Publication Date

March 1, 1991

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning


  • World

In the past few decades, there has been a concerted effort by American universities to offer courses in non-Western history. This effort is part of a larger perspective made more pressing as a result of United States dominance in the world after 1945. The expansion of communism in Eurasia as well as the appearance of trouble spots in Africa, the Americas, and Asia infused this view with urgency. As more experts on non-Western societies appeared, the tendencies to see these areas as mere extensions of the West or as passive receptacles for Western actions or dominations began to be challenged. Yet many Western civilization texts overemphasized Western societies and experiences and then merely offered a chapter or two on non-Western cultures. In recent years, however, new efforts to correct Eurocentric imbalances in university courses have surfaced.

At Stanford University in the 1980s, the faculty mandated that a variety of non-Western courses be taught. “The World Outside the West” is one of these courses and deserves serious consideration as a model for others.

“The World Outside the West” combines crucial elements and techniques needed to teach general education courses effectively:

  1. It is cross-culturally centered. Cross-cultural courses have the potential to excite students because they examine different cultures and thus expose similarities in the ways problems are approached. Such revelations can affect students in a way comparable to the impact alien cultures had on early explorers. For example, I have noticed how intrigued students can become upon seeing how the Han Chinese and the Romans treated the “barbarians” who threatened their frontiers. Stimulating discussions have been sparked by this and other comparisons.
  2. Interdisciplinary. Interdisciplinary approaches are valuable because they enable students to witness how different academic disciplines regard topics.
  3. Team taught. Team teaching is especially rewarding. Faculty members must discuss (as the Stanford people did at length) a course’s educational objectives, conceptual schemes, and analytic modes. Team teaching, of course, often exposes students to varied teaching styles: lecturing, Socratic discussion and discovery, the use of slides, films, or representative artifacts. It has been my experience that interactive teaching is especially rewarding in a team teaching format. In this approach, all faculty members are present at each session and may be expected to interject their perspectives about a given topic. In addition, some classes lend themselves to role playing by the instructors.

Used selectively and with careful preparation, such techniques can bring history to life.

The teachers of “The World Outside the West” also should be commended for interchanging different cultural groups beyond Aztec Mexico, Nigeria, and China. This result enabled them to examine new approaches and themes. Replacing China with Japan, for example, might cause them to address the consequences of long-term military rule or the significance of foreign influence. This keeps the course fresh for the instructors, and more importantly, it offers them added and varied insights that inevitably broaden their horizons and improve their ability to teach the course ever more effectively.

The Stanford team also addressed such problems as faculty staffing difficulties which is helpful to their peers at other institutions who who need to learn the positive and negative aspects of these non-Western courses.

Evaluation of students, a vital but thorny topic should also have been considered. Questions remain as to whether they did employ essay examinations or multiple-choice tests? Whether papers were assigned? Did they have book quizzes or discussions? How large were the classes? Class size may be a significant determinant of the evaluation measure.

My major reservation about “The World Outside the West” course is its Eurocentric bias. This is not to say that the Stanford group failed to grapple with the problem. They correctly note that “regarding non-Western societies only in terms of Western concepts discourages appreciation of many of the cultural nuances essential to those societies.” I could not agree more, yet the structure of the course sequences themselves reveals Western-derived or baseline expectations.

The structural orientation of the two-course sequence is Western. Certainly the Stanford team wants to reject stereotypical Western perspectives about these cultures; nevertheless the attempt to show change-driven peoples is clearly Western. Change, dynamic institutions, not to say notions of progress, imply Western orientations. What if a society does not change appreciably over time? What if it views itself as unchanging or stable? If these perspectives shape a culture’s self-image, our duty as teachers is to understand them on their own terms, not as we would like them to be. The dynamic, transforming, progressive West seems to be looming in the intellectual background of such courses. Phrases like “absence of a creation myth” or “absence of a self-conscious science” appear in the explication of “The World Outside the West” course. “Absence” implies that the ideal culture must possess a creation myth or a self-conscious science. I begin my World Civilizations courses with a discussion of the biases that inform the study and teaching of such courses. One topic is the Eurocentric world view. We explore terminology (Far East, Middle East), for example, to learn how we in the West look at the world through cultural lenses. One needs to undergo a continual self analysis and a process of introspection along with one’s students to rid the curriculum (as far as it is possible) of ideas and terminology that are European-derived. Such an effort, though imperfect, can help us understand the Jains or the Han Chinese on their own terms rather than through a biased viewpoint. Without this awareness and criticism, we are doomed to misunderstanding non-Western peoples.

The second “World Outside the West” sequence necessarily regards each society in the context of its interactive experiences with Western countries. While there is an attempt to examine internal cultural elements and their independent developments (especially with regard to China), the overwhelming thrust of the presentation is to see these cultures through Western prisms. A related and serious problem of this approach is the degree of Western uniformity. How similar or different are Portuguese merchants and British missionaries? Would it not be beneficial for students to examine what the West is? Are there many Wests? Such a discussion about what the “West” means would highlight some problems in teaching and learning when one operates at a dangerous level of generalization.

One interesting practice of the Stanford team is its use of missionary records. This might offer frameworks for comparisons and contrasts with reference to the Westerners and the Aztecs or the Chinese. One might examine the relationship between the political might and ideological mission work. The Chinese often tried to persuade their Muslim subjects about the benefits of Confucianism in a manner not unlike the French Catholics in Southern China. Still, the missionaries’ records offer yet another Western framework for misunderstanding non-Western cultures. In this regard, perhaps an examination of the Mayans rather than the Aztecs might offer a less biased view of MesoAmerican society. Perspectives about the Aztecs have often been influenced by sources from Westerners who arrived in the New World after Columbus. Views of the Mayans, on the other hand, have been derived from archaeologists, anthropologists, and linguists who, we might safely presume, are less apt to be prejudiced about their subjects.

The teachers of “The World Outside the West” are sensitive to the problems inherent in offering a non-Western course. Some of these issues are perhaps unresolvable as Westerners learn about non-Westerners; yet it is essential to the learning process that we, students and teachers, seek to know peoples on their own terms rather than as Westerners or as non-Westerners. At least by discussing these concerns with our students we help sensitize them to the severe obstacles as well as to the sublime joys of learning about peoples other than themselves. And the pleasures of learning as seen on students’ faces or heard in their voices when they ask questions can offer the teacher a lovely reward which may endure for a day, or perhaps a lifetime.

Lanny Fields is an associate professor of history at California State University, San Bernardino, where he teaches world civilizations and electives in Chinese, Japanese, East Asian, and Russian history.