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Remembering Leften Stavrianos, 1913-2004

Kevin Reilly
Raritan Valley Community College

    In the beginning there were L.S. Stavrianos and William H. McNeill.  To teach world history in the 1960s or 1970's was to teach Stavrianos or McNeill.  It was right that American world history teaching was initiated by two Canadians who specialized in Balkan history.  Canada provided the necessary perspective.  The Balkans offered a world in miniature, numerous languages to master, and the need to produce a narrative that transcended national needs. 1
    While the fathers of world history were never close, their similar paths were announced to each other by twists of coincidence.  Both served with the OSS during the Greek Civil War, McNeill sending dispatches from the field in Greece and Stavrianos reading them in Washington.  The same war from different sides, Stavrianos mused years later.  After publishing in Greek and Balkan history, both recognized the need to create models to teach world history.  Both applied to the Carnegie Foundation and both learned of the others application when  they received each other's acceptance letter in misaddressed envelopes. 2
    Both were materialists, Stavrianos out of Marx and a line of evolutionary anthropology that stretched back to Lewis Henry Morgan; McNeill a student of technology, demography, and ecology.  Each concentrated on their own kind of social history.  McNeill charted the impact of the tools of war, pathogens, and the interaction of steppe and sown; Stavrianos studied  political power and  social class.  Neither did much initially with Africa, or women, or culture, though both used illustrations effectively. Stavrianos had an eye for the perfect quote, primary sources that made students stand up and take notice.  Perhaps they called on world history to do different things.  Both wanted it to explain, but Stavrianos also wanted to change the world. 3
    Leften was a bear of a man.  When I first met him, I had trouble reconciling the citizen of the world I had read with the Greek fisherman I saw, and that I heard in comments like "And he's Greek to boot" when Michael Dukakis won the Democratic presidential  nomination.  Leften was a cosmopolitan Zorba.  Of all his accomplishments, he sometimes seemed most proud of his world history text used by all the students of Greece.  It was an assignment that he eagerly accepted from his old  friend and colleague at Northwestern, Andreas Papandreou.  But when Papandreou and his Hellenic Socialist Union fell under a pall of scandal, and when Papandreou left his wife for an Olympic Airways stewardess, Leften kept contact only with Margaret and the children.  4
    Leften was a deeply moral man, hungry for fairness.  He was not an angry man, but he would grow livid at injustice, especially the abuse of privilege.  As a waiter in a Vancouver skid row restaurant during the depression, he saw the humiliation of grown men who were homeless and unemployed.  It was his first university, he later wrote.  It taught him "that all societies are powerfully flawed by a gap between official rhetoric and social reality, promise and practice, and the role of a historian should be to cast light on the origins of that gap."  5
    Leften wrote with immediacy, clarity, and passion.  He enthusiastically embraced the era's goal of "relevance."  But it was a relevance that was neither teleological nor presentist.  Relevance does not mean "recent," he wrote.  "That paleolithic people worked much less than we do today, and probably suffered proportionately less starvation and malnutrition than our present 5 billion do, is of infinitely more relevance than most of the information that we get on our  nightly news reports."  He wrote like he spoke, savoring the blunt over the polite, the simple over the complex. 6
    It has become somewhat fashionable recently in world history circles to dismiss the early textbooks in the field as cookie-cutter, "Western Civ Plus."  Every new textbook that was published in the last two decades trumpeted itself as the first "genuine" world history.  This characterization is far off the mark when applied to the texts of Stavrianos and  McNeill. Different as they were from each other, they were each highly original and aggressively global texts.   Long before "Big History," Stavrianos's text devoted over  a tenth of its pre-1500 coverage to the paleolithic and neolithic eras, subjects that were not even mentioned in Western Civilization texts.  Leften's reader, the first in the field, The Epic of Man, gathered a global range of sources barely considered beyond their area specialties, many of which have since become cannonical for world historians.   His Global Rift, the first general history of the third world radically changed the teaching of modern world history.  These first efforts at defining the field were both more original and more global than many of the texts published for the growing demand of world history courses in the 1980s and 1990s.  In the efforts to meet mass enrollments in recent boom decades, the range of introductory approaches to world history has actually diminished.  Thanks to the enormously fruitful work in world history research, we have gained a depth and sophistication undreamed of forty years ago, but our range of introductory courses has been reduced by the demands of professional codification and mass market merchandising.  The loss of Leften Stavrianos tragically reduces our range further.  7

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