The New “World History”

Eric C. Kollman, « The new “World History” », Social Education, 7, 1943, pp. 342-346.

The most spectacular feature of recent times for the historian – and probably not only for the historian-has doubtless been the emergence of real world history, i.e. the history of the different parts of the world as interrelated and interdependent units. While this development has been in preparation for several hundred years, approximately since the age of discoveries and the beginnings of capitalism, its realization is a matter of the last fifty to one hundred years, and the process is by no means completed. World history-maybe one should rather say global history – is with us to stay. This war may decide by whom, how, and for what end the developing world society shaH be organized. Its emergence is not an issue any more. Only a giant catastrophe of unimaginable proportions, accompanied by a world-wide psychic trauma, could cause a relapse into a premachine age.

This article cannot, and probably need not, sketch the development or discuss in detail the forces which have brought about the new world history. We ali know that modern means of transportation and communication, industrialism, urbanization, and the rise of the masses are sorne of its most outstanding features. The article will rather stress a number of phenomena and problems which are either not quite so obvious or which, while not new, have taken on a more crucial character in the framework of global history.

Characteristics of World History

There is, first of all, the change which has taken place in the geographical pattern of mankind-or rather in the implications of this pattern. Not only have boundaries changed their meanings and become obsolete for strategic, economic, and political reasons, but the geo-political position of many countries, even of whole continents is fundamentally different from what it was fifty or one hundred years ago.1

Second, the new world history is not identical with the recent history of Western civilization. While its earlier phases could be described as the expansion of the West ali over the world by emigration or conquest, peaceful penetration or colonial imperialism, global history consists, by now at least, of a two-way process. The Crusaders discovered, partly to their own surprise, the cultural superiority of their enemies. One can find, I think, sorne analogies to that in recent developments in the Far and Near East, in Central America and even in Russia. By revolutionizing the rest of the world, Western civilization itself has been revolutionized.

Third, cultural fusion and migration have taken on world-wide dimension and in this process changed their meaning. They have raised the problem of the possibility of a world culture and the necessity of world-wide planning in the movement of people. The passing of the frontier is becoming an international phenomenon, and the contemporary chapter of world history is one of intensive rather than of extensive development, increasing the complexity of the slowly emerging world society.

Fourth, with the world more or less distributed among the powers at the beginning of the First World War, the very interesting phenomenon of the late corners in the realm of economie development and political power has come to the fore. The recent history of Japan, Germany, and Russia, also of Turkey and Mexico, has shattered the assumption of the Western world in the nineteenth century-fostered even by many Marxists-that each country has to go through predescribed phases of economie, social, and political development before reaching the level of

Western civilization, and that industrialization is identical with economie and political liberalism, and with progress in the nineteenth-century sense of the word. It is this phenomenon of the late corners – so weil understood by Veblen2 – which has brought such an element of surprise into recent history.

Fifth, among features which have taken on new significance in the global setting is the socalled “contemporaneity of the non-contemporary.”3 Let me explain. One of the permanent features in the history of mankind has been the fact that the development of civilizations started in different areas at different times. Egypt had already reached a high level of her civilization when the people in Central Europe were still living in the New Stone Age. Rome was a rather inconspicuous large village when the Greeks entered the period of the Persian Wars. Primitive tribes of the North American Indians were contemporaries of the great civilizations of the Aztecs and the Incas. Even today, but perhaps for the last time, one can study almost every phase of the past history of mankind by traveling to different areas of the globe. It is here, incidentally, that history as the over-all social science in the dimension of time meets with general sociology as the over-all social science in the dimension of

Under modern conditions, however, this contemporaneity of the non-contemporary has become a world-wide “cultural lag” phenomenon. Whether and how to integrate the so-called backward people into modern industrial society has become problem number one of the immediate past, the present, and the future. The question lies in the center not only of the colonial problem, of imperialism old and new, but also is the key to the understanding of the recent history and the near future of Southeastern Europe and of similar regions. The present war is, among other things, fought over the issue whether the different people should not be frozen on their present levels in a new globe-wide hierarchical structure; and nobody should dismiss this Iightly as outright impossible.

Needless to say, the contemporaneity of the non-contemporary is a national as weil as an international feature. It is characteristic of the new
world history that the lines between domestic and foreign affairs are blurred, that domestic problems are world-wide in scope, and that foreign policy has become a domestic issue in practically every country in the world. It is for this reason that a global war is at the same time a
civil war on an international scale.

Sixth among trends which characterize the new world history is the rise, spread, and incipient decline of nationalism. N ationalism, once an integrating and progressive force, has taken on a disintegrating and counter-revolutionary character. E. H. Carr has described and analyzed very aptly the crisis of national self-determination in his excellent book Conditions of Peace.4 In the cold reality of interdependent national states, nationalism as a political force and organizing principle has either to be transformed into the new supernational racism in which the master
race-be it white or yellow Aryans-monopolizes political power and control, or it must be reserved to the cultural realm and be superseded in the political sphere by an international organization of co-operating nations which-let us hope-will bring its individual members a new birth of freedom, but under God.

Toward Better World History

How weil are we as historians able to understand and to describe the new world history? The difficulties are great and staggering, but equally great is the challenge. A number of circumstances may help us, though sorne of them may admittedly work both ways.

1. Global history is a new, almost contemporary phenomenon; while this fact deprives us of distance and a closed record, it makes more direct understanding possible.

2. We live in an age of fast change. Thinking in genetic, developmental, historical terms is as imperative as it is natural. “Historical explanation is an explanation of the world in terms of change.”

3. Our generation has had a richer historical experience than almost any other generation. How much nearer to the present is the transition period between medieval and modern times, since we are living in a similar agel How much more insight have we won into the dynamics of past revolutions, because of what we have lived through ourselvesl Are not past mass movements doser to us in understanding and appreciation since we are living in a mass society? And have not the War of Independence and the Civil War become more vivid for our generation because we are fighting another war of independence which is at the same time an international civil war?

4. We can be better historians because we are less sure of ourselves, less bound by a fixed scheme, by a rigid yardstick of values. The air of relativity which we have been breathing for quite a while enables us to start historical research with a higher degree of scepticism, a greater ability of intuition into other periods and different cultures. This insecurity has, of course, also led to historical research for the sake of escaping the present, and to debunking for its own sake. And, as recent experience has shown, human beings cannot stand the atmosphere of relativity too long. As a purifying influence, however, which forces us to go back to fundamentals and to reexamine old concepts which have too frequently been taken for granted, a period of transition in which the yesterday and the tomorrow are fighting on ali fronts and ali along the line, is of inestimable value for the outlook of the historian.

To these more general factors may be added a few which have to do with the present situation of history as a science. Ail of them should greatly aïd us to comprehend the fact of global history.

1. Important assistance has come from the other social sciences. The findings in sociology and anthropology especially are indispensable for the historian of global history; but other sciences such as social psychology, psychoanalysis, and geopolitics have widened our horizon too, and are of the greatest help in research and better understanding of recent and, for that matter, of ali history.

2. It also looks as if the somewhat strained relationship between history and the other social sciences in theory and in teaching is on the way of rapid improvement. Mannheim is certainly right when he states: “The observation of living society complements many items in our historical studies, just as our present-day field-work lacks perspective if it is not supplemented by the historical approach.”5

3. The new rise of the philosoplhy of history which always flourishes in times of crisis has been in a certain’ way a counterweight against too narrow specialization, by bringing again the whole of history to the fore. The authors in the field, from Hegel and Marx dawn to H. St. Chamberlain, Spengler, Croce, Berdjaeff, and R. Niebuhr have also, taken together, done rouch, if unintentionally to discard and discredit any one single-cause theory of history and society, to foster thinking in multi-dimensional terms.

4. Finally, in the field of historiography a development is taking place which is most favorable to the study and understanding of world history. “Historians are again attempting to interpret the past in broad outlines. Insofar as this is done, there is, in a sense, a return to the bolder historical scholarship of a century or more ago.”6 The microscopie approach to history, necessary as a means but disastrous as an end, is being replaced once more by an attempt of synthesis and broad interpretation. This historiographical development is in itself a symptom and a reflection of the fact that we are living in an age of real world history.

Toward Bettar Teaching

Few teaching subjects have been more criticized in recent years than history. It was a dry subject, a meaningless collection of facts and dates, taught for its own sake as an escape from the present or only for the glorification of tradition, telling too much about the great men and too little about the great many. Doubt was cast whether history was more than a myth and whether the historian could ever tell the real past, let alone make the past real. Few words by Hegel have been quoted more frequently than his remark that the only thing one can learn from history is that people never learn anything from it, while truth lies most probably in the other saying that history is a very good teacher but its pupils are usually very poor.

Very recently, however, history has been staging a comeback like mathematics and geography. It is a double-pronged drive, both in American and in world history. That a nation fighting for its very existence should be strengthened by consciousness of its own heritage is a matter of course. American history taught these days will give anew the record of magnificent growth and achievements. It can tell us a fascinating story of democracy and liberty. It will, however, have to stress also the gap between political ideals and, political reality, will have to explain, in the light of the past record, the need for future inventiveness in the field of the social sciences, and of social action, and should not forget to mention the many items of unfinished business in the economic, political, and social realm. In this way it will help to destroy the wrong and dangerous alternative between “retaining a great past and gaining a greater future” (Roosevelt). But even the best teaching of American history can give us only a deeper insight and a better knowledge of our beginnings. To understand really how and what we are we must also know how and what the rest of the world is like, and how it came to be what it is. A nation fighting a global war and striving for a global peace must learn global history. And we must teach it for a
number of specifie reasons.

The most important one is, perhaps, to gain and have the students gain new perspectives and a better sense of proportion. How different American history looks from the point of view of a Red Army soldier! How different European history looks from the point of view of an American high school teacher! How meaningless is our scheme of ancient, medieval, and modern times when looked at with the historical background of a Chinese or an Indian!7 The Seven Years War of the eighteenth century – to give at least one specifie example – is almost a new phenomenon if you view it with the eyes of an Austrian or a Prussian instead of seeing it in the context of American, English, or French history. Looking at the history of one’s own country or even at world history from one center only is almost as unsatisfactory and misleading as the old maps which show Jerusalem or Mecca in the center of the world.

The most suitable text for the average European on European history as a whole is probably one written in this country. By the same token, we can learn much about American history in the general setting of world history by reading the chapters on the United States in a European text.8

It would certainly not be the worst preparation for the teaching of world history to study the average textbooks on world history as written and used in different parts of the world. A historical atlas which visualizes, century after century, contemporary events on a world-wide scale could bring home to the students the contemporaneity of the non-contemporary and would also serve as an antidote against popular ideas of the fall of Rome or the concept of the Middle Ages. This whole point can be summed up by quoting Lincoln’s famous words: “We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.”

Recent world history – and for that matter all world history – should also help us and our students to think not only in long-term trends but also in world-wide terms. It is of vital importance for the citizens of today and tomorrow to see American history in the context of four hundred years of Western civilization and set it apart and compare it as a period with, for instance, the European Middle Ages. In that way we can make up somewhat for the limited experience of our own history in such vital phenomena as war, feudalism, clericalism, peasantry, and the like.

That teaching of the new world history is a political necessity, too, a possible antidote against American isolationism and American imperialism, that we must know more about the past and present of other nations and people with whom we shall have to deal now and in ali the foresecable future, is almost too obvious to need stressing here at great Iength. No one of us, I may safely assume, shares the nineteenth-century illusion that nearness and increased contacts make automatically for better relations-this is as wrong in world history as it is in private life. A student of global history will also be better equipped to see the whole, not only the parts, of historical reality; and the relationship between the parts in a given civilization as weil as between
civilizations. The importance of such an achievement cannot be overrated in our age of interdependence in which the fact that we ail live in one and the same world has been brought home so forcefully and painfully by recent events.

None of the existing courses in high school or college do exactly what I have in mind and it is doubtful tome whether a single course alone can achieve ail the goals which I have just mentioned. A current-events course cannot do the job. It certainly has its values in arousing and fostering interest in contemporary affairs and is instrumental in establising in students the habits of listening to the news and reading a
newspaper. But it has the same shortcomings as the social-problems course in the social sciences as too frequently taught, namely the Jack of a frame of reference and the difficulty of showing the relationship and interrelatedness of the individual current events. The courses in European history, Latin-American history, the Far East and other specialized courses on the college level have, of course, their merit but they give, by their very nature, only a part of the whole.

Closest to what I have in mind cornes the history of civilization course which is offered in many universities. It is interesting to see how recent textbooks have shifted the emphasis more and more to a global viewpoint and to the emergence of the new world history.9 It is doubtful to me, however, to what degree a course in the history of civilization can be taught satisfactorily in the college freshman year and whether there
is room for it at that time. Its place may be rather in the senior year of college as a synthesis of humanities and social sciences (assuming here an 8-4-4 set-up of education), especially for those seniors who do not go into graduate work but close their formai education with the B.A. degree, and indispensable for the prospective high school teacher in social studies or humanities.

The rather popular world-history course in the high schools is unsatisfactory for other reasons. It has usually been taught in the sophomore year, both too early and too late, as I see it. Too frequently it has been a one-dimensional, sometimes encyclopedie summary of the past from Adam and Eve to the Second World War. It has often interpreted world history only in terms of the past heritage of our present Western civilization and has stressed too little the growing interdependence of nation states and cultures. It has in many cases been purely descriptive at the cost of the comparative and analogical method. The textbooks have vastly improved and shifted the emphasis from the purely political to the broader cultural realm. But there is still not enough stress on the interrelationship between the different areas and activities of a given civilization. The student learns about the Declaration of Independence in 1776. On another page he learns that the fust workable model of a steam engine was invented in 1776. Still another page tells about the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in that year. Is the student taught to see the relationship between these three facts?

If given as a single course, the new world history should be taught to every high school senior in the country. It is essentially not a onedepartment job but a co-operative enterprise for the teachers of the social studies and the humanities. The background (in the literary sense) of such a course will be the globe, the treatment will have to be historical as weil as sociological. It must be not only descriptive but comparative. If properly taught, such a course will contain at least sorne political and economie geography and will also be a tool of integration and synthesis for courses in the social studies and humanities.

To teach such a course to high school seniors should not be difficult, as far as the students are concerned. There will be little of a problem of motivation. The students’ subjective interests and needs are identical in this case with an objective need of the society in which they live. There are, of course, always available to the history teacher two approaches in order to arouse student interest, namely their joy in rediscovering the known and in discovering the unknown. But there are few things which arouse the enthusiasm of students more than long trends and the great connections between periods and cultures. Another favorable factor for the teaching of global history is the trend toward integration of the social studies and in the curriculum in general, a trend which is nothing more nor Jess than the recognition of interdependence in the field of study and instruction.

The teacher faces, however, great handicaps in his task. The main obstacle is, I take it, insufficient training. Graduate research in history is not always the best preparation for teaching world history on the high school (or even on the college) level. Many teachers also have insufficient
training in the other social sciences or not enough training in history itself. And there is the additional difficulty of firmly established habits
of thinking and lack of imagination. But we must overcome ali these difficulties if we want to help the present and the future generation to
master the tasks of world poli tics which lie ahead. We shalldo soif we learn, following the advice of Plato, to see in historical, as in any other
reality, the unique and the general, both at the same time.



Traduction en français

OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
Vincent Capdepuy (21 mai 2022). The New “World History” Carnets de géohistoire. Consulté le 25 juillet 2024 à l’adresse

Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse e-mail ne sera pas publiée. Les champs obligatoires sont indiqués avec *

Ce site utilise Akismet pour réduire les indésirables. En savoir plus sur comment les données de vos commentaires sont utilisées.