Friday, March 20, 2009

Of Narratives and World History

We had an interesting discussion on the comments of CGB's post about the narrative and I'd like to continue that here in another post.

The criticism of grand narratives has been around as long as there have been grand narratives, but this criticism has received much more fuel in the past, say, twenty years from the post-modern moment (though it seems the only scholars using the phrase "post-modern" these days are critics of what they imagine it to be). Generally, the charge has been that grand narratives of historical change are implicated in the maintenance of structures of power. In my field, nineteenth-century British history, the most celebrated grand narrative was about the rise of class and class consciousness. Especially in the 1990s, this narrative was attacked because it imposed a rigid structure of categories on the past and rejected evidence and historical actors that didn't easily fit into these categories. Nineteenth-century activists who spoke in more universalizing languages, rather than the idiom of class, were either ignored or marginalized. When we actually look at the language of class at particular moments in the nineteenth century, it was argued, we find that it was contingent and highly adaptable. And we see that many people thought of themselves and their position in society in very different ways. The old class narrative, then, privileged a certain kind of political action and certain political actors (often men) that themselves were part of the creation of modern structures of power.

There was, of course, pushback against this species of argument, both from more conservative scholars and from those raised on the new social history of the 1960s and, at least in British historiography, a sort of equilibrium (or armistice?) seems to have been reached in the first part of the present decade. As these developments unfolded, though, something else was happening: a new emphasis on world history. This came from some of the same impulses as the best elements in post-modernism: a desire to uncover stories and pasts marginalized by dominant narratives (which was, itself, a product of the new social history of the 1960s). Interestingly, however, world history has gone in a different direction. While post-modernists generally attacked any and all grand narratives, many world historians have recently been searching for new narratives; they're interested in big explanations to crucial questions. "Why did Europe industrialize and then dominate the world in the nineteenth century?" is one. The answers are increasingly showing that Europe's period of dominance was much shorter than is often imagined (more like 1850-1945 than 1500-1945) and that other areas of the world (especially India and China) were, in fact, much more important to most people in the world for most of the past, say, 500 years. These stories decenter "Western Civilization" and often place the Indian Ocean or East Asia at the center and, in doing so, (hopefully) fatally undermine the lingering notion that the "civilization" of Europe and the United States sprung from the superior Greek and Roman civilizations and gradually came to fulfill its destiny to dominate the world.

This changing story has led to dramatic changes in the teaching of "Western Civilization" or "European history" at many institutions. Many departments are shifting to focus on global connections and, generally, trying to bring the new narrative of a multipolar and interconnected world into the classroom. Most of the "European history" jobs that I looked at this past job season wanted at least some degree of engagement with the broader world. To be sure, in many cases, this is probably no more than a perfunctory nod. But, I think it signals a broader shift that itself reflects our own moment in world history.

This is a story that I believe students need to hear and think about as they prepare to head out into the world. I do think that there is an important role for teaching students about the craft of history, but it shouldn't be entirely at the expense of helping them see this important and potentially empowering emerging narrative of world history.


Teacher Scholar said...

These are some good observations. I wonder too the degree to which departments will continue to write ads for "World History" or if instead they will want to see candidates make international connections in their teaching (or research) demonstrations.

As an Americanist, i have worked to integrate an international or imperial perspective into my courses. For the survey, I have found Carl Guarneri's edited anthology _America Compared: American History in International Perspective_ very useful. In 2007 he published a textbook, _America in the World: United States History in Global Context_ (a part of the Explorations in World History series of McGraw Hill). I am considering it for future survey courses, but am not near to making a decision--especially considering my ambivalent comments about textbooks in the previous post.

The Daft Laird said...

I'm currently reading Thomas Bender's A Nation Among Nations: America's Place in World History and will have some brief comments about it when I'm finished. As a teaser: not very impressive thus far. I've also read David Armitage's The Declaration of Independence: A Global History recently and was very disappointed. Would you mind giving a couple of lines about Guarneri's work, T-S?

CGB said...

I have to admit I don't quite understand why there should have to be a conflict between teaching narrative or "the craft." How could this ever be a question of either/or? When I think about "craft issues" in history (by which I mean methodology, broadly conceived), then I include for example my attempts to show my students that history is a series of debates about the past, not a description of the past. The changing narrative T-D-L describes seems to be a perfect example for such a lesson; there simply would not be a conflict here for me.