The pedagogy of Global History?

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what is global history

By Editor Derek Kane O’Leary,

This is the third of four graduate student commentaries in our Graduate Forum on Sebastian Conrads What is Global History? (Princeton, 2016). You can read the first contribution, by Daoud Jackson, here and the second by Maryam Patton here.

First things first: Sebastian Conrad has adeptly synthesized and evaluated the state of global history and other global perspectives on history, in a work ideally suited to the graduate or undergraduate student delving into the field or the historian pivoting toward it. I’m far from a specialist in this domain, though I wish I had this as a general resource earlier. But as someone who has taught varieties of world history and worked on a world history textbook (which, I think, when done well can function as good global history along the lines that Conrad delineates), as well as instructed courses and experiential learning trips organized around the concept of “global citizenship”, I am concerned with what’s at stake here. (The latter pedagogical agenda, as I’ll mention, seems bound up with the study of global history.)

Conrad ably answers what global history is. Along the way he also discusses when it is, where it is, and who it is. That is, he engages with debates and stakes around periodization, geography, and perspective. He remarks throughout on how we should–or, more often, shouldn’t–do it. He is less concerned with why. In 2019, we’ve likely already had our surfeit of calls for papers and conferences, seminars and round tables propelled by the existential question of whether global history should exist or not. I’d nonetheless like to raise the why in response to ethical questions that are gestured at in the book but not engaged with at length.

Conrad is cautious to present the specter of the nationalistic Euro-American-centric nineteenth-century social sciences as a symptom to which global history is an antidote. And he certainly does not deny that the nation-state remains an important level of analysis, as a function of the historical question on the table (138-9). Indeed, he is critical of a range of scholarship that responds to that nineteenth-century bogeyman of nationalistic history writing by simply reifying other nations, perpetuating other narratives based on cultural essentialism, imposing other teleologies, and establishing other centrisms. Still, censure of the origins of our modern discipline and the implication that we should rather be doing global history linger throughout the book. National confines, in short, are something to be transcended. “Global history as practiced today rests on the assumption that unifying frameworks and dialogue across societies and cultures is both possible and desirable.” (201) I think that this appraisal and normative claim are worth commenting on.

On the less pressing historiographical point, it is not clear to me that the nineteenth-century social sciences and history in the U.S. (at least, and I’d be curious to know how other national experiences within Europe compare) were uniquely concerned with one exalted nation-state as their unit of analysis, or that they “developed in close relation to the institutions of the nation-state.” (205) In the U.S., history, for instance, did resemble Europe in its promotion of an archival source-based methodology and the concepts of progress and nation exceptionalism– “Euro-American historicist epistemologies” that Conrad refers to (27-8; 170). But in contrast, US history writing was produced mainly through numerous local historical societies, constructed by individual initiative, and often more interested in some local, regional, or ethnic version of American history than a coherent national narrative emanating from the State and focused on the nation. Federally-funded archival and history-writing projects were just some among these many undertakings, and not often in harmony with them. Of the major writers who used these scattered archives, the most famous–George Bancroft and his epic History of the United States–surely worked to sanctify the nation and its teleological conquest of the continent, but the other acclaimed Romantic historians of the nineteenth century did not even write about the U.S.: William Hickling Prescott authored works on Spanish empire in Central and South America; John Lothrop Motley was mainly concerned with Dutch history and wars with Spain; Francis Parkman focused on French colonialism and combat with England in North America. They were certainly interested in the distinctiveness of Anglo-America, but history as a discipline developed in this broader geographical and international context. Meanwhile, the major nineteenth-century works of ethnography, linguistics, craniology, and archaeology–though often animated by an effort to impose a global hierarchy ethnic and racial hierarchy–all examined evidence about the nation-state within a geographical scope far larger than the continental U.S. Generally, they comprised the entire hemisphere, and sought to make sense of human history within that context.

Even if it remains mostly right that the nineteenth-century Euro-American social sciences focused within the boundaries of a given nation–thus missing crucial connections beyond those boundaries–and emphasized the exceptional nature of the nation–thus aggravating the potential antagonism among nations–I think it is worth asking again why global history is a better approach and, more important, why we should teach it. Conrad seems more concerned with the intellectual shortcomings of such nation-centered disciplines–as they “hinder our ability to achieve a systematic grasp of processes that span the world”(3)– rather than their practical implications in the classroom, but the latter is worth discussing.

Pedagogy is noticeably absent throughout the book. If we move away from nation-centered history on the grounds that it is not just intellectually but ethically deficient, we should be clear about why a global historical approach is better for students. Why would it be better to instruct students in global history rather than a given national history  (if that is the trade-off, and given the finite resources of institutions and students, it often is)?

On the intellectual plane, I’m not sure why a history course focused on a nation cannot also be a “history of entanglements”–or why a history mainly confined within political borders should be seen as excessively “frugal.”(9) Among the features that Conrad attributes to global history, it seems to me that most good college-level courses on nation-states or empires enact many: they strive to “situate concrete historical issues and phenomena within broader, potentially global contexts”; consider “alternative notions of space” that have shaped events within a political entity; keep in mind the “relationality” of the political unit’s development within a broader geopolitical context, and are “self-reflective on the issue of Eurocentrism.” (65)  In short, they entangle the nation-state in a global context, while recognizing that it is a meaningful unit both in recent world history and in students’ experience of the world. In doing so, at their best, they empower students to be far more conscientious and critical thinkers vis-à-vis the nation state, not unlike how “global citizenry” programs hope to enable students to perceive and engage with the globe–another construct. In my experience, it’s a far cry from Bancroft. Perhaps this is just evidence that the teaching of national history is positively influenced by global history, rather than in conflict with it. And Conrad may in fact not deny that a course entitled “U.S. History: Civil War to Present” could also be a good global history course, but I am interested in how our current curricula could or already do engage with global history’s insights.

But in an institutional context of dwindling resources and competing interests, why global history courses might replace nation-centered ones remains challenging. In a global academic context, too, I think it raises tough questions. Most of the practice and publishing of global history emanates from European and U.S. institutions, including the very places that developed and in different ways employed the nation-centric historical discipline: what do we make of critiques coming from such institutions against contempoary nation-centric historical practice in newer, post-colonial nation-states? Conrad is sensitive both to how power operates in history and how it has organized the discipline of history over the centuries. And he doesn’t eschew arguments that global history can obscure human agency and responsibility and be a vehicle for exercising power; namely, that global history narratives can create a teleology of globalization that serves some at the expense of others, and that instruction in global history might, for instance, simply prepare students to work in global corporations (188; 211). Conrad counters that education in global history can be a source of empowerment for those challenging the rhetoric and claims about globalization (212-213). Beyond this, though, the pedagogical pay-off in an academic context of shrinking resources is not clearly articulated, and the critique that education in global history and citizenship is simply empowering a global privileged class to excel across national boundaries is not dispelled. The teaching of global history reflects scholarly awareness of how global integration has shaped historical developments, and of course this should make it into the classroom. But if it is also intended to reconfigure students’ relationship with the past, displace courses based on nation-states and empires, and claim to better equip students than other histories can to excel in the world, I think we need to make a more coherent case for why this is so.

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