Publication Date

September 1, 1993

Perspectives Section

Letters to the Editor

As a historian who is trying to write a book about the world in the twentieth century, I found Theodore H. Von Laue article (“Declaration of Interdependence: World History for the Twenty-First Century,” April 1993) extremely thought provoking and helpful. I would like to add a few thoughts to the dialogue he has begun about world history.

Von Laue touched on the problem of ethnocentrism, the self-centered attitude that most human beings adopt when they confront people from another culture. I think this problem must be faced more directly. Can we make any value judgements at all about different cultures and societies, or must we relapse into a fashionable historical relativism?

I have been thinking about two ways that a historian can deal with ethnocentrism and make valid comparisons between societies. First of all, a functional approach offers some hope of comparing cultures rationally and objectively. Without making moral judgements, a historian can assess whether a particular culture performs some specific function better than another culture. For example, traditional Chinese medicine including acupuncture, herbal remedies, meditation and and exercise, has attracted much favorable attention in recent years because of its “holistic” approach to healing. Chinese medicine treats the whole person, both mind and body, and has produced remarkable results in stress management. Yet traditional Chinese doctors did not develop much skill at surgery, until recently, because Confucian teaching frowned on voluntary cutting of the body. As a result, when Chinese soldiers were mangled by modern weapons in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, they relied on Western missionary doctors to patch up the seriously wounded. Western surgery proved superior for some purposes, but Chinese medicine has shown itself better for others.

Using a second approach to cultural differences, historians can make judgements according to the individual society’s own standards. Again using China’s confrontation with the West as an example, we can state that Chinese rulers valued order and stability above all; their primary duties were to keep the peace and feed the populace. By those standards, the nineteenth century marked a period of decline as China was marred by numerous rebellions and widespread famines. Europeans, on the other hand, experienced and increase in military power and economic wealth, standards by which they judged themselves in that same century. Therefore, historical realism, not ethnocentrism, prompts us to concluded that China was declining and Europe ascending in the nineteenth century.

Von Laue suggests a third criterion for objectively evaluating different societies, one which I had heretofore neglected, the geographical and climatic inheritance of a society. Obviously a continental country like the United States, well endowed with natural resources and a generally benign climate, is better suited to economic growth than a desert society in sub-Saharan Africa.

In sum, then, geographic factors, a functional approach, and an assessment using each society’s own standards can inject some objectivity into cultural comparisons. Nonetheless, we must recognize that a values gap will still remain whenever we compare dissimilar cultures. Nineteenth century Europeans were appalled by the practice of footbinding among Chinese women, just as late twentieth-century Americans are disgusted by the practice of female circumcision in Africa. We all judge such matters by our own moral or ideological standards. The best we can do when confronted by such a values gap is to acknowledge it and then agree to disagree.

I would make just one other point about teaching world history. Although I agree with Von Laue that we should “evolve meaningful generalizations rather than dote on detail,” I think it is important that we provide narrative accounts of the major events, or turning points, in world history. My experience with undergraduates has shown me that most students have heard about such capitalized events as the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, etc., but now little about them. We should be careful to include concise, narrative accounts of these major events in any world history, so that students will become informed citizens of the world.

Edward R. Kantowicz
Chicago, Illinois

Jerry Z. Muller (“Challenging Political Correctness: A ‘Paranoid Hysteric’ Replies to Joan Scott,” May/June 1993) demonstrates the intellectual bankruptcy of those who sneer at “political correctness.” With this label Muller execrates any attempt to examine critically the old privileged canon, shouting in outrage that things will never be the same.

Muller’s broadside attack on Scott and the AHA Council is full of noisy bombast, but fails to provide any illumination whatsoever. In his fury at an enemy concocted within his own imagination, he so distorts Scott’s arguments that they are unrecognizable, and he converts the AHA Council and Nominating Committee into villainous “new hegemons” intent upon carrying out “a political cleansing.”

He assails in Scott: “conceptual froth,” a “rhetoric” that functions “to close off discussion of the substantive issues at hand,” and a “style” that seeks “to delegitimate its opponents rather than debate with them.” In contrast to Scott’s thoughtful essay, Muller’s outburst utterly fails to contribute to the discussion.

Mary Elizabeth Perry
Coordinating Committee on Women in the Historical Profession