2 (2011), 188–202.