Sixty years separates the 1949 history textbook The Record of Mankind from the world history text we use in our “Culture and Civilization” course. In the course of just over a half century, American students are encountering a vastly changed landscape.
It’s instructive to look at the topics for a “world history” just as the fog of a world war was dissipating to be replaced by the chill of the coming cold war. Though the authors speak with enthusiasm of a “universal history,” their globe had an awkward and peculiar shape.
The Dawn of civilization is limited to a dawn over the western Asia: Egypt, Babylonia and other familiar Near East sites are mentioned briefly. When the attention shifts to the Greeks and the Romans, the text becomes detailed and enthusiastic: obviously the most important early climax has been achieved.
This is the old version of what forms a classical period: profoundly Eurocentric. The new version, however, recognizes that there is also a classical India and a classical China, that art and architecture, literature and politics, science and economics flourished on different principles in other parts of the globe. In the 1949 text, just 45 pages out of 747 are devoted to the Far East and then under the title “as the Europeans Found It.”
The 1949 text does not recognize Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism, or Judaism. The history of the globe is the history of Christianity and its spread and its development. The history of the globe was the spread of European powers over the benighted and technologically inferior other worlds mentioned only in the context of the western powers.
Today our students encounter paleo-anthropology, archeology, demographics, sociology, comparative religions as well as history and they do so systematically across all of the continents and over the 10,000 years of culture and civilization. It’s a heady process and takes an entire year, but it’s also a terrific adventure.
Today globalization is not an aspiration: it’s a reality. Only sixty years separate us from an attitude in academia that today feels risible in its narrow and parochial focus. We historians strive to constantly update and broaden our expertise to keep our focus on the vast varieties of human experience.
It’s a splendid ride! Everything old is new again as we make the strange familiar to students who will face globalization their entire lives. This, too, is part of the Humanities!