Can one civilization and then the next still be called world history?

Jeremy Greene's picture

Dear Fellow H-Worlders,

I am seeking out your expert opinions on whether a course that is structured in the following way could still (in 2018) be considered world history:

Topic 1: The emergence and expansion of Islam to c. 1500

Topic 2: Indian history to c. 1700

Topic 3: African history to c. 1700

Topic 4: North and East Asian history to c. 1700

Topic 5: European history to 1450

Topic 6: European western expansion and it impact on civilizations of Central and South America

Topic 7: Renaissonce and the Reformation in Europe

Topic 8: Scientific Revolutionand the Enlightenment in Europe

The following are from the World History I scope and sequence from the new - January 11, 2018 - draft of the "Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Framework" and they are nearly identical to the old standards from 2003.

Link to standards:

Link to public comment:

My two thoughts: 1) this is a world civ course and 2) this is a West and the Rest course too.

So what do fellow H-Worlders think?

Jeremy Greene

Chelmsford HS

Hello Jeremy,

Thanks for posting this question. I teach a "Global History to 1500" course as an intro level college course, so I have spent a good deal of time thinking about what the difference is between a truly global approach and a warmed-over western civ.

From the list you've sent, everything hinges on whether "Indian history" is the history of India, or the history of the First Peoples of the Americas. If the former, this is just West and the Rest. If the latter, it would more closely approach what I consider Global History. Anything that doesn't tell the expansion of humans into the Americas from their own perspective, and not just "what Columbus found when he arrived," is not taking a global approach.

Monica Green
Arizona State University

In my (less than expert) opinion I think this is more of a 'history of the world' syllabus rather than World History per se. The academic field of world history is becoming more about the study of connections and movements across national and continental boundaries rather than the pick-and-mix study of isolated moments and locations. Topics 1 and 6 seem to come close to the world historical framework, but the other topics are too isolated and static to truly be considered World History in the modern sense.

Dear Jeremy,

I think your points 1) and 2) are exactly right, although I think it does break some ground into *world history* with the sections on S. Asia and Africa, which give ample attention to their overlap/interaction with the Islamic world. But it has too little to say about 'world-historical' (strictly speaking, hemisphere/oikumene-wide) developments. That said, I think in practice it may be hard to teach up-to-date-in-2018 world history at the secondary level just because the textbooks and other non-specialist literature haven't caught up yet.

Some things that struck me, and how I would do this differently given what I know of the state of scholarship--which again may not be that accessible for secondary level educators--a lot of this stuff needs to be written into textbooks:
Most of all, the general lack of explicit mention of world-historical events and processes. For example, the Silk Road is referred to in passing as trade routes connecting East Asia and Europe, whereas they mostly did not reach Europe (the Mongol empire is the exception)--the Silk Roads mostly connected China (to a lesser extent, Korea) w/ South Asia and the Middle East. This is not difficult information to find, if you look: Valerie Hansen's textbooks: The Silk Road: A New History and China: the Open Empire cover this, as does a lot of literature on the Islamic world, e.g. David Morgan's textbooks: Medieval Persia, and The Mongols. It's harder to find this information for the post-Mongol period, so I can give them a pass on that. But the spread of Buddhism to East Asia and the 5th-7th c. silk road more generally is something I would emphasize in a *world-historical* class.

The Ottoman Empire is part of the 'Islamic world' section but left out of the Europe section--the Ottomans were in fact as much or more a European power than an Asian power since c. 1400; most of the Arab world was ruled from a European capital from the early 16th c. until WWI. From a properly world historical, as opposed to world civilizations approach, the rise of the Ottoman Empire is part of the rise of Europe/European Empires like the Spanish-Habsburg Empire. The concept of 'gunpowder empires' or early modern absolutist empires has been around for a while, there are even college-level textbooks taking this approach to the history of the Islamic world, and I think it's becoming increasingly clear that East Asia fits into that framework as well. That seems to me like something it would be feasible to implement as a framework for secondary ed. world history classes.

A world historical approach should present the European Renaissance in the context of hemisphere-wide developments--not just the 'Timurid renaissance' in Central Asia but the interaction between Italian city states, Spain, and the Ottomans and Safavids in a Mediterranean sphere. In some respects this has been well-documented for a while, in other respects (such as the importance of apocalypticism both within regional histories and as a framework for narrating and comprehending large-scale political developments), the literature is more recent (see e.g. Azfar Moin, The Millennial Sovereign). But ideally a world historical approach should see, for example, Columbus' voyages not just as a result of European economic & cultural development and the distant legacy of the Mongol Empire and the Crusades, but also the rise of the Ming state, global economic trends, currency flows, the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, and the circulation of apocalyptic ideas in the late-15th century Mediterranean. It's hard to see how such a world historical story could be told within this region-by-region framework of organization.



Pardon my ignorance, but I'm not sure what a "world" history is.

a) To speak of a history of ... implies that there is an object of study. This object could be (an often is) taken to be a system, which by definition is a closed set of causal relations. But surely humans groups did not originally stand in a specific set of causal relations. World Systems theorists might suggest some early dates for world "systems", but it seems the world as a coherent whole is a quite modern phenomena and not yet universal.

b) There are other ways to approach world history. One might be that it is a history global in scope. Since it is impossible to come to grips with everything within that scope, perhaps it is world wide in the sense that that all major kinds of social orders, all kinds of development, all kinds of cultures etc. are sampled. But, of course, this is an impossibility, for such categories assume an idealist typology that today strikes us as unscientific. The tendency today is to assume that every people and every trajectory is some significant way quite unique. On what basis can one then one select?

c) Another approach might be to posit specific instances as manifestation of a law-governed historical process. For example, each history in the world demonstrates an evolution or progress toward a telos, which "happens" to be capitalism. "Big history", for example, subsumes local specifics under an evolutionary scenario, not in the biological sense of speciation, but in the sense that any state of affairs is the probable outcome of a prior state of affairs. Your outline strikes me of being of this kind. Taking it superficially, all aspects of world history lead to Europe and its modernity.

d) Yet another approach might simply be to present various histories as a collection of narratives. Somehow mere descriptions convey meaning or a historical consciousness that makes our actions wiser or more efficacious. Some argue this, but I've never understood it.

e) My own preference is to see world history as the result of applying a historiographic method to the evidence. This method would be a) scientific and b) bring understanding to processes as a way to construct meaning to responses to an unlimited diversity of specific facts. What then learns from history is not truths about specifies societies, but a warranted method that supports efficacious action today in the face of unique circumstances. Since a scientific process theory barely exists, it is of no help in answering your questions.

In responding to your two questions, I disregard that the word "civilization" is probably unacceptably ideological. So is your course that of a world civ course? Probably so in terms of definition (c) above. The problem is not that it lacks balance ("the West and the Rest") but that it is implicitly teleological. Balance is subjective, and if capitalism is dominant today, if one takes an evolutionary approach, I suppose it would have to be the end of history.

Haines Brown

I would definitely agree with you two points, that the course seems like a world civ. class and a "West and the Rest" focused narrative of "world history." I think the best way to implement more recent ideas of world history into the course topics provided would be to reorganize these topics to reflect the world historical ideas of 2018.

Instead of organizing topics by a specific time period in a particular area, find the major trends/themes of these societies and have those be the topic headers that lead the discussions for the course. Yes, this course could (generally) be considered world history because it is a history course that looks at the histories of various countries in the world (though the European history seems to push farther into the "modern period" than the other areas - which I don't like). But from the current ideas of the field, I don't think it should make the cut. I think you can cover the same historical points in a way that will allow for a global perspective of these histories, rather than be bounded narratives, which this course seems like it could easily fall into. These are my opinions, but I am very skeptical that the standards of this course have not been updated since 2003. This is a major oversight in secondary education in history and it should be readdressed.

Hi Jeremy,

To clarify for those who haven’t looked at the proposed standard underlying this, this is from the proposed revisions to the 2003 Massachusetts K–12 social studies standards. It’s not a course outline, but a set of topics under which the learning objectives are organized. It’s also the first year in a two-year sequence; the second year picks up with the industrial revolution and imperialism, and basically organizes its objectives into chronological rather than geographic topics. Either way, the standards don’t (as far as I can see) mandate a particular lesson plan or sequence of lectures, so I would assume that teachers are free to organize lessons in a manner that makes it less of a one-civ-after-another parade.

I think your concerns have foundation, though. Given that exactly half the underlying objectives in the World History I standard deal with Europe or the West in some manner, it does seem like a West-and-the-rest approach (or what I think of as Western Civ with Asia and Africa bolted on). The parade-of-civs approach to the non-Western topics reinforces this: there’s a mainstream of world history, the topics imply, and that happens in Europe. The rest we’ll talk about as discrete units that are implicitly disconnected from that mainstream. That said, I think the year one portion of the standard is actually less problematic in that respect than the year two, which abandons the one-civ-after-another topics for an entirely Western-centered chronological approach that really seems more like Western Civ than world history. (Basically, except for the present-day rise of China and the “Ethnic and religious conflicts, genocide, and terrorism” topic, the non-Western world appears only when it is acted upon by European empires.)

To Monica’s question, the “Indian history” portion is indeed South Asia, not the Americas. There is precisely one learning objective (out of 32) which addresses the pre-Columbian Americas: “Identify the three major pre-Columbian civilizations that existed in Central and South America (Maya, Aztec, and Inca) and their locations. Describe their political structures, religious practices, economies, art and architecture, and use of slaves.” This appears under the Expansion of Europe topic. This is a problem, for reasons that are probably obvious to anybody reading H-WORLD.

Ultimately, though, I think the biggest problem with the standards is that the one-civ-after-another approach they’ve taken lends itself to teaching the non-Western world as static and essentialized. For example, take objective 11: “Analyze the political and cultural aspects of Chinese civilization and evaluate the impact of these elements on the growth and continuity of Chinese civilization to the beginning of the 19th century.” So... I have to come with some way to encapsulate Chineseness in a way that can comfortably encompass the Zhou, Song, and early Qing periods, along with everything in between? Meanwhile, Europe gets to be dynamic for an entire semester.

Another problem that’s puzzling me is that the standards appear to ignore the ancient Near East and Mediterranean entirely. The first objective that appears in that part of the world concerns Christianity—there’s nothing at all on Bronze Age Egypt or Mesopotamia, classical Greece, the Hellenistic world, etc. To be sure, those are overemphasized in old-fashioned Western Civ courses, but entirely omitting them from world history seems like a bizarre choice, especially because the continuing impact of Greek thought provides such a great opportunity to teach the history of the Latin West and the Islamic world as joint heirs to a single intellectual tradition. (Also, classical Greece and Hellenism themselves provide opportunities to break down East–West binaries.)

Best regards,
Thanasis Kinias
Northeastern University

Thanasis Kinias seems to sum up a good deal of the commentary here with this:

"Ultimately, though, I think the biggest problem with the standards is that the one-civ-after-another approach they’ve taken lends itself to teaching the non-Western world as static and essentialized."

My response is very different. First, unless you specify the units of study, I see no way you can discuss their interactions, or "movements across boundaries" as someone here puts it. Movements of what and where, I ask, if you do not first attempt to convey some sense of the rich life within those boundaries that might move things, people and ideas across them? I realize its a no-no to "essentialize" things like civilizations, but I am sorry, I believe that is what our words inevitably do as they seek to capture the essences of things they describe. So I say yes to "one civilization after another" as long as you also identify the ways they interacted and - to speak unfashionably - "appropriated" one another's cultures. (Cultural appropriation being basically all of history really and certainly all of what is involved in the interactions part of it.)

With the specific outline Jeremy Greene gave us, I have several problems. First, I do not comprehend why it starts with Islam. I see no way to plunge into Islam without first covering, at least, Judaism, Christianity, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Byzantium and Persia, none of which get mentioned here at all. As for the West and the Rest problem, I confess to being tired of that formulation as a pejorative.

The last three of Jeremy's topics put a stress on the West that I believe is both unavoidable and appropriate, which is why our histories keep doing this, despite all the complaints. It was at around 1500 that the West began to become easily the most dominant force in shaping world history and began to impact in ever increasing ways all other parts of the world. You cannot deal with any of those other regions in any fundamental way in the modern era without bringing their links to the West into the focus. And isn't that exactly what the valuing of "interactions" ought to lead you to want to do? It is not just a matter of praising the West, since many of the interactions were harmful. However, on balance, the Scientific Revolution of Topic 8 and the Industrial Revolution that I assume will start off the second half of this outline have transformed all of humanity, overwhelmingly for the better along with some very baleful side effects as well. So the West and the Rest, in my view, is the inescapable frame of the past 500 years.

Hi Jeremy,

Many thoughtful responses, so I'll just give a pithy one...Calling that outline (if followed) World History makes about as much sense as calling one lap around the track a Track Meet.


Mike Burns
Concordia International School Hanoi

Re. "national and continental boundaries." If we take the long view of history, if we consider the biological basis of history, then national and even continental boundaries dissolve.

I already posted a reply, but perhaps an additional diatribe will be tolerated because it raises a different issue: If I may, I'd like to widen the frame of the initial question.

A global or world wide conception of history seems peculiarly Western, having originated with UNESCO's post-WWII hope, as articulated by Geoffrey Barraclough, that exposure to other cultures will reduce the likelihood of conflict. Isn't a belief in the value of a global or worldwide historiography still largely Western? I think it important that we understand why this is so. While it might serve the interests that drive globalism and while the hope that a greater familiarity with others will bring accord may be grossly naive, its motivation nevertheless strikes me as remaining quite legitimate. Strident nationalism (or, to use a word popular today, tribalism) is a recipe for disaster greater than any other, particularly in our nuclear age.

We need to address the fact that historiography is in a sad state today compared to the late nineteenth-century. It was then assumed by Europeans that historical consciousness is the keystone of liberty (I've been unable to find the source of this view, although it is often attributed to Lord Acton). A measure of the decline in historiography's esteem is the enormous investment in it once made by national states. A good example but not unique is the Monumenta Germaniae Historica. Of
course their belief that historical consciousness is liberating rested on an assumption that it was the state that liberated or civilized its citizens. We probably no longer believe this today, but does it mean that historical consciousness no longer serves to liberate? If not, why then bother to study history? Surely any significant pedagogical investment must be justified by its enabling the student to act more effectively in the world. Without a theoretical frame, historiography becomes antiquarianism.

I don't believe the replies to the original question provide much of an answer. Many implied that we should look at the world in systemic terms rather than employ closed units bounded in space and time. But a "system" is closed by definition, a totality of the causal relations of its constituent nodes. There have been appeals to dynamical systems theory, but it is open only in epistemic, not in ontological, terms. As a matter of fact a system is by definition closed and therefore must dissipate toward a more probable outcome. Don't we feel on the contrary that history must be "open" if it is to accommodate human freedom of action? While the words ecumene, horizon, hemisphere or global sound nice, they remain closed units.

Historians are in the habit of thinking in terms of so-called "factors" (for which see David Fischer, "Historians' Fallacies) and their causal interactions. Many seem blissfully unaware that the notion of causality is problematic in the natural sciences and in philosophy and that factors are objectively ideal reifications. Causal interaction presumes an empirically defined potent causal agent and the effect necessitated by its properties, albeit constrained by circumstantial factors.

A systems approach utterly fails to engage change itself. For example, in mathematics a process cannot be represented by differential equations or by vector sums. A calculus is a sequence of infinitely small static states and does not engage change itself. A vector describes an initial and final state, and what happens between them is governed the principle of least action. This means that all trajectories implied by causal relations are linear, not open. Non-linear change is instead represented in mathematics by a tensor product (⊕). It defines a trajectory that is non-linear because action is continually present at every spatio-temporal point. In historiographic terms, this is equivalent to saying that a historical trajectory is determined by ongoing human activity rather than simply by existing causal potencies such as Great Men, states or factors. Needed is an action theory that is naturalistic in that it does not embrace the objective idealism typical in the social sciences, which sees action as an artifact of intention.

In empirical terms a systems approach refers to a spatio-temporally closed sphere of interaction that has elements or units that are themselves closed systems that can be unequivocally defined. Such a reliance on systems in which outcomes are determined by initial conditions (excluding a supernatural human nature viewed as a demi-urgos chipped off the divine block) lends itself to teleology. For example, if today's globalization is understood to emerge from past conditions, it becomes the implicit end of history. It carries the burden of the factors that drive or define globalization. That is, it is inherently ideological and far from liberating. Also, despite World Systems theory, it limits the temporal scope of historiography to a time when interactions on a wide scale are significant, leaving the rest, I suppose, to archaeologists.

The basic problem seems to be a Quixotic (or positivist) search for static units of analysis. Interactions, however they may be defined, still presume relations of nodes that are closed so that outcomes can be predicted from our knowledge of their properties Without them we are left with an indeterminant interactionism (Bertell Ollman's term) that is impervious to explanation. The problem is not that these nodes are usually taken to be national states, but that they are closed. The predictable outcome of their causal relations is determined by their intrinsic properties, by initial conditions, rather than being truly open because of action in a present.

My point is that if historiography is to be liberating (and survive?), we need to reconstruct what we are doing from the very start, at the very bottom. That is, to lend support to constructive action in the world I believe historiography must be in accord with the natural sciences (C. P. Snow's"Two Cultures" assumes an outdated positivist notion of the natural sciences even though he was a chemist). In particular, it must employ a naturalistic action theory rather than how it is understood in the social sciences. I also believe that given today's world, this can only be done through a world wide dialogue rather than simply among Europeans, especially of the Anglo-American variety. I suspect such a dialog can not be limited to academics but include those whose principle concern is effective action. World history probably needs to be conceived in a way that gives meaning to local histories rather than simply to define its external contingencies. As such, it would be the foundation of all historiography. I believe what is needed is a process theory that transcends the idealism of prior process theories by drawing on contemporary natural science. We need to be bold and imaginative. I fear tinkering with the historiography and defining our words better will not suffice.

All this might well strike participants here as being tendentious or presumptuous. It is often pointed out that theory only obscures the virtuous craft of historiography or the strengths of (radical) empiricism. Some are inclined to blame others for the sorry state of historiography or even deny it altogether. While these points carry some truth, there is a danger they serve only to deny, as Hans Christian Anderson put it, that the emperor has no clothes. I apologize if the points here offend or seem obscure, but perhaps their justification is the critical state of the world today and the death rattle of historiography's claim to liberate.


Your Pro West and the Rest point of view is long, and well-established. It is certainly appropriate for a Western Civ approach. But when HS students are likely to take only a single swing at a World History pináta, I believe it is crucial that we embrace as wide a framework as possible , lest students end up with a trumpian view of the world.

Thanks for all the replies. Seems like we are in agreement.

I do agree with the themes and trends approach or as the WHAP (world history AP) standards call them Key Concepts.

Furthermore, I am not sure why the Framework creators did not just adopt / adapt the WHAP (world history AP) standards with whatever additions and editions they desired.

Thanasis Kinias is correct in that teachers and departments can cover the Framework in whichever way they like. Even though that is so, I do not see that the current proposal leading to what I would call "world historical thinking" which does in my mind cross borders, political and others.

John Burack and Thanasis, the Near East and Mediterranean come in the 6th and 7th grade geography and cultures portion of the Framework. So, the geographic areas and "ancient civilizations" have already been covered - albeit at a 6th and 7th grade level.

I think I get what Mike Burns is saying but I think it is better to compare it to a US history survey doing the following start with New England until 1945, followed by the Mid-Atlantic states until 1945. Why would you do this?

Thanks again,

Jeremy Greene
Chelmsford HS

Jonathan Burack writes, in response to my critique of the proosed Massachusetts standards: ‘So I say yes to "one civilization after another" as long as you also identify the ways they interacted and - to speak unfashionably - "appropriated" one another's cultures.’

I think I should clarify that I wasn’t making a blanket argument about *all* “one civilization after another” approaches (provided we understand that term broadly enough). A course organization that treats the cultural regions of the world sequentially isn’t *necessarily* problematic; reasonable people can differ about the ideal organization of a world history survey. My comments were about the specific way that the Massachusetts standards approached it, as embodied in the standards document Jeremy Greene linked to in his original post. Those interactions and influences—appropriations, if you will—that Jonathan mentions are basically conspicuous in their absence.

And again, my concern about essentialization isn’t about a *necessary* feature of a course organization that treats cultural areas sequentially, but rather about the specific learning objectives in the standards which imply that there are transhistorical essences to civilizations—that, for example, I can teach truths about India that will apply to the Vedic era as well as to the reign of Akbar.

Thinking more about Kaveh Hemmat’s comments, the kind of connections that we think of as “real” world history—and often important causal factors—are indeed hard to treat in a parade-of-civs approach. The approach I’ve used in the past in teaching the World History to 1500 survey is to move among empires or cultural areas multiple times—so that, for example, we might move from Zhou and Han China to the Iron Age Near East to Classical Greece to the Hellenistic world to ancient India, so that we can look at contemporary linkages and comparisons. This way we can talk about, for example, the rise of monotheism among the Jews in its Near Eastern context, but also in the context of the Axial Age religious and philosophical developments among the Greeks, in India, and in China. And it opens the possibility of talking about things like the spread of Buddhism that Kaveh mentions, which would be very hard to do in the Massachusetts framework. Indeed, the standards treat Buddhism simply as part of Indian history, but then mention it again as an influence on Japanese society, with no discussion of how or when it got there. I *could* discuss the spread of Buddhism (and Hinduism in Southeast Asia) as part of the India section of a course organized according to the Massachusetts topics, but it’s harder.