Publication Date

January 1, 1991

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning


  • World

Let me begin by giving an affirmative answer to the question posed in the title of this essay—parachutists and truffle-hunters can find perfect happiness together, although at the moment they are not talking to each other, at least not in a language the other can understand. Parachutists, of course, are generalists, who take a broad view of matters, and truffle-hunters are specialists, who have an accurate understanding of very specific subjects. Their marriage, a once-blissful union which gave birth to many of the great teachers and scholars of the past, is now on the rocks. Ever since modern colleges and universities chopped up knowledge into bite size chunks known as departments, an academic aristocracy composed primarily of truffle-hunters has come to dominate higher education.

When H.G. Wells—an early parachutist—published his Outline of History in 1920, he complained that the study of history had become too partial and narrow, and that the volume of specialized research had become too much for one mind to absorb.

He could not have imagined then that the little mounds of monographs which dotted the academic landscape in his lifetime would grow by the end of the century to become vast and impassible mountain ranges, severing communication between disciplines of knowledge (and even between the sub-disciplines of history) and fostering the proliferation of mutually unintelligible dialects.

Faced with such daunting obstacles, the prospect of doing world history well, either in a classroom or between the covers of a book, would appear to be growing dimmer with each passing year. On the other hand, as our knowledge continues to fracture, the need for such a unifying device may be even greater. The fact that our microscopes can now peer at smaller and smaller objects on an elephant’s hide does not mean we can forget about the whole elephant. One perspective is not better or worse than the other, simply different. In the same vein, if you want to find out how to get from Rockefeller Center to the New York Public Library, you look at a map of New York. If you want to find out how to get from Boston to Bombay, however, you look at a map of the world. In the modern research university, unfortunately, there is no academic equivalent of a map of the world.

Let me try to put my own views on world history in the larger context of the profession as a whole. We live in a world dominated by science. The purpose of science is to investigate the behavior of objects in the natural world in order to predict and ultimately to control that behavior for the benefit of society. During and after the Enlightenment it was hoped that the “scientific method” might also be used to understand and improve the behavior of human beings. The social sciences were born. To be sure, Enlightenment thinkers got a little carried away when they anticipated that human nature could someday be perfected. But one does not have to believe in human perfectibility to hope that human suffering can be ameliorated through understanding more thoroughly the social and psychological forces which act upon us. To that noble purpose the social sciences committed energies.

There is one area that science does not treat, however, and that is meaning. If a scientist were to ask what the meaning of gravity is he would doubtless be retired early. Meaning is taken to be a matter best left to philosophers, whom nobody reads anyhow, at least in the United States (so said de Tocqueville, and little has changed since).

The academic study of history has understandably mirrored the assumptions of the larger society. In the United States, historical study came to be modeled on the nineteenth-century German institution of the graduate research seminar, which encouraged scholars to focus on a very small subject. The final product of the scholarly enterprise became the monograph, dealing with a single subject and limited in time and area. The bureaucratic imperatives of the modern academy have further narrowed that scope. All bureaucracies share certain characteristics. Among the least beneficial is a propensity to measure success in terms of quantity rather than quality, the former being more tangible and easily defensible if questioned, and more readily accepted as equitable and fair, than the latter, which is unquestionably messy and difficult to measure objectively. Since one can produce quantity more quickly by focusing on narrow subjects, the pressure to do so is irresistible. Those who are best at it rise to the top, from which lofty heights they survey the wreckage, pronounce it wonderful, and do everything in their power to ensure that the system which so wisely recognized their worth is supported to the end of time. The result is that the modern university stresses analysis at the expense of synthesis. The only time historians ever talk about synthesis is when they give the presidential address at the annual meeting of the AHA, after which the members of the audience, and the president, deploy back to their analytical foxholes. (I read through all the presidential addresses one summer. I highly recommend the experience, which I found to be inspiring.)

The intellectual energy of the university is produced by fission, not fusion, and the forces released by that energy are centrifugal, not centripetal. Robert Hutchins was not far off when he described the modern university as a collection of separate departments unified by a central heating system.

In any case, the ultimate object of a social science is to discover underlying patterns and laws of human behavior. Most of the views of world history which have appeared in the twentieth century have this same purpose: the organic metaphor of Spengler, the challenge/response paradigm of Toynbee, the Marxist view and its current permutation in the form of dependency theory, cultural diffusion, the various forms of modernization theory, applications of sociological or anthropological paradigms to the study of world history. I do not wish to deny the validity of any of these approaches. On the contrary, I have the highest regard for the insights which they have given us. Coleridge is supposed to have remarked once that men are usually right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny, and in that spirit let me stress that my primary criticism of professional monographs is not that they are narrow—they have to be—but that there is no place for anything other than the monograph. To put it another way, historians are right in affirming the value of analysis, and wrong in denying the value of synthesis. My quarrel with specialists is not that they do not like generalists, but that they shoot them on sight.

Intellectual breakthroughs, after all, are the product of the synthesizing impulse. The analytical process is best suited for verifying or refuting insights originally arrived at through the free play of the imagination. Insofar as our institutions of higher learning discourage synthesis they threaten to dry up the springs of intellectual life in this country (or divert them into think tanks). The old cliché that the world is divided into problems and universities are divided into departments (with very little connection between the two) may have some truth to it after all.

My own particular approach does not pretend to have discovered a new pattern of human behavior, but is organized around a universal problem in the manner of a Greek play. The world history I have in mind is indebted to Greek tragedy, and to Thucydides. History is, among other things, a great drama, in which the human race is the protagonist who is endowed with prodigious gifts, who has free will, who encounters forces over which he has no control, as well as forces over which he does have control, who makes a serious error in judgment based upon a fundamental flaw in his own make-up, and who then suffers terribly—far more than he deserves—as a result. The suffering, as in Oedipus Rex (and Oedipus at Colonus), may be redemptive, but that does not wash away the simple fact that the innocent are made to suffer along with the guilty. Thucydides carried out this basic plan, in which Athens—wonderful Athens, free and cosmopolitan, the fountain of democracy and philosophy—came to a grievous end because its citizens were corrupted by disease (over which they had no control) and power (over which they did have control) and brought about their own destruction as a result.

In Genesis, the temptation advanced by the reptile in the Garden of Eden was for Adam and Eve to become like God by eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. As the inhabitants of paradise freely chose that fruit, so has the human race aspired to become like God through its mastery of the forces of nature, approaching ever closer to the divine prerogative to destroy all forms of life on earth, on the one hand, and to create life, on the other hand.

My focus is on freedom, tracing the development of the human race in all its cultural variety from very early times to the present, showing how free will and human genius have combined to increase man’s control over the forces of nature but always with the tragic imperative at work. That control, from the domestication of fire on to the harnessing of nuclear energy, is available for good and for evil, for ameliorating suffering and for magnifying. The two go hand in glove.

Lord Acton, one of the most influential historians of the nineteenth century, was always on the point of beginning work on a universal history which he never quite got around to. Toward the end of his life his friends took to referring to the project as the greatest book never written. Instead, Acton acted as editor of the Cambridge Modern History—not too shabby an accomplishment, to be sure, but a work of specialists nonetheless. Had he written his own world history, I suspect he would have organized it around freedom, which he virtually identified with progress and human perfectibility. We ought to pick up where Acton left off (although not necessarily with his faith in the malleability of human nature—the intervening decades have, alas, rather tarnished those optimistic expectations).

My approach is to divide the activities of the human race into six categories: politics, economy, society, philosophy/religion, aesthetics (art, literature) and science/technology. In each of these areas, it seems to me, the notion of freedom can act as a kind of clothesline on which to hang the otherwise diverse expressions of human genius. The economic problem, for example, is how to gain greater control over the productive forces (and thereby expand the range of choice), and how to distribute their fruits equitably.

The political realm is more obviously one of increasing or decreasing freedoms. Incidentally it is here that many of my own colleagues in non-Western studies have often criticized my clothesline, saying that by focusing on freedom I am guilty of imposing my Western cultural assumptions on societies which do not have such values. I hope that the events in China in June, 1989, have put that argument to rest forever. One must make a clear distinction between the impulse to freedom, which I believe to be universal, and the existence or development of enabling institutions, which may vary a good deal from society to society and from time to time. That the Chinese have the desire, and not the enabling institutions, is now—courtesy of CNN—clear to all the world. Freedom itself, of course, is not to be understood only in its negative forms as an absence of restraint, but also in its positive form as the opportunity to bring to fruition something which had previously existed in a potential state. In this sense, the outward expression of man’s creative genius in art and literature, the deepened understanding of meaning which has developed as human religious and philosophical systems have grown, are all a part of this underlying system.

What I offer is an organizing principle for the study of world history which is based upon a fundamental pattern or law of behavior. This is clearly an understanding of history which departs from the professional assumption that history is a science, and only a science, focusing solely on the advancement of knowledge. Insofar as my view emphasizes meaning as well as knowledge, I suppose that what I offer is closer to art than science, but I stress again that my approach is not intended to be a substitute for the conventional way of organizing history but a complement.

The great French historian and sociologist of Chinese religion, Marcel Granet, who died shortly after the fall of France in 1940, is supposed to have declared to his class once (presumably before he died, though with some French intellectuals you can’t be too sure): “I don’t give a damn about China. What interests me is man.” I suspect that if Granet were a recent PhD looking for a teaching job in the United States, with an attitude like that he would probably end up selling pencils on the street corner. If Granet meant what I think he meant, however, we could use a few more like him around now.

We know more about the world than we did, but we do not know the meaning of what we know, and it is that very meaning which is so urgently required. The problems brought about by rapid technological changes, by the struggles between religions and between a multitude of ideological surrogates for religion, by overpopulation, by environmental pollution, and by proliferating nuclear weapons, far transcend in their destructive potential those which confronted individual civilizations in the past. In the face of these circumstances, historians—who have a special responsibility for educating the public in their civic responsibilities—should address themselves, however peripherally, to these urgent questions, with a view to forging out of the diverse national traditions of the world a greater sense of common purpose. Only when the world realizes the degree to which each civilization manifests qualities and experiences common to all civilizations, only when it understands the ways in which the different forms of civilized experience give expression to a common impulse to order and meaning in life, will we be in a position to confront our problems with a reasonable prospect of success. The perspective gained from a study of world history is vital to this enterprise.

If such a pragmatic motive in the writing of history is criticized as imposing an unnatural burden of didactic morality on the interpretation of the facts then I can only respond that facts, alas, do not always speak for themselves, and perhaps more interpretation would shorten the unnecessarily large gap between a public desperately in need of wisdom, and the historian in need of a public. In the words of Louis Gottschalk (in another presidential address), “let [the historian] also pray for the courage combined with the humility necessary to employ his historical training and insight as well as he can for the guidance of an unmoored society seeking firmer anchorage” (American Historical Review, 59 [January 1959], p. 286). We are all of us dependent, in one way or another, on the fortunes of the world around us. We must not allow that link, which binds the objects of our study to the need of the larger community for a clear statement of means and ends, to be permanently severed. Paul Ganon’s recently released report on high school textbooks in American history makes a strong plea for just this kind of approach to the teaching of history: “It takes a sense of the tragic and the comic to make a citizen of good judgment, as it does a bone deep understanding of how hard it is to preserve civilization or to better human life, and of how it has nonetheless been done, more than once in the past. It takes a sense of paradox, not to be surprised when failure teaches us more than victory does, or when we slip from triumph to folly. And maybe most of all it takes a practiced eye for the beauty of work well done, in daily human acts of nurture” (Democracy’s Half-Told Story: What American History Textbooks Should Add [Washington, D.C.: American Federation of Teachers, 1989], p. 157).

Here I seek only to remind the interested reader of the importance of a universal perspective in history, and to suggest that we should no more abandon the study of world history because of its inherent difficulties than we should cease trying to become better because we cannot become perfect. Recall for a moment Chesterton’s marvelous remark (which should be carved in stone and hung around the necks of all academic perfectionists), that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.

Most history departments in the major research universities in the United States devote very little if any attention to the subject of world history. Faculty members whose prospects for tenure and promotion are related to the number of publications they produce in their field of expertise are naturally reluctant to pursue a subject which might slow down the progress of their own careers. Added to this is their understandable hesitation to indulge in generalizations about areas of the world which lie outside the scope of their own academic preparation, and which would expose them to professional criticism by specialists in those areas. These obstacles cannot be dismissed lightly, nor do I know of any easy way by which they might be removed, and yet they do not diminish our responsibility to broaden and deepen the nature of the questions which we ask of the historical record. We now have within our grasp, because of the great contributions of the social sciences in the last two centuries in widening our knowledge of the past, the tools to undertake this great task; what we seem to lack is the vision and the will. We need, in short, more airborne truffle-hunters.

Alan Wood teaches Chinese and Japanese history at a new branch campus of the University of Washington at Bothell. He also writes a weekly newspaper column on Asian affairs.