Emerging Consensus about World History?
William H. McNeill,
University of Chicago, Illinois
Every scale of history requires teachers to leave
things out. Only so can the past become manageable, meaningful, and interesting.
But how to choose what to include and what to skip over? For national history
the question is fairly easy: politics is what defines a nation, so acts
of the national government take precedence; and social, economic, and cultural
history can be fitted into the political narrative that holds everything
else together. Detailed choices of what to include and exclude and how to
evaluate the political record may still be difficult, but the basic frame
and pattern of the national past remains political simply because that is
what makes it an object of historical integration.
Courses in Western Civilization, which became standard
supplements to national history in American schools and colleges in the
1930's, were constructed on a different basis. Not politics but elite culture
was taken to be what defined Western civilization, since ideas and art were
what lived on across the centuries among the various peoples who shared
that civilization. Exact choices of what ideas and what art to pay attention
to remained problematic, but since arbiters of taste had already fixed upon
an array of 'classic' authors and artists, sampling and summaries could
be embodied in courses and textbooks without much difficulty. And since
it is easy to excite the young by looking at famous works of art and by
reading passages from famous authors who dealt with religious, political,
and social questions still alive in American society, Western Civilization
courses were and still are very successful.
After World War II, when the course of public affairs
made it obvious that Americans shared the world not just with Western Europeans
but also with the four-fifths of humankind who are not heirs of Western
civilization, the need for teaching world history became obvious. But how?
What to leave out? Neither politics nor any single elite culture spanned
the whole wide world. A new principle was needed for selecting and ordering
the overwhelming body of information clamoring for attention. Finding it
took half a century, but perhaps a new consensus is beginning to emerge
among a handful of world historians as the new millennium dawns around us.
That principle may be described as ecological: asking
what it was, in successive ages, that was conducive to human survival and
the expansion of our collective control and management of the world around
us. And what, from time to time, acted in the opposite direction, depopulating
some localities and disabling or diminishing various local civilized societies.
From such an angle, energy flows captured and exploited
by humans for their own purposes becomes fundamental--the basis for everything
else human societies do. And population growth and decay serves as a rough
index of the ups and downs of human ecological success. But what drove the
overall, expansive process? The answer several historians seem to be converging
on is this: we owe our success to a unique capacity to communicate with
one another, establishing agreed-upon meanings that are readily susceptible
to change but always shape everyday behavior and sustain cooperation, both
willing and coerced, among ever larger numbers of persons.
If this is true, we can hope to understand our unique
history within the world as a whole by concentrating on the web of communication
that sustains every social group, but also seeps across all linguistic and
cultural boundaries of the entire globe. Intensified communication through
voice and gesture presumably set in among hunting and foraging bands of
emergent Homo sapiens and accelerated when fully articulate language
allowed our ancestors to create a world of agreed-upon meanings to guide
their everyday behavior, thereby inaugurating what David Christian calls
"collective learning." For whenever experience fell short of expectation,
people were provoked to adjust their ideas, alter behaviors accordingly,
and every so often they did get better results.
Changeable behavior, therefore, became chronic;
and whenever something new really worked, it tended to spread far and wide
among neighbors and neighbors' neighbors thanks to face to face encounters.
To begin with, these occurred mainly on festival occasions when small local
groups came together for dance and song and to arrange exogamous marriages.
But strangers also met whenever isolated wanderers showed up. Most often
such wanderers were restless young men who found difficulty achieving adult
status at home because of land shortages or other reasons, but sometimes
they had new skills or ideas to impart to strangers they encountered. Later
on, organized raid and trade extended and intensified contacts among strangers,
and in more and more parts of the earth this sufficed to set an autocatalytic
process of historical change in motion. The rise of cities and civilizations
resulted; and since strangers chronically mingled together in cities, the
effect was to intensify social frictions and accelerate the pace of change.
Thereafter transport and communication sporadically extended their range
and carrying capacity, eventually locking local civilizations into a single
global network. That network in turn became tighter and tighter down to
our own time when such novelties as TV, internet, and e-mail are actively
at work altering human consciousness and affecting human behaviors everywhere
in ways we can only surmise.
Throughout world history, cooperation and conflict
simultaneously prevailed within and between innumerable human groups. The
rise and dissolution of such groups--i.e., the political history of humankind--is
far too multifarious to provide a basis for world history courses. The same
is true of the innumerable forms of art and ideas that different societies
elaborated and passed on across the centuries. Still, thresholds of human
accomplishment are apparent and worth emphasizing. Such changes, for example,
as the ways human communities entered into symbiosis with domesticated plants
and animals--a process that changed both parties profoundly, and in Eurasia
and Africa diversified human society by permitting pastoralists to live
on open grasslands and to begin to interact with settled villagers through
raid and trade.
Subsequent landmarks in this always awkward relationship
between pastoralists and farmers deserve attention, too. Notable among these
was the invention of war chariots and then of cavalry tactics that expanded
the power of Eurasian horse nomads. These tactics were then reversed by
the eventual invention of reliable hand guns that destroyed nomad military
power. These changes occurred first in Eurasia, then in Africa, and even
in North America, where the rise of horse nomadry occurred only when Plains
Indians learned from Spaniards in Mexico how to ride and shoot from horseback.
Then, beginning about 100 BCE slender but
persistent caravan linkages between China and western Asia were inaugurated.
Thereafter, they were never broken off for long until railways and automobiles
came along. But goods and ideas that passed along the caravan routes of
Central Asia were soon supplemented by lethal epidemics spreading along
the same routes. Heavy die-off especially in China and Europe ensued, and
decaying public order soon reinforced population losses. The collapse of
the west Roman and Han Empires registered this set-back at the two extremities
of Eurasia. Like the heavy loss of life that took place in the 14th
century, when bubonic plague spread along the same pathways, the epidemics
of the second to sixth century CE were probably the greatest checks
that human societies suffered before imported diseases began to decimate
native Americans and other previously isolated peoples after 1500. Surely,
therefore, these devastating lethal epidemics (along with a few examples
of more local ecological disasters) and the social devolution that followed
in their wake also deserve the attention of world history teachers.
On the opposite side of the historical ledger, we
ought also to recognize the acceleration of invention and economic expansion
that shipping brought to Indian Ocean and Mediterranean shores, undergirding
classical Greek, Roman, and Indian history. Then beginning about 200 BCE,
camel caravans capable of crossing desert terrain linked much of Asia and
part of Africa far more closely than before. The innovations that camel
caravans disseminated--new crops, new ideas, and much else--in turn supported
the cultural and technical flowering of the first centuries of the Muslim
era. This was followed by an even stronger surge of invention and cultural
creativity in China beginning about 1000 CE--gunpowder, printing,
porcelain, silk production, etc.--when cheap canal transport and the collection
of taxes in money compelled millions of peasants to enter the market, selling
and buying specialized commodities. Then in the time of the Mongol Empire,
Chinese accomplishments were at least partly disseminated across most of
the Old World--along with bubonic plague.
These successive intensifications of the Old World's
interactive web were then followed by the incorporation of the Americas
and other previously isolated lands into the expanded vortex of technical
and cultural change we call modernity. In the Modern Era, the pace of change
only increased. In Europe, natural science began to change minds and affect
practical technologies even before tapping fossil fuels on a wholesale scale
(first coal, then oil and gas) launched a spectacular expansion of industrial
production and a no less spectacular acceleration of transport and communication
beginning in the 18th century. An unparalleled population surge
among disease-experienced populations of Eurasia (and crippling die-offs
elsewhere) accompanied this resort to fossil fuels in what was at first
only a small part of Europe. Between them, these twin increases in human
power and numbers still dominate our world.
Overall, we remain caught in an on-going process
of accelerating change: who can foresee the consequences? The temporary
ascendancy of western Europeans in the 18th and 19th
centuries is obvious; their retreat before newly powerful American and Russian
states and societies and the rise of Japan, then of China and India in the
twentieth century are equally apparent. Throughout, communication and local
responses to novelties of every kind affected and often distressed human
lives everywhere. But we human beings have always had to cope with change,
and by doing so became the ecologically dominant species we are. We may
even be said to have specialized in changeable behavior so as to get whatever
it is that we want. And, as specialists in change, we can perhaps even hope
to survive the enormous and obvious perils ahead--political, ecological,
In the meanwhile, courses in world history constructed
around these notions about what mattered most in times past can help to
prepare our children to live more wisely (and modestly?) in the world they
will inherit, and perhaps can actively interest them by showing how humankind's
amazing adventure in times past arose from common everyday experiences and
innumerable successful responses to disappointed expectations.
David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to
Big History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
William McNeill and John McNeill, The Human Web:
A Bird's Eye View of World History (W.W. Norton & Co., 2003)
Biographical Note: William
H. McNeill is the Robert A. Milikan Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus
of History at the University of Chicago, Illinois.