I recently finished teaching a world history course this summer. I thought I would share the introduction on my syllabus. It elaborates on many of the sentiments relating to History that I have held for a few years now. It reads as follows:
World History: Global Connections
Globalization is more than a phenomenon in itself. It is a category which describes a variety of phenomena pertaining to intercontinental connectivity and interdependence, that confers both advantages and crises. In modern times, globalization as a category is frequently recognized in terms such as the advent of worldwide capitalism, intercontinental transit, international military and diplomatic engagements, the internet, terrorism, climate change, pervasive pandemics, and the like. Although the term “globalization” was not used prior to the 19th century, in earlier times, the general notion of interconnection that is associated with globalization was understood more modestly to involve the ability to transfer valued goods over a transcontinental distance from one location to another, or the capacity of an individual to travel intercontinentally (albeit over a longer period of time than it would take today), usually to fulfill some political, economic, or religious objective. In the premodern era, similar to modern times, societies and peoples had to contend, and continue to contend, with the tensions that political, economic, social, cultural, religious, racial, ethnic, gendered and sexual, linguistic, biological, and environmental diversity brings in a globalizing world. As communities, ideas, values, and institutions mix, persons and groups are sometimes confronted with challenges such as disease, armed conflict, discrimination, opression, and persecution.
Aversions stemming from the diversity manifested through globalization are sometimes a product of, and other times result in, projects by governing institutions to standardize the space that they administer. In other words, besides diversity, monolithization, a desire by a governing institution to craft a singular political, economic, social, cultural, religious, racial, ethnic, gendered and sexual, linguistic, biological, and/or environmental identity, is another oft-observed feature of globalization, especially in modern times.
An important implication is inherent in globalization as a category: it elucidates the reality that the notion of “the world” is an institutional term, not a geographic one. In essence, as the globe became increasingly interconnected- that is to say, historically, as a growing number of polities forged connections with each other and, over time, formulated large political, economic, and cultural networks- the concept of “the world” expanded to include a wider range of geography, political structures, economic systems, social constructs, cultural customs, religious traditions, racial backgrounds, gender expressions, sexual orientations, and more. As scholars continue to study globalization and its history, it becomes increasingly apparent that “the world” is not an objective and unchanging reality, but instead a subjective and evolving abstraction.
Realized manifestations of what “the world” is, and what “the world” can be are most often dictated by those who wield immense political and economic influence. The space one occupies which animates his or her life is not the result of natural events, but instead is the consequence, whether intentional or not, of the institutions, values, and ideas that were implemented by people who lived in prior generations; people who believed that such values, institutions, and ideas would shape “the world” into “the way that it ought to be.” Only after living within the framework of a set of values, institutions, and ideas for a substantive length of time do they begin to feel like a natural part of life. In this course, we will explore societies that crafted, and were crafted by, values, ideas, and institutions that played an important role in constructing the modern, globalized world that we live in today.
In this course, we will explore a number of questions:
What is the significance in studying world history?: World history is often misunderstood as a surface-level examination of the history of notable civilizations, and the general characteristics that defined them. This approach to studying world history is superficial, and it betrays the true utility of studying history on a global scale. Studying world history is valuable because it enables scholars to analyze and make sense of the ways that different societies conceived of “the world.” It also allows scholars to examine how different societies’ ideas of “the world” were shaped by phenomena such as trade, exploration, conquest, colonialism, and imperialism, and the consequences associated with them.
What is globalization, and what is its importance?: Globalization is a category that, in brief, describes a general inclination toward greater intercontinental connectivity and interdependence between societies around the globe. These associations between societies subsequently result in networks which act as spaces in which peoples who embody the diverse backgrounds from which they hail can engage with one another. While generally positive, these diverse venues sometimes subject groups of people to conflict, disenfranchisement, marginalization, and/or violence. It is difficult to charge globalization and its impacts as either positive or negative. However, it is generally agreed among scholars that despite its morally dubious nature, globalization has, by and large, made life more comfortable and enlightening for societies who participate in the networks of globalization.
What is modernity?: While globalization is not a production of the impetus of notions of modernity, globalization since the European industrial revolution certainly looks far different from globalization prior to the European industrial revolution. With the continual fashioning of faster means of transit, more advanced military capabilities, greater scientific prowess, more intricate communications systems, and other similar developments in the post-industrial revolution world, understandings of “the world” have undergone far more rapid and dramatic transformations than was experienced in the preindustrial era. These pronounced metamorphoses have led historians to deem this period of extraordinary scientific, technological, and epistemological change as the “modern era.” This term, however, is fraught with vagueness and strident debate among scholars of the humanities. Even today, scholars struggle to make sense of what it means to live in this staggeringly dynamic “age of modernity”.
Why is formal historical training important?: Often, the conventional argument emblazoned in students’ minds by grade school history courses is: “We need to learn history so that we don’t repeat it.” This paradigm, however, treats humans like automatons who, without history, would robotically engage in the exact same pattern of action perennially. Each historical occurrence, in fact, is a product of a unique confluence of factors, often political, economic, social, or cultural in nature. While a historical event may appear similar to a previous one, it is never entirely identical.
Historical instruction, rather, is meaningful because it enables students to develop their historical acumen. Despite that the environment one is born into may feel natural, it is, in fact, the outcome, deliberate or not, of the values, ideas, and institutions contrived by past individuals who were in positions of political, economic, and/or social authority; people who believed that these abstractions would transfigure the domain they administered into their view of an ideal society. In order for one to effectively articulate his or her affirmation or disapproval of the values, ideas, and institutions which define the space that he or she inhabits, and subsequently play an active role in sculpting society, one needs to have a firm understanding of the historical processes which have led to one’s contemporary moment. Otherwise, activism is difficult, and often futile.
Furthermore, it is important that historical discourse is a collective engagement that includes the maximal number of people possible so that the affirmations and critiques made of a set of values, ideas, and/or institutions are to the benefit of as diverse and broad an array of peoples as possible. If these discourses fail to be inclusive, the alterations to society that spawn from them may only benefit some peoples at the expense of others.
History itself is fiction. What we call “History” is, in actuality, a collection of events that a person or group has run a narrative thread through, connecting these events for some didactic purpose, whether political, economic, social, or cultural. Proponents of the values, ideas, and institutions that regulate society frequently utilize historical narratives to propagate them, and detractors employ historical narratives to denigrate them. In essence, historical narratives are not linear, objective renderings of events. Rather, they are subjective and political. Therefore, it is incumbent upon each of us to cultivate our historical acumen so that we may productively evaluate the validity of the historical narratives that underpin the values, ideas, and institutions inherent in the environments which we occupy. Otherwise, we run the risk of being taken advantage of by those in positions of power.
We will explore these questions in thorough detail by examining six significant areas of the world: The Aztec Empire, Africa and the Atlantic, The Ottoman Empire, China, Japan, and The United States.