Publication Date

December 1, 1999

Perspectives Section


Raise your hand if you think the expression "global world history" is not redundant! If you raised your hand, you probably frequent the halls of secondary schools or schools of education. If you kept your hand down, your haunt is probably the history department of a college or university; either it already has a globalist world history program, or you are about to read about an association of scholar-teachers who would like to see you have one.

The teachers and educationists who raised their hands did so because they long for the day when secondary school "world history" courses will live up to the name, and teachers will be prepared to teach them. Anyone who examines college-level world history textbooks knows that many of them are just new editions of older Western civilization textbooks. In that sense, the "globalism" of world history is an issue in higher education too.

Over the past decade or so, what we now call "globalization" expanded its claims on our awareness, developing from something that sounded at first like a political slogan into a cross-disciplinary focus for empirical and theoretical research at the highest level. While world historians do not have ready answers for all questions about how to understand the contemporary revolution of globalization; they do have things to say about the long-term processes that created our current understanding of globalization.

If as an oft-quoted French historian said, historians are either "truffle-hunters" or "parachutists," it is not hard to see which kind are more drawn to world history. The largest-scaled patternings in human history—regional, hemispheric, global—and the broadest-scaled comparisons or movements among economies, societies, and cultures will be their predilection. However, parachutists have to land somewhere, and had better know how to find truffles or something to survive on when they do. Research scholars should come to the field of world history with a solid empirical grounding in one or more conventional fields of historical study. Time and again, the publications that chart new directions for the field are based on deep empirical research that changes perceptions of the large-scaled patternings. In this sense, a better analogy than the dichotomy of truffle-hunter and parachutist would be the one, often cited by William H. McNeill, among maps of different scales, or perhaps that of the photographer experimenting with a zoom lens.

Whether cartographers adept at mapping on different scales, zoom-lens photographers, or truffle-hunting parachutists at heart, scholars and teachers participating in this fast-growing field meet in the World History Association (WHA). WHA old-timers—anyone who has been around since the early 1980s—can remember events like a lunch meeting, following a panel on world history teaching at the 1981 AHA annual meeting in Los Angeles, when eight or ten people talked over the need for such an association. Similar gatherings provided the occasion to found the association (in 1982), launch the World History Bulletin (in 1983), and inaugurate the Journal of World History (in 1990). The growth of the field gained significant recognition with the inclusion of a section on world history, edited by Kevin Reilly and Lynda Norene Shaffer, in the third edition of the AHA Guide to Historical Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, I, 42–76).

The subsequent growth of the WHA requires a rapid twist of the zoom lens to take everything in—the WHA now includes nearly 1,600 members from almost every state and many other countries. Since 1992, the number of AHA members reporting world history specializations has nearly doubled, while the number of faculty teaching world history courses in U.S. colleges and universities has increased from approximately 2,300 to 3,200.

The WHA owes much of its growth to an upsurge of interest in world history teaching, at both school and college levels. From the beginning, the WHA has drawn its members almost equally from colleges and secondary schools and has been dedicated to both teaching and research. The WHA constitution mandates that at least two members of the executive council will be secondary school teachers, from whose ranks highly successful WHA presidents have also emerged.

Meeting in and on the World

The best way to appreciate what the WHA offers its members is to consider its activities, starting with the two annual meetings. The first occurs in conjunction with the January 2000 AHA annual meeting, where the WHA executive council meets, the members come together for a business meeting and reception, and the WHA cosponsors a number of panels. The WHA's cosponsored sessions at this meeting include "World History as a Research Field," "On the Silk Roads: The Many Roads of Nomadic Peoples," "Restoring Women to World History," "The Geographic Context for Teaching World History," "Teaching World History: Towards a Comparative History of Consumerism," "Conflict in the Islamic World in the Modern Period," and "Reinventing the Survey Course Using Original Source Material: AP's Quarter Century Teaching and Assessing with Documents."

Each June, the WHA holds a conference at a site located alternately in the United States and abroad. Recent or upcoming international venues include the European University Institute (near Florence, 1995); University of Navarra (Pamplona, 1997); University of Victoria (British Columbia, 1999); and Seoul National University (Korea, 2002). The next WHA conference will convene in 2000 at Northeastern University from June 22 to 25 on the theme "World History as a Research Field." For details, please consult the conference web site at The June 2001 conference is planned for the University of Utah.

The WHA also engages its members through two principal publications, the Journal of World History and the World History Bulletin. Now in its 10th year, the Journal provides one of the best indicators of the growth of research in world history. Volume I, which won the Council of Editors of Learned Journals’ award for the best new journal of 1990, featured such standard-setting articles as William H. McNeill’s “The Rise of the West after Twenty-Five Years,” Philip D. Curtin’s “The Environment beyond Europe and the European Theory of Empire,” and Nikki R. Keddie’s “The Past and Present of Women in the Muslim World.” Recent widely noted articles include John Obert Voll, “Islam as a Special World System” (fall 1994); Dennis O. Flynn and Arturo Giraldez, “Born with a ‘Silver Spoon’: The Origin of World Trade in 1571” (fall 1995); Patrick Karl O’Brien, “Intercontinental Trade and the Development of the Third World since the Industrial Revolution” (spring 1997), John F. Richards, “Early Modern India and World History” (fall 1997); and Robert Finlay, “The Pilgrim Art: The Culture of Porcelain in World History” (fall 1998).

The Bulletin promotes the teaching of world history much as the Journal promotes research in the field. The Bulletin regularly publishes reviews of books and films for classroom use, articles about world history courses and programs, and a special supplement called “Centered on Teaching.” Noteworthy recent Bulletin features include a “Tribute to Philip D. Curtin” by numerous writers (spring 1999), articles by Ida Blom and Marilyn Morris on gender and sexuality in world history (fall 1998), as well as articles about teaching world history in China, New Zealand, and Rumania by Dorothea Martin, Brian Moloughney, and Mihai Manea (spring 1998). In addition, the Bulletin is a valuable source of news about upcoming events.

Teaching a New World History

Because the teaching of world history is so crucial to the dissemination of world history, curriculum development has always been at the cutting edge for the WHA. Today, this is more true than ever. New practitioners are often attracted to the field—once past the decision that world history means more than "the West" with a wave at "the Rest"—because there are no cut-and-dried ways to teach it. Topics as fundamental as what themes to choose for a course on the 20th-century world or how to periodize a comprehensive world history survey have led to the writing of new textbooks or the publication of articles in the American Historical Review (1996).

Among curriculum-development projects now under way, several illustrate the ongoing potential for innovation. One has brought together college teachers, editors, and media experts to develop a telecourse based on the Public Broadcasting System series, People's Century. Another spearheaded by Jeanne Heidler (U.S. Air Force Acad.) and Ed Davies (Univ. of Utah) aims to internationalize U.S. history. Enthusiasts for world history can only hope that this project stimulates efforts to bridge the gap between national and global history in other countries as well.

Other projects have the potential to open a new epoch in world-history education in secondary schools. One project aims to create a new advanced placement (AP) world history course by 2001, which would stand alongside the AP U.S. and European history courses that are now taken by over 250,000 students a year. For a detailed course description and sample questions visit the web site at worldhistory. Regional summer institutes for teachers at all levels will be held at 10 sites around the country, focusing on course design and teaching strategies and preparing for the more than 30,000 students expected to enroll in AP world history courses within three years.

Another project, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, is a collaborative effort between the WHA, California State University at Long Beach, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Queens College of New York to integrate world history scholarship with social studies methods in programs for preservice teachers. Get ready: what passed for world history when those now teaching were in high school is about to change.

World history enthusiasts have also taken the initiative of forming regionally or topically defined world history associations. The WHA now has 10 affiliate associations in Australasia, Europe, and North America, which can be located and contacted through the WHA web site. Each of these associations has its own special attractions for world historians within its area and sometimes beyond. The ability of the Rocky Mountain World History Association to find one spectacular conference site after another, for example, is legendary. One of the greatest goals of the WHA is to further the globalization of its membership. Differences in the material and cultural conditions in which historians operate in different countries add endless variety to this endeavor.

Among the best ways to take the pulse of the WHA are those offered by electronic communications.—the WHA e-mail list, moderated by Patrick Manning, Ken Pomeranz, and Whitney Howarth—is an active site with news, ongoing debates on new books and research topics, and discussion of pedagogical issues engaging contributors from all over the world. And, the WHA web site, launched in summer 1999, provides ongoing updates of information about the association.

The World History Association is a dynamic and activist organization. It is now creating prizes to recognize outstanding research and teaching in the field. Those who wish to participate in WHA activities will find there are plenty of committees that could use another hand. Membership inquiries should be addressed to Richard L. Rosen, Executive Director, Dept. of History and Politics, Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA 19104. E-mail:

While its origins go back to Herodotus's interest in Egypt and Iran, world history as we now know it is essentially a post–World War II development. Many of those now active in the WHA knew or even studied with the pioneers of those days—an honor roll that includes William H. McNeill, L. S. Stavrianos, Philip Curtin, Fernand Braudel, K. N. Chaudhuri, Marshall Hodgson, and Alfred Crosby. Just as scholars from many historical subdisciplines have contributed, scholars from other disciplines have also made fundamental contributions, including Immanuel Wallerstein, Eric Wolf, Janet Abu-Lughod, and André Gunder Frank, whose ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (University of California Press, 1998) received the first WHA Book Prize in 1999. From an idea that a few people could debate over lunch in 1981, the WHA has emerged as an important leader in this fast-growing field.

Perhaps the day will come when it will be redundant to say "global world history," when our students will have the best preparation historians can give them for a new era of globalization, and when scholars and teachers from all over the world will participate equally in a world history enterprise that is as much everyone's as anyone's.

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