Publication Date

March 1, 1991

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning


  • World

What can a teacher do with the buzzing, blooming confusion that is world history? The problem is two-fold. On the one hand, the subject is infinite. On the other hand, considerable attention must be paid to the heritage of Western Civilization that shaped American institutions and made the country what it is. Mere confusion will inevitably result from an indiscriminate effort to deal with everything we know about the past; and if too little emphasis is placed on the world-transforming character of Western Civilization throughout the past 500 years, then our heritage from that truly remarkable epoch of world history will be inexcusably undervalued. As yet, there are no generally agreed upon models; historians have only recently begun to try to frame a coherent vision of the history of the world.

Yet the imperatives pointing toward a world history are obvious. In the first place, our country has become part of an intensely interactive world system that no longer revolves solely upon events in Europe, as was (or at least seemed to be) the case as recently as the 1930s. To deal effectively with Asians, Africans, Latin Americans and Europeans we need to know how the historical past has shaped their diverse outlooks upon the world. In the second place, migrants from Asia, Africa and Latin America have filled our classrooms with students whose ethnic and cultural background is not “Western.” They need a past they can share with Americans of European descent; and equally, Americans of European descent need a past they can share with all their fellow citizens, including the indigenous Indian population that got here before anyone else. World history fits these needs, and only world history can hope to do so. How then should the history of the human adventure on earth be presented in our classrooms? We need a clear and distinct idea about what matters most. Teachers might rely on a few simple rules of thumb:

  1. Human power and wealth have increased through time because people strive for them. People are perpetually on the lookout for new skills or ideas that will increase their wealth or power. Borrowing interesting new capabilities from strangers may upset existing relationships, it may arouse in some the desire to maintain local practices undefiled, and it may hurt some people while it benefits others. Still, the changeability of human history results from the modification of established ways of thinking and acting provoked most often by contacts with strangers.
  2. People are often unaware of the consequences and implications of particular actions or choices, so that human purposes are a very imperfect guide to what actually occurs. Side effects regularly distort purposes. Multiple causes are everywhere, and so are cross purposes. The open-endedness of human experience needs continual emphasis to counteract the tendency to treat whatever did happen as somehow foreordained.
  3. Students should try to make moral judgments about the past, but only after they have thought about the norms and expectations that prevailed among those being judged. Students need to know that human beings make sense of their lives by striving to conform to the norms of behavior that group membership imposes on them.

These rules of thumb about how to approach human history still do not answer the practical question of how to distribute classroom time among the infinite possibilities that world history offers. Two overarching goals should guide decision making.

First, students need to realize that they share the earth with people whose beliefs and actions are different from their own and arise for divergent cultural heritages. The way to make this clear is to define as fully and richly as possible the distinctive national traditions of the United States, and then to sample other cultural traditions, choosing for closer study those cultures of importance for global affairs in our time. Schools must therefore teach both the national history of the United States and the history of the rest of the world, paying special attention to the principal civilizations of Eurasia (including that of Western Europe) because they shaped the world views of the majority of human beings today. Africa, Latin America, North America as well as Eurasia came to share in the European heritage owing to the same processes of expansion that operated within Eurasia itself.

Secondly, students need to know that the various cultures and different civilizations that divide humanity are all part of a larger process of historical development whereby successful ideas and skills, wherever initiated, spread from people to people and culture to culture. Elaboration and diffusion of skills are as old as the emergence of humanity, whose distinctive trait is learning how to do things from others. Finds of obsidian and other scarce minerals in places remote from their origin show that Paleolithic hunters communicated across long distances. In subsequent ages, trading and raiding, missionary enterprise and mere wandering linked communities. This means that the One World of our time is not new. The speed of communication and rapidity of reaction have increased enormously, but the process of innovation and diffusion of skills is age old.

Indeed that is what defines the pattern of world history as distinct from the pattern of more local histories, including the history of separate civilizations. Accordingly, world history ought to be more organized around major breakthroughs in communication that, step by step, intensified interactions within ever larger regions of the earth until instant global communications became the pervasive reality of our own time. By focusing on the pattern of interaction, and showing how borrowed skills and ideas always had to be adapted to fit local geographical and cultural environments, a simple and commonsensical pattern for world history emerges within which detailed study of any chosen time and place will fit smoothly.

The course of study should begin with a sampling of the culture of pre-literate societies. Hunters and gatherers and autonomous villages of food producers prevailed in the distant past. A few such societies survived into modern times, allowing anthropologists to study them with insight and sympathy. That insight can and should be communicated to students just because their lives are set in an utterly different sort of social environment. But this can only be preliminary. The major focus of attention must be upon the major civilization of Eurasia.

Studying European, Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern civilizations with sufficient sympathy to be able to present their ideas and institutions, so to speak, “from the inside” is a formidable task. But art and literature—the “classics” of each civilization—are available, and even small excerpts from such classics can convey something of the spirit and distinctive flavor of the civilization in question. Looking at the reproductions of great works of art and reading translations from the world’s great literature invites students to react as individuals to the treasures of the human past. That experience ought to be part of every course in world history.

But random sampling of the world classics will only create confusion. Teachers can simplify without unduly distorting the reality of the four principal Eurasian cultural traditions by showing how each was built around a master institution, with a ruling idea to match. For ancient Greece, the territorial state was the ruling institution and the matching idea was natural law, applicable both to humans within the polis and to inanimate nature. For China, the extended family and the notion of decorum played a similar organizing role for the behavior of human beings and of the cosmos. For India, the ruling institution was caste and the organizing idea was transcendentalism, that is, the reality of the spiritual realm above and beyond the illusory world of sense. And for the Middle East, bureaucratic monarchy and monotheism played the same organizing roles.

Obviously, these four separate institutional-and-idea systems mingled through subsequent time. Thus, with the rise of the Roman empire and spread of Christianity, European civilization blended the Middle Eastern and part of the Indian with its Greek heritage. Similarly, China, Japan and the adjacent East Asian peoples borrowed a great deal of the Indian heritage when Buddhism spread to that part of the world. Middle Easterners combined the Greek heritage with their own after Alexander’s conquests and borrowed Indian transcendentalism a few centuries later. India, likewise, toyed with Middle Eastern ideas of bureaucratic monarchy as early as the 3rd century B.C., and explored the full complexity of both Middle Eastern and European civilizations after 1000, when first Moslem and then European conquerors intruded upon Hindu society as a new ruling caste.

Since each of the major Eurasian civilizations took form long ago—before 400 B.C. in Western Eurasia and before 100 B.C. in East Asia—a course in world history must devote considerable emphasis to this classical, formative stage. But once a grasp of the enduring character of each civilization has been achieved, emphasis ought to shift to the processes of interaction across civilizational boundaries and the subsequent blending of what had begun as separate traditions.

Main landmarks of that process may be listed as follows:

  1. The rise of cities, writing and occupational specialization, centered initially in the Middle East. The impact of Middle Eastern skills and ideas extended all the way across Eurasia by 1500 B.C., when the Shang dynasty brought chariots and such characteristic ideas as the seven-day week to the valley of the Yellow River.
  2. The opening of regular caravan connections between China and Rome, and between the Middle East and India about 100 B.C. At about the same time, Mediterranean sailors discovered the monsoons of the Indian Ocean and began to participate in a much older sea-borne commercial network uniting the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea. The so-called Silk Road was the most famous overland route, but the caravan world extended north and south of the Silk Road proper, and in common with the navigation of the southern seas, created a slender Eurasian world market for luxury goods that could bear the cost of long distance transport.
  3. The development and spread of the so-called higher religions of Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam between about 500 B.C. and 630 A.D. These faiths provided a moral universe that countered the injustices and impersonality of urban bureaucratic and hierarchical society by inviting their followers to create communities of believers wherever they found themselves. This stabilized human relations within the expanding Eurasian civilizations, and, through conscious and deliberate missionary activity, attracted neighboring peoples into the widening and ever intensifying circles of interacting civilizations.
  4. The large scale domestication of camels after about 300 A.D. Caravans could now cross hot deserts, with the effect of bringing Arabia and West Africa into the interacting circles of civilizations. The Moslem Middle East became the principal center of the resulting system of trade and transport, and Moslem skills spread in every direction. In particular, Moslem merchants taught the rules of bazaar trading to the nomad world of the Eurasian steppe and also to the Chinese.
  5. Cheap and dependable water transport resulted from technical advances in shipbuilding and, equally important, from the extensive canalization of rivers, especially in China. The horizon point of this development came about 1000 A.D. when long distance trade ceased to be confined to luxuries, and began to alter everyday life for ordinary people because goods of common consumption could now bear the cost of transport across hundreds and even thousands of miles. In many ways, this represents the dawn of the modern age, as much or more than the familiar date of 1500. China was the principal center of the resulting intensification of exchanges and, like the Moslems before them, the Chinese swiftly developed skills superior to the rest of the world.
  6. The establishment of the political unity throughout much of Eurasia by the Mongols in the thirteenth century. This was the principal medium for the diffusion of Chinese skills westward, for as the career of Marco Polo illustrates, the Mongol peace allowed literally thousands of people to move back and forth between China and the rest of the Eurasian world. Chinese skills therefore spread westward—notably gunpowder, printing and the compass, three key technological elements in Europe’s subsequent assumption of world leadership.
  7. The familiar opening of the oceans by the Europeans just before and after 1500. European merchants established trading posts on the coasts and islands of the Indian Ocean and played an increasingly active part in the trade and politics of the southern seas and East and West Africa thereafter. In addition, the Americas entered abruptly into the circle of Eurasian interactions, exposing the Amerindians to repeated disease disasters and allowing Europeans to establish thriving colonies in the new World. (From this point onward, the history of the United States becomes part of world history and ought to be treated as such. Some separate treatment of United States history is needed; but world history ought not to omit our national past. Instead, world history courses should put the national past in perspective).
  8. The tapping of mechanical power for industrial production and then for transport and communication, beginning in a dramatic way, about 1750. From this time onward, the three fold structure suggested in our ideal curriculum becomes a practicable guide for directing attention toward the most important traits of the modern age: a) the democratic revolution in government; b) the industrial revolution in economics; and c) the demographic upsurge.

In studying this increasingly far ranging and intensive interaction, the way each step prepared the way for the next is worth emphasizing. But as always, history is not a simple success story. Costs must be counted as well as gains. The loss of autonomy for local peoples and cultures that resulted from the arrival of powerful strangers in their midst was always the price of admission to the interacting circle of sophisticated skills and exchanges. Exposure to new and lethal infectious diseases was another cost of the civilizing process. Each expansion of the range of communications put new populations at risk, and the resulting die off from the sudden onset of smallpox and other diseases regularly weakened local peoples and sometimes crippled or even destroyed them. The case of the American Indians is the most dramatic example, but Australians, Polynesians, and peoples of the Siberian forests suffered parallel disease disasters in modern times; and catastrophic disease encounters in earlier ages—the Black Death and the Antonine plagues—are also worth attention.

World history built along these lines can prepare students to live in the interactive world of the twenty-first century more serenely and wisely than would otherwise be possible for them. It would also give appropriate weight and attention to the primacy of Western civilization in the last five hundred years. Study of world history with the help of simple ideas like these can be an intellectually uplifting experience; it is also an essential preparation for citizenship. World history is therefore very much worth doing, and worth doing well. it belongs with the national history of our country at the core of K-12 social studies.

The article above is reprinted with the author’s permission from Charting a Course: Social Studies for the 21st Century, a report from the Curriculum Taskforce of the National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools. The Commission was a joint project of the American Historical Association, the Carnegie Foundation, the National Council for the Social Studies, and the Organization of American Historians. The 84-page booklet was published in 1989 and is available to AHA members for $5.50 each; to non-AHA members for $7.00 each. Please add $1.00 for postage and handling. Bulk rates are available. Contact: AHA Publication Sales, 400 A St., SE, Washington, DC 20003; 202-544-2422.

William H. McNeill
William H. McNeill

University of Chicago