Teaching Innovations

A Declaration of Interdependence: World History for the 21st Century

Theodore H. Von Laue, April 1993

Teaching world history poses perhaps the biggest challenge for the present generation of academic historians. It therefore deserves continuous discussion. There is no dearth of available facts. What we need are proper perspectives and an enlarged vision for organizing these facts in order to gain a clearer understanding of where we all have come from and where we are headed, thus seeking to achieve better control over human destiny. As responsible teachers we must prepare our students for a difficult future in our ever more interdependent world by constant experimentation promoting constructive insights into the complexity of human affairs past and present.

This ambitious goal requires—to state the thrust of this essay at the outset—that we rise above the major division of opinion among world history teachers (and concerned intellectuals generally). In our interdependent world we need to be keenly aware of the contributions to human development made in the past by the peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America; we need to stress cultural diversity because we are a culturally diverse nation in a culturally diverse world. But approaching the twenty-first century, we must also face another reality: there is no escape from the intense interdependence based on Western achievements. In other words, we should combine a compassionate appreciation of cultural differences with a search for common values and practices that promote peaceful worldwide cooperation; cultural relativism must be absorbed into the absolutes of global unity pioneered by the West—a challenging but unavoidable professional task, if we want to help create a more humane world. Stressing the Western-induced intense global interdependence of the present and the future is not prompted by a Eurocentric bias, but by a pan-human perspective.


Several major assumptions are implicit in this approach. First, the main purpose of world history is to help our students acquire a better grasp of the forces shaping our world both at present and in the foreseeable future. As Lord Acton observed, "We study history in order to overcome it." We need more insights into the dynamics of our times in order to counter the growing confusion over the purpose of life and to reduce the inhumanities so prominent in our world. The living, it is clear, have precedence over the dead; they have the right to examine the past in the light of their own search for a better future. Responsible world history, therefore, must begin with an effective grasp of the present in all its troubling aspects. In what kind of world do we live? What can we learn from the past in order to cope more effectively with the challenges of our times? A live and relevant history extends forever forward in time.

Next, we need to evolve meaningful generalizations rather than dote on detail. We must keep in mind the brevity of the academic year, as well as the overload of knowledge to be mastered and the undersupply of available human energy in our overstimulated society generally, and, as all teachers are aware, among our students particularly. Under these conditions we must concentrate on essentials so as to take young minds beyond memory lane. For instance, rather than list the names of kings or monarchs, we should describe the character and role of monarchy; rather than enumerate the peculiarities of a given religion, we should attempt a comparison with competing faiths that promotes understanding. In short, we must simplify the mind-boggling complexity of the past, devising syntheses and overviews, while also judiciously allocating the available time between past and present. In settled times, when people feel secure, there may be justification for mental immersion into the infinities of bygone days. But in the present worldwide insecurity where people worry about their future, the recent past and the present claim top priority. We therefore owe our students as accurate a grasp as possible of the world in which they are going to shape their lives. We must help them to overcome history, instead of being sucked back into it. A world history course certainly should not tempt us to bury our heads in the past.

The study of world history, furthermore, demands that we venture an all-inclusive cultural analysis of historical evolution. That is, in offering explanations for the diversity of historical development in various parts of the world, we must have an adequate understanding of all the factors at work, including geography (which incorporates climate and the environment), the most fundamental determinant of collective achievements and cultural interaction. In addition, we have to be aware of variations in moral values, patterns of thinking, approaches to science and technology, economic productivity, political organization, and—another key item—status in the world. All these factors combined add up to the driving force in human history: the cultural capacity to survive or to dominate, whether by the arts of war or of peace, or, most commonly, by a combination of both. Historical analysis and periodization, like contemporary civic attention, should be centered on the many-sided dynamics of political power, a factor unconsciously minimized by most American political scientists and historians. Are they willing, for instance, to admit how much the worldwide influence of the British empire and the United States has inspired Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, and prominent dictators in Asia, Africa, and Latin America? Are we, as teachers, willing to help our students to understand the complex circumstances and resources that led the West (taken as a whole) to achieve a global ascendancy unprecedented in all history?

Next, we should always emphasize the power of envious comparison. As Thomas Hobbes observed several centuries ago, "Man, whose Joy consisteth in comparing himself with other men, can relish nothing but what is eminent." In the contemporary age, envy of what is eminent is a worldwide political force. Large numbers of non-Western peoples, exerting an elemental upward pressure toward personal wealth and power, want to live like Westerners (and, foremost, Americans). Dealing with this troublesome fact, our historical analysis should be all-inclusively comparative, matching the resources of one part of the world against others. Such comparison should be guided by the recognition that the differences in living standards and power, now so keenly deplored, have often been caused by circumstances beyond human control, by the very diversity of the world's surface. Life in the tropics at the edge of deserts cannot possibly match the resources of cool and fertile lands. The survival skills of sub-Saharan peoples, for instance, may be as subtly complex as those of Europeans, but not in terms of political power and economic productivity. The patent inequality among peoples around the world—so a world history course should emphasize—is in the last analysis the result not merely of human design or cunning, but of many circumstances beyond human control. It is a tragic reality built into the nature of Mother Earth, to be treated, like any tragedy, with a compassionate resolve to overcome the unfortunate consequences. And that tragedy must not be compounded by transforming environmental inequalities into human (i.e., ethnic or racial or cultural) inequalities as well.

For this reason we need to infuse into the teaching of world history an expanded sense of moral responsibility. We are tied to more than five billion other human beings in our interdependent multicultural world. The more intense the human contexts in which we operate, the more refined must be our moral sensibilities. Inevitably we touch highly sensitive moral nerves when we confront alien peoples and cultures; witness, for instance, the American gut reaction to the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. But in trying to devise a world history which does justice to human diversity, we must deal compassionately even with repulsive political regimes that have evolved in geographic and historic settings different from our own. We must try to understand them on their own ground, from within, not on Western (or distinctly American) terms, as is commonly done. All along, we need to be morally sensitive to the position of minorities, women, and children in the societies and cultures we discuss.

By the same logic, responsible world history demands that we transcend our conventional American morality that has evolved under exceptionally favorable historical conditions. This is a profound challenge destined to provoke embittered controversy. Who, for example, would dare to view the shooting of the demonstrators on Tiananmen Square from Deng Xiaoping's perspective? But the logic of world history living up to its promise calls for understanding the motives on the other side. It combines the cultural relativism born of compassionate understanding across cultural and political boundaries with a transcendent sense of the common humanity that we want to promote as teachers of world history. Only if we accept other peoples as their own circumstances have shaped them can we proceed to establish the common ground required for peaceful cooperation.

Finally, our recognition of cultural pluralism must be combined with stressing the common skills and goals that guide the contemporary world and the future. Regardless of their indigenous roots, all people now depend on the human capacities needed for the successful management of our intensely competitive global interdependence for the common benefit. These skills and goals have reached their most sophisticated level yet in Western culture. They are based on a combination of widespread literacy, capacity for abstract thinking, a puritan work ethic and sense of social responsibility, respect for individual dignity, and voluntary individual submission to ever more complex social and political institutions. Parts of this combination may be found in non-Western cultures as well, for instance a puritan work ethic in Confucianism. Yet because of its primary loyalty to family ties that creed was—and still is—deficient in social responsibility compared with the Judeo-Christian outreach to all neighbors. The comparative development of Western skills and goals should be a major theme of a world history course. Obviously, they are imperfectly practiced in Western culture (and, sadly, in decline as well). But how can we build a rational world order without them?


In pursuit of an answer to that question responsible world history begins with the present; we should first take our students around the world with the help of current headlines. As the news shows, we live in a tightly packed interdependent world, unified by Western power and, with the help of many non-Westerners, functioning according to Western (or even American) patterns of conducting business and international relations. For better or worse, Western accomplishments have become the universal norm in weapons, science, technology, state organization, economic productivity, and popular culture. As any globetrotter can testify, Western life and cultural tastes—all too often in their most superficial forms—provide the irresistible model guiding the imagination and policies of all non-Western countries and peoples, even where officially repudiated, as among Islamic fundamentalists. In this Westernized world non-Western peoples are now testing what contribution their indigenous cultural resources can make for the common benefit. (Teachers and students may cite current examples in medicine, the arts, or religion.)

In this context one tragic fact stands out: under the Western impact all non-Western peoples, except for the Japanese (whose exceptionality deserves special treatment), have lost the sovereignty of cultural continuity. They are caught in profoundly divisive cultural disorientation. On the one hand, they desire to preserve their traditions (now generally interpreted in subtly idealized Westernized forms and communicated by means of Western media). On the other, they aspire to Western standards of living and global respectability with the help of all available Western instruments of power, eager to be counted in the world. By contrast, the countries of the West still enjoy the consensus-fostering benefits of cultural continuity reaffirmed by worldwide preeminence, even while increasingly infiltrated by non-Western ways.

Our world now is an interdependent economic and political system dominated by the major countries of North America, Western Europe, and a Westernized East Asia, which inevitably introduces a Western slant into world history. It is a framework filled with intense conflict between rich and poor, well-fed and starving, culturally secure and culturally splintered, powerful and helpless; neighborhoods and regions are bitterly divided over religion, race, ethnicity, and languages. Violence, often in the most inhumane forms, is widespread. In addition, the world's population is rapidly increasing, adding to the ecological strains imposed on nature's bounties. These facts can be easily related to current issues in world politics culled from the news.

The main point should be to stress our own involvement in the state of the world. Our country, with its complex problems, is set into tension-ridden global interdependence. That battered world is the framework for our students' lives. They must assess their personal prospects and define their identity as individuals and citizens within the constraints of that global interdependence. This framework also applies to a meaningful history course designed to help students—and ourselves too as teachers—to make sense of the problems that now and in the foreseeable future trouble our lives individually and collectively.

This expanded assessment of the present could well be the most effective starting point for the proper study of world history. How then to organize and interpret the mind-boggling vastness of the human past for a world history survey?


My suggestion would be to start with the Fertile Crescent, India, and ancient China, the early centers of cultural creativity, always stressing the influence of geography, the most important determinant of cultural development. An outline of the human accomplishments in these lands should include the emergence of religion (or religious philosophy) out of war-torn perilous times: Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Jewish monotheism, together with their mutual contact through trade. Next come Greece, the Roman Empire, and the rise of Christianity, to be followed by a brief account of the rise and fall of the chief empires in the open Eurasian space: Persian, Arabian, Mongolian, and Turkish (to show, for example, that expansionism is not a peculiarity of Western culture but a basic human trait, displayed in African or Amerindian history as well); the Arab story, of course, includes the emergence and spread of Islam. In each case attention should be called to the strengths and weaknesses of these empires, to their cultural resources, to their extensive trade networks, as well as to their contribution to Western culture. Columbus's stumbling upon the Western hemisphere offers a special opportunity for a comparative look at the accomplishments and traditions of the Amerindian peoples prior to their decimation by European weapons and diseases.

Then follows the rise of Western Europe, with explanations why exceptionally favorable conditions beyond human control contributed to turn that part of the world into a cultural greenhouse in which keen competitive diversity was enhanced by a common cultural tradition. A brief survey of the evolution of Western power and culture would help to explain the success of European expansionism which, by the twentieth century, had created a Westernized world.

Next I would emphasize the fateful consequences of Western expansionism, pointing to its ecological, medical, economic, political, and cultural effects around the world. Students should discuss select case studies from East and South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the Western hemisphere, showing the destruction of the original cultural integrity, the miseries that followed, and the beginning rebellion, under Western inspiration, against colonialism. Time permitting, this section might be enriched by a discussion of theories of imperialism and anti-imperialism. In any case, special attention should again be given to the exceptional case of Japan.

Having moved into the twentieth century, I would call attention to the fast technological advance, the new intensity of worldwide communications, the quadrupling of the world's population, and the resulting threats to the environment. I would especially stress the extreme violence and inhumanity caused by the extension of European power politics around the world in the wake of World War I. The Allied victory in 1918, popularizing the ideals of freedom, democracy, and equality, led to the mobilization of raw masses of people in the defeated countries, and subsequently throughout Asia and Africa, for participation in the competition for global power. In this deadly game the West, led by the United States, proudly set the universal model, thereby also becoming burdened—by the refined moral sensibility here advocated—with the responsibility for the consequences.

Our students certainly need an objective analysis of totalitarianism as an effort to organize utterly unprepared masses of people in Russian Eurasia, Italy, Germany, and eventually also in China, for catching up to the Western model. The human fury and technical perfection of weapons growing out of World War I soon led to the unprecedented destruction of human life in World War II, at the end of which the United States emerged as the foremost superpower matched superficially by the Soviet Union. Students should be made aware of that war's human cost.

I would then briefly describe the new world order of ever-intensifying global interdependence emerging after 1945, as the framework of the violence-prone political history of the world to the present. I would pay due attention to the nuclear arms race in the Cold War and to the formation of non-Western states after the Western model, all drawn into the global competition with scant success. Totalitarian controls, like the more modest experiments of "modernization" and "development," have failed to overcome the tragic inequalities of cultural resources produced by unequal natural circumstances around the world. The rich have turned richer and the poor poorer both in political power and standards of living, as can easily be illustrated from current events. In this survey the role of the United Nations, the surge of post-1945 Japan, the rise of Israel, communism in China, and the collapse of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev deserve examination.


Having come home to the present and trying, in conclusion, to draw the most fundamental forward-looking lessons from taking a long backward look, I would argue that humanity has now entered an utterly unprecedented new era. In this age of global confluence all peoples of the world, despite the immense differences in their cultural conditioning, languages, religions, and political organizations, have been tightly compacted into inescapable competitive interaction. They have become infinitely more visible to each other in instant communication and envious comparison than in any previous world system; yet they still do not understand how to overcome the cultural barriers that divide them. Now all past guidelines are in need of modification. What counts in this enlarged scale of human existence are more inclusive views within the global framework.

As a meaningful world history shows, past routines of life were shaped by small—and sometimes very small—communities. Now the peoples of the world have to learn how to adjust realistically to the burdens of global interdependence. That adjustment is difficult even for powerful Westerners used to the extensive (but largely unconscious) discipline of managing their complex societies; many of them already feel overloaded, unwilling and unable to change their ways. Global vision is even more difficult for the rapidly multiplying people barely surviving in the poor lands of the world.

Whatever the obstacles, the mastery of the human skills and attitudes needed for greater equality and peaceful cooperation in our worldwide interdependence take precedence over cultural diversity. What counts in this endeavor is not technological progress but concentration on the complex skills of human relations, an intensified moral and intellectual dedication to the subtle arts of peaceful cooperation. How can we prepare ourselves for the twenty-first century unless we help to build a common human ground for worldwide cooperation? The logic of world-shrinking interdependence leaves no other way.

These arguments—suitably geared to various levels of instruction—offer ample opportunity for discussion and clarification. May they help to devise world history courses capable of serving the needs of our unprecedented new era in human existence!

—Theodore H. Von Laue, Jacob and Frances Hiatt Professor of History emeritus at Clark University, started in German and European history before specializing in Russian and Soviet studies; he also probed into West African affairs and Chinese life on the way to teaching world history with special emphasis on the twentieth century. He has written many scholarly articles and several books, including Why Lenin? Why Stalin? (1964; now Why Lenin? Why Stalin? Why Gorbachev? HarperCollins, 1993) and The World Revolution of Westernization: The Twentieth Century in Global Perspective (Oxford University Press, 1987). Currently he serves on the Council of the World History Association. His most recent teaching assignment was at the Shaanxi Teachers University in Xi'an, China, in the fall of 1989. Credit for this essay should also go to Robert Blackey and Howard Shorr.