A Few Stray Thoughts on World History and its Books

A popular 10th grade world history book by Elizabeth Ellis.
Image Source.

Earlier this week Al West wrote two short posts about world history and world history books that I found interesting. World history books? Mr. West does not like them:

“Usually, they’re lacking in archaeological nous, have little or no accurate prehistoric content (a big problem when discussing the pre-Columbian Americas, Africa, and the Pacific), and repeat common misconceptions found in older material. There’s also a clear bias towards white males of the second millennium CE. The European peninsula features far too heavily in world histories, as do men (the achievements of women are naturally underplayed), noble and royal life (poor people are just too badly documented, aren’t they?), and the last five hundred years.” [1]

His second post expands the argument, taking Southeast Asia as an example. As he says, “Given that southeast Asia actually has more people than the whole of Europe including the entire population of Russia, at over 600,000,000 inhabitants” the complete absence of Southeast Asian history from many of these books is nothing short of ridiculous. [2]

Long term readers will not be surprised that I agree with this point, nor that I feel fairly peeved with how often Southeast Asia is shafted by world historians. [3]

I have little to add to Mr. West’s  defense of Southeast Asia’s place in world history so I will not pursue that theme any further. I am more interested in the general issue he has raised: what belongs in a world history book? By its nature, the scope of any world history book is incredibly, immensely large. Deciding what makes it into the book’s 300 or 400 pages is hellishly difficult – and quite inevitably you will have a host of people upset that their particular academic specialty did not get the attention it deserves. How does the aspiring world historian decide what to emphasize? We can expand the question into more general terms: as time is limited, what should the student of world history spend time studying?

I do not think there is a single answer to that question. What should be studied depends very much on why we are studying.

I can think of a few reasons one might seriously study world history. Each reason carries with it a different set of priorities.

1. You want to understand today’s world as others understand it. History is a living thing. The words and actions of dead men echo through time, popping up in poems, speeches, songs, and books thousands of years later. Most importantly, people’s perceptions of the past influence how they think about the future and how they act in the present. It is hard to understand the cultures of the world if you do not understand the history that created them.

Mortimer Adler demonstrates how to look
like a man who has read the classics.
Image Source.

If this is your primary interest then an interesting set of priorities arise. In earlier posts I have discussed Mortimer Adler‘s idea that Western civilization can be seen as a “great conversation” that binds the peoples of different times into one intellectual community, for “in the works that come later in the sequence of years, we find authors listening to what their predecessors have had to say about this idea or that, this topic or that. They not only harken to the thought of their predecessors, they also respond to it by commenting on it in a variety of ways. [4] The historical events and persons transmitted through the “conversation” are the cornerstones of a culture’s historical memory today.

The Western tradition, whose conversation began with the Greeks and the Hebrews, is survived today in two branches, one of an Islamic flavor, and the other a Christian one. The Indic tradition lives strong in the subcontinent and across Southeast Asia. The Sinic tradition forms the cultural foundation of East Asia. Various peoples add their own regional touches to these intellectual traditions, but the vast majority of humanity can find their home in one (and increasingly, two or three) of these great traditions.

This has interesting implications for what the world historian following this approach should focus his study on. The vast number of cultures that flourished and failed without leaving behind a literary legacy are of less importance in this schema; so too are the literate civilizations who did not persist to the present day – as beautiful or insightful as Mesoamerican, Mesopotamian, or Norse works may be, their voices have been lost from the conversation. If your goal is to understand the conversation it makes sense to study the loudest vices first.

The loudest voices – and by this I mean most influential to the whole tradition or most remembered today – tend to cluster around two eras. The first is the modern era; people remember the recent. The second is each civilization’s “classical age” when the intellectual underpinnings of the tradition were laid. The history – particularly its intellectual and political aspects – of these times should be a top priority, partly because they are so well known by so many people from so many different cultures today. The persisting memory of these periods is easy to see:  though they live thousands of miles apart, the average Russian, Italian, Argentine, and American can tell you who Julius Caesar was.

This approach is subject to all the standard criticism lobbied by social historians. It is inherently sexist, classist, and so forth. But these criticism miss the point. Whether or not you believe focusing on ‘great men’ diminishes history or humanizes it, you must realize that it was the dominant – and in many places the only – kind of history written for the last 2,000 years. This fact is reflected in the world’s popular culture today. Historians can argue about whether or not the actions of Octavian, Abu Bakr, Cao Cao, or Siddhartha Gautama actually mattered (or even happened), but there are millions of people alive today who think they matter. You cannot understand their world if you don’t have a knowledge of their sense of history.

2. You want to understand contemporary events from the ‘long view’. I have written about this approach to history before. Under this schema, one values history for its ability to explain how and why the world came to be what it is now. Such a study is not focused on finding the “lessons” on history, or even the dynamics that drive it, but a lens through which to understand contemporary events. It is seeing the rise of China in the context of thousands of years of empire, a financial bail out as the culmination of a century of financial consolidation, and civil war springing from decades of religious strife

I like this approach. But it also has its biases. On the grand scale it favors the recent over the ancient. Consider the civil war in Syria. To explain why the war is being waged one must explain very recent events, starting perhaps with the Arab Spring and the Assad regime’s reaction to it. But also relevant is how the regime came to power and how they favored some groups over others. Explaining this requires a longer view, looking at European and Ottoman imperial practice. One could go even further back, reaching through the sands of time until we reach the Battle of Karbala and the initial conflicts between those who would eventually be called Sunnis and Shia. But how much further could one go? In the abstract sense one can keep the story going back quite far. If you are bright enough to discern the connections you can tie any an event to almost any earlier time or place. If one is inclined, the story of Syria’s civil war could easily begin with the first hominid to step out of Africa.

This is the dilemma of the world historian who wishes to help his readers understand how the globe of today relates to that of yesteryear. The further back in time one goes the less relevant – though no less interesting – events and peoples become. This goal ensure that his book will favor the last 500 years of history over the 5,000 before it.

3. You want to understand how human societies work. This approach differs substantially from the other two. They are tethered to the world as it is – or as it is perceived – now. This approach suffers from no such limitations. It does not aim to tell the story of the humanity’s history, but to explore human history and discover the dynamics or recurring patterns that make history what it has been and what it may be.

As these histories attempt to craft generalizations and create theories that can be applied across the broad scope of world history it is here ‘Euro-centrism’ and its bedfellows do most harm. Hundreds of books have been written about the rise and fall of Rome, but there is nothing about its rise or fall that makes studying it inherently more insightful than studying the rise and fall of Angkor, Champa, Ayutthaya, or other Southeast Asian empires of note. A book that attempts to explain how human societies work by looking at only a small sliver of human society is deeply flawed and it is here that both students and authors must work hardest to capture the true breadth of world history. 

Those are my initial thoughts. Untypically, this post was written off the cuff. There are perhaps other reasons one might study world history that have not occurred to this author –  if any of the Stage’s readers study world history in pursuit of a different end than the three I shared here, please feel free to share them.


[1] Al West. “Dumb World Histories” ” West’s Meditations. 4 September 2013

[2] Al West. “South East Asia in World Histories” ” West’s Meditations. 4 September 2013

[3] This is particularly troublesome because I often rely on the bibliographies of the best globe spanning histories to know which regional studies are worth reading. For this reason alone I am incredibly grateful that Al West wrote a large annotated bibliography of books on Southeast Asian culture and history worth reading. It can be found here.

[4] See his introduction to “The Great Books of the World: Author-to Author Index.” The Great Ideas Online. No. 692. November 2012. p. 1

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I think there's another kind of world history – not one written to understand the contemporary world or a certain set of traditions, nor one intending to study how societies work in general terms. The other kind is the one that attempts to tell, as accurately as possible, what actually happened in human history.

This is the kind that takes pleasure in finding out about the history of the world, as opposed to treating it as mythology or a means of grasping contemporary events. I'm a big fan of this kind of history. In fact, I've been writing a world history of this kind for over a year now, intermittently. It only goes up to the sixteenth century, though, so it's not so good on the contemporary world. That's not the point, however!

I really don't like Big Man history, with Caesar et al. It's sexist, certainly, and I don't like it on that basis. But more importantly, it's not very accurate, and doesn't say much about how things actually happened. I get a much greater from truth than from this kind of mythology.

I suppose I am much more practical than you. ^_~

" The other kind is the one that attempts to tell, as accurately as possible, what actually happened in human history."

This still seems rather broad – to accomplish this goal, on still has to make choices of what gets in and what does not. How many chapters does the Paleolithic get? Neolithic? 1500s? You could writ a world history book that summarizes the history of the world from 50,000 BC to 5,000 BC in 5 pages and still have a book that is factually accurate. One could also write a world history book that summarizes the history of the world from 1000 AD to 2013 AD in 5 pages, and still have a book that is factually accurate.

So how do you prioritize what gets in the book and what does not?

(I am genuinely curious of the parameters you have used for your own book).

I'm trying to be as representative as possible, which is really vague. Since I'm stopping around 1500 CE, I have significantly more breathing space to discuss global developments at almost every point. So it's not so much about how much space I devote to the Neolithic as a whole, but rather how much I devote to the Neolithic in Mexico, plant domestication on the US eastern seaboard, the spread of pastoral communities on the Eurasian steppe, and so on. It's obviously going to be quite a long book, but if you take out the last five hundred years and try to stay close to the evidence we've actually got, it's possible to be representative of world history. I think.

I've got a fairly large section on Amazonia written, and good sections on the Inka and Aztec empires, the Austroasiatic expansion, Austronesian, Indo-European etc. I'm trying to include more than just war and conquest, so there's a little about the poetic forms spread by these groups, for instance. And I'm emphasising diversity – not for its own sake, and not for political ends, but just to give a snapshot of the human groups who used to live on this planet and who indubitably contributed to the development of human civilization.

My main priority is getting things right about every part of the planet and representing the main principles of human societies everywhere as accurately as possible. And the other priority is to be interesting.

I also have a 20-page-ish epilogue going over developments post-1500 as quickly as most world histories cover pre-1-CE developments.

I guess I continue to believe in the Hebraic concept of progress. I believe world history is the story of man's struggle from servitude to freedom, with special emphasis on the terrible human price that was paid to build the modern world.

I think if there is ever to be a world civilization it will be based on the Western liberal tradition, and that, therefore, other archaic "civilizations" are interesting shed light on the progress of freedom. I am speaking of history as it should be conceived here in the West, in my own civilization.

To the extent that other parts of the world come to participate in that progress I think they should study history the same way, while keeping in mind that Western civilization is not essemtially western in the geographic sense. East Asia, Southwest Asia, the Near East, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Americas have all made their contributions to our material and moral capital.

The West itself is not essentially a geographical but rather a moral reality, for which we should be grateful and the survival of which we should be mindful. Maybe we should just call it civilization and deny that word to everything that came before.

This is all off the top of my head of course.