Published Date

January 1, 2004

From Imperialism: European, American, and Japanese


Since I began teaching World History in 1972, I have continually attempted to refine my syllabus. This involved searching out the best text available and suitable primary source materials for required readings, as well as deciding upon essential topics to discuss in class. Quite often this meant that the topics would depend on available texts, as World History as a field was in its infancy and accessible readings in short supply. A generation has passed, World History has become a well-established academic domain, and text materials abound. Moreover, the last quarter of the twentieth century witnessed the computer revolution with its collateral internet information expedience. Thus when I had the opportunity to join the AHA project to put primary materials on-line , I viewed it as a challenge, first to select a topic that would be covered in most World History courses, and then to develop a set of principal readings that would best explain the topic in general, as well as a collection of materials that would provide an in-depth particular example. I chose to examine the imperialism of the industrial nations during the past century-and-a-half. I selected China as the in-depth case study.

Although I had a fairly good idea of what kinds of materials needed to be evaluated by students, locating them on-line was another matter. Many sources could be readily accessed, such as Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden,” while others, such as Henry Labouchere’s parody of Kipling, “Brown Man’s Burden,” had to be extracted from a text and typed. Given the recent near exponential growth of on-line materials, to which this AHA project is contributing, a much wider variety of sources will undoubtedly be available in the immediate future. This will include maps, an essential tool in coming to grips with the growth and decline of empires. Here on-line resources proved less helpful. Although geographical aids can be located, they are neither as numerous nor as sophisticated as those which publishers package with textbooksfor faculty. I anticipate this too will soon change for the better, though perhaps not as quickly as with written materials. Likewise works of art, political cartoons, and other visual sources which furnish insights into a society cannot be so easily retrieved on-line, again a situation apt to change shortly. Perhaps the most underrepresented but potentially rich source on the internet is music, another avenue to understanding the cultural setting of a people or a nation. Whether a John Philip Sousu march or a Sir Mix-a-Lot hip-hop, we gain a broader perspective when more of our senses are used to interpret times, places, people and events. I’m hoping to be able to smell the coffee, taste the sushi, and feel the heat on-line down the road.

Once I became reasonably proficient in discovering sources on-line and realized that an abundance of materials relating to later-day imperialism could be accessed, I next had to determine how much and which historical evidence to use. Given that students would likely be reading a textbook chapter on the subject, what documentation would best complement a typical text? The complexity of the topic meant a variety of sources. Most of those relating to the causes are fairly standard political, economic, and cultural explanations, principally European, justifiable, I think, since most of the imperial powers were European. A more global perspective on the consequences of imperialism is provided, though Asia, my specialty, receives much more attention than Africa.

I have provided many more sources than the freshman student would ordinarily peruse for this topic and therefore needed to narrow down the assignment by indicating required readings and supplementary readings. This affords the more curious student the opportunity to explore the topic more fully.

I would also expect that the more concentrated examination of China be done in that part of the course which considers the development of nationalism in the non-imperial world after World War I. I chose China as an illustration for two fundamental reasons. First, all of the imperial powers operated there; and second they did so in one or more capacities: as colonizer (e.g., Hong Kong, Taiwan); leaseholder (e.g., Kowloon/Jiulong, Tsingtao/Qingdao); nation whose citizens possessed extraterritorial rights into the 1940s (in all of the more than 200 treaty ports); or country which controlled China’s tariff rates until the 1930s. I wanted the students to explore the many problems caused by the presence of foreign powers, as well as the various means China’s elite proposed to deal with that presence. These ranged from attempting to maintain the status quo in the late eighteenth century (Qian Long emperor), to rigorous enforcement of Chinese law (Lin Zexu), to reform (Guangxu emperor), to liberalism (Hu Shi), to diverse revolutionary solutions (Sun Yat-sen, Mao Zedong, or Hu Sheng).

The topical organization, reading materials and questions I assemble here were put to the test in my World Civilization classes, with mixed results. From the point of view of materials utilized, I noticed little difference between student response to on-line readings or the more traditional book of primary source documents used in the past. They were neither more widely read nor more energetically discussed so far as I could conclude. However I did notice that those who owned computers seemed if not eager at least amenable to further exploration of imperialism. Thus some students would ask me if I had run across this on-line source or that. That’s the good news. I also determined that students tended to be quite uncritical of the materials accessed electronically, which likely occurs with all evidentiary materials but is potentially more hazardous given the aura of genuineness many attach to “data” bases. An addendum to one’s critical thinking discussion at the beginning of the semester needs to be provided as these electronic sources are introduced. For students who do not own a computer but can access one on campus, there is nonetheless the problem of time. Typically, a large portion of community college students work and have families, leaving them precious little time to go on-line these commuter campuses. As the price of computers declines and as more of day-to-day modern life requires computer literacy, the average student will likely get plugged into the world wide electronic network.

As with other tools of knowledge, the computer and its accompanying will facilitate learning. Both faculty and students will view and utilize the computer differently in attempting to achieve that learning. Moreover, we will continue to fine tune those

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