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Keeping the 'Story' in World History: Theme, Narrative and Student Engagement in the Survey Class

Jeff Pardue


     Anyone who teaches a history survey class struggles to navigate between the general and the specific. Themes need to be explored to make sense of the past, especially large segments of the past; and detailed stories, or narratives,1 need to be told to give life to these themes. In world history the problem of striking the right balance is magnified by the scope of the course as well as the field's self-imposed challenge to be more inclusive and unbiased than traditional surveys.

     It is this tension between the general and specific that I would like to explore in this article, and in particular, how there seems to be a growing imbalance for theme at the expense of narrative. The imbalance is understandable given the real risks associated with using stories: they take precious time away from the global focus of the survey course; they can reinforce biases if drawn more readily from one national or civilizational viewpoint; and they can easily overemphasize the role of individual agency to students already prone to Hollywoodized versions of history. On the other hand, we should not forget the fact that most of us entered this profession precisely because of the stories. I will argue that we can use a student's interest and understanding of narrative to aid the global themes of the world history survey course. I will examine how the nature of the world history survey demands a thematic or conceptual approach to the material but also look at what place human-focused narratives can have within this approach. In short, I want to find a way to teach the survey that remains a genuinely world history, but one that is effective with students.

     My own experience with the tension between theme and narrative dates back to one of my first teaching assignments. The history department at the small liberal arts college that hired me had a policy of assigning full-time faculty members to mentor the incoming adjuncts. My mentor was a well-respected historian of the hunter-gatherers of Mali, and, as I came to learn over the course of the year, someone dedicated to teaching a truly world history. He gave me excellent guidance and support in putting together my first survey classes. Much of his specific advice has faded since that time, but one statement he made still sticks with me: he bragged that in his world history courses, he would often go the entire semester without mentioning a single historical person's name.

     At the time I accepted this approach to the world history survey both as something admirable and inevitable. Any initial concerns I dismissed as that of a novice and former English major. Indeed, like many new instructors in the field, I eagerly wanted to see the 'big picture' and embraced the comparative, the general, and the thematic.2 Also similar to many of my peers, I was not trained specifically in world history, and this lack of confidence in areas outside my own (of British imperial history) contributed to a reliance on the general. When preparing my first world history survey, I broke down civilizations into their political, economic, social and cultural foundations initially just to make sense of them myself, but later to draw comparisons with other peoples around the globe for the students. What I found was that more and more details were squeezed out of the course as I made way for the major points I wanted to get across. The story of Oloudah Equiano, for example, had to go because I needed more time to discuss the supply and demand of the Atlantic slave trade. The blow-by-blow account of the capture of Constantinople was removed to include a more thorough discussion of the evolution of the Ottoman military before the eighteenth century. Time and again I found myself debating the same questions: how can I justify this story in a world history course? Why privilege this person or event when it means sacrificing so much other material? Won't students get the wrong idea? And what's the point of having students explore the life of a particular person in a class about the history of the globe? I had not gone as far as my mentor, but more often than naught, I found myself taking the story out.

     I also found the tension between theme and narrative played out in the textbooks I considered. For most, the actual body of the text had become a list of various themes to be covered, beginning with government or the environment and ending with daily life or art and architecture. As the field has become more mature, the categories have become correspondingly more abstract. In a recent article David Neumann has observed "[c]hapter subheadings from popular college-level world history textbooks include titles like "The Hellenistic Synthesis," "Imperial Parallels," "Expansion and Collapse," and "Centralization and Militarism in East Asia, 1200-1500." Dense text is even more opaque than these titles."3 And in a large 2004 review, Gilbert T. Sewall found that "[i]n order to meet demands for scope, diversity and readability, world history textbooks abandon narrative and complexity."4 Specific events, biographies or other colorful details are more often relegated to textboxes and sidebars, or eliminated altogether. Some texts attempt to teach global history through a series of narratives, but these are in the minority.5 The debates that surround world history textbooks have more to do with which categories to include, the amount of attention one subject should have relative to the others, or the focus of the work generally (e.g. political biases or Eurocentrism). If there are concerns about narrative it is usually over which narratives to include and not how many.6

     Some of the reasons for the prominence of theme and the problems with narrative in the world history survey are not difficult to discern. The sheer scope of a survey course, not to mention a world history survey, requires that we discuss the past using abstract organizing principles such as nation-building, class, technology, and then address these themes across time and peoples. As Jerry H. Bentley has noted, stories without such themes would become "an incoherent collection of infinite unrelated and unrelatable micro-narratives."7 The organizing principles and categories in modern world history classes have changed from the surveys of the past, but not the fact that such organization is needed. Indeed, many of those who have struggled with defining world history have concluded that it is more of a way of doing history than it is a separate, or new, set of information. In his book A New World History, Ross Dunn argues that "world history is not so much a matter of deciding what data should be learned as it is a way of addressing historical problems that resists their being caged behind civilizational, national, or ethnic bars."8

     Another problem with stories in world history is the discipline's roots in the Western Civilization survey. Early attempts at creating world history courses in the post-World War II years resulted in modified Western Civilization classes which still "ignore[d] the histories of about three-quarters of the globe," according to an early critic and world history pioneer, Leften Stavrianos. He went on to argue that "the end product is neither fish nor fowl, neither Western civilization nor world history." 9 Moreover, these courses often came with the same Eurocentric grand narratives, becoming yet another version the "triumph of the West" story.

     More recent scholars and teachers have largely realized Stavrianos's "global perspective" in framing their world history surveys. And, often armed with the shattering power of post-modern theory, have discredited the Eurocentric grand narratives since "the historical record has so often mocked their universalizing visions and their promises of reason, progress, prosperity, freedom, liberation, equality and justice."10 As a consequence instructors may significantly reduce—or like my mentor, virtually eliminate—narratives altogether for fear of universalizing local or national experiences.

     Finally, the way students approach and understand historical events poses another problem for using stories in the survey, since they reinforces a number of biases and misconceptions. In order to explore this point more fully, it is important to first understand how students think about history: what they know and how they process information, specifically historical information.

     While it is difficult to generalize about all students, studies by W.G. Perry and Schommer et al suggest that incoming college students believe knowledge to be isolated bits of information. These "facts" are dispensed by an authority—the professor or the textbook—and are "learned" by memorization.11 We can all relate to this when, say, after three weeks of exploring a topic in depth, we get the deflating question, "will there be any dates on the exam?" When it comes to analysis, incoming students believe that explanations are black-and-white, with no shades of grey. There is truth and untruth, good and evil, the correct explanation for why something happened and the incorrect explanation.

     When it comes specifically to the discipline of history, additional factors apply to student understanding. Like everyone else, students bring their own assumptions and experience to their interpretations of the past. Those who have studied this, like Sam Wineburg, have found that even superior students find it extremely difficult to free themselves from these suppositions. They may correctly make sense of an event, but then turn around and draw a conclusion in direct contradiction to it based on pre-conceived ideas. Wineburg's conclusion at the end of his particular study was that historical thinking is "neither a natural process nor something that springs automatically from psychological development. Its achievement…actually goes against the grain of how we ordinarily think."12 Wineburg's study dealt with the American Revolutionary War; hardly a surprise, then, when first-year students in our world history surveys struggle.

     A second point to be made about students' historical understanding is that they believe historical change occurs primarily through individual agency.13 They have little understanding of larger forces. Part of the explanation here is due to their intellectual maturity, which is still in the process of developing an ability to sympathize and empathize beyond themselves. The world still revolves around them and it is difficult, for example, to put on the shoes of a Ming dynasty peasant or an Aztec priest. Indeed, even imagining life before social media seems a stretch at times. Another factor is our popular (Western, especially American) culture, which worships the individual. Our current fascination with superhero movies and celebrity culture highlight the point. It may be a particularly American penchant because of our own historical mythology—we idealize the cowboy, the entrepreneur, and other self-made individuals who didn't cave in to the system.

     In short, when it comes to history, our students generally come to our classrooms with something akin to Thomas Carlyle's view that history is the biographies of great men.14 They may be progressive enough to think that women should be included there but that's about as far as their sophistication goes.

     Finally, a note about their analytical skills. Most high school history courses use one text, reinforcing the idea that there is one truthful "story" to be told. 15 This is why, as Cynthia Hynd-Shanahan and others have found, incoming freshmen students have enormous difficulty in analyzing historical texts. Unlike historians, who evaluate the source, contextualize the material, and corroborate it, students merely look at the document for "facts". If they have any critical strategies, they are very general, usually something along the lines of memorizing important historical dates.16

     Thus the dangers of using narrative in the introductory survey class are serious. In addition to the problems that they present in terms of limiting one's coverage of other material, they confirm an almost ubiquitous assumption among students that studying history is about studying certain individuals (i.e. "important people") and that history moves according to the actions of these people. But if the concern is that students place too much emphasis on the role of the individual, analyze too often in terms of stories (with protagonists, conflict (usually between good and evil forces), resolution and denouement), in short, see history as too much like a Hollywood movie, shouldn't we abandon it altogether and focus on themes?

     I would argue no. Instead we should work with their familiarity of narrative as a tool to understand the global past. Instead of seeing narrative as a liability, we should see it as a doorway through which—properly guided—students can access world history.

     The first and simplest objection to abandoning narrative is that history will become an impersonal and meaningless abstraction. We need narrative to make sense of the thematic. Without concrete examples to illustrate our major points, these themes will flitter away to nothing, especially when discussing the "really big picture" of world history. As Patrick Manning argued: "To assess the dynamics of world history…we need narratives to trace the development of difference and interdependence, as well as the affirmation of sameness and dominance."17 Indeed, the unwillingness to use stories out of fear of bias—or as a strategy to abandon the Western Civilization model—has ironically led to confusion about the world history project altogether. This is what Micol Seigel means when he argues that "[w]orld history's central problem is the fuzziness of its story."18

     Second, narrative-free history is bad history. History is about people (or, to put it in R.G. Collingwood's terms, "actions of human beings that have been done in the past"19); history is not simply abstract laws, theories or themes. As much as we all believe that history is influenced by forces greater than any individual, this doesn't mean individuals don't matter. Isaiah Berlin criticized Tolstoy along these lines. In War and Peace, his epic story about Napoleon's invasion of Russia, Tolstoy pointedly argued that Napoleon made no individual impact on the sweeping tide of history; that he was nothing more than the pawn of larger forces. Berlin maintained that this de-humanized vision of history was just as much a fallacy as the great-man theory: "Tolstoy's notion of inexorable laws which work themselves out whatever men may think or wish is itself an oppressive myth; laws are only statistical probabilities, at any rate in the social sciences, not hideous and inexorable 'forces'."20

     Finally, we need to retain as many of our stories as possible in order to recapture the shared human experience. Because our scope in the world history survey is so broad and because we are primarily a text-based discipline we sometimes lose this idea. It is much easier to focus on information that we can quantify, systematize, and document. But how much of the human experience is left out of this? Much of our ability to recapture past experiences relies on an ability to relate and sympathize. This is only possible if there is another individual story with which to relate.

     So how to incorporate both narrative and theme? The first suggestion, already utilized extensively no doubt, is to put stories in the service of larger themes. Tell the story of Lady Murasaki, but use it to explore Japanese women, or the Japanese upper classes, or Japanese literary culture. Along similar lines, one can assign interactive exercises based on specific stories.21

     Another suggestion is to farm out the thematic leg work to the text book. I think world history survey texts are fated to provide this important but often thankless task. There are simply too many thematic bases to cover to leave any room for specific narrative digressions. But this leaves the door open for the instructor to concentrate on particular stories, and have the students rely on the text for their thematic overviews. Obviously there needs to be constant interaction between the two, but this relieves much of the pressure off of the instructor.

     To counter the biggest problem of our students seeing history through the "great man" lens, we should make more use of multiple sources. Exploring a particular event or person is a perfect exercise for this. Shanahan et al found that with proper guidance from the professor, students using several sources to examine a single historical topic were able to move beyond the simple "names and dates" idea of history. They began to see historical knowledge as more relative, to question their source material more, and to make comparisons with other material that they had studied.22 But it was only through exploring a particular topic in depth (in this case, the Gulf of Tonkin incident) that they were able to develop these skills. In other words, they needed the story to make sense of the themes.

     In my own surveys, I have tried to strike this balance between theme and narrative by reducing the number of themes I hope to cover in class and giving ample time to a number of important narratives. For example, I spend a week on the Opium Wars. After briefly laying some of the thematic groundwork discussing global trade, imperialism, and the nature of state power in China, we go over the specific narrative of events in the 1830s which led to conflict. We then discuss several primary documents from both the British and the Chinese, as well as from current secondary sources. This exercise has a number of natural advantages, the first of which—and perhaps most important in this context—is that it is a genuinely dramatic story. By getting students invested in these events at the human level we can move more easily to analysis. It deals with a legion of issues that translate easily today, especially those concerning drugs—smuggling, arguments for their legalization or prohibition, national sovereignty, state enforcement mechanisms, societal reactions, and the like. Coping with the variety of viewpoints at the time, on both the British and Chinese sides, helps exercise their critical abilities, especially with regard to sources and context. By the time the week is out, this story is no longer simply an "example" of some particular theme, and certainly not a distraction on an overly narrow micro narrative; it has become a metaphor for a complex chapter of human history. Since there are innumerable stories of similar power in world history, these can easily be incorporated into a survey course.

     This article has been an attempt to reconcile two seemingly competing interests of mine: my love of stories and my dedication to world history. Like most of us I would bet, I became interested in history initially because of the great stories, and especially because of the exceptional history teachers I had early on, who were brilliant story-tellers. As our historical knowledge and skills grow, we need to make sense of these stories by studying historical philosophies and themes, but these latter elements were not the inspiration for our entry into the field. Likewise, I became interested in world history because it was refreshing to look at the history of the whole of humanity without traditional, especially national, dividing lines. But I don't want to look at it simply from the empyrean heights of "Big History" and other very thematically-oriented approaches to the discipline. For it to be successful, the world history survey must have the stories there to give color, meaning and inspiration to instructors and students alike.

Jeff Pardue is Professor of History and Interim Head of the Department of History, Anthropology, and Philosophy at the University of North Georgia. He can be contacted at


My thanks to Dr. Mary Carney for offering helpful comments on this article.

1 I am defining narrative here and throughout this article in the basic literary sense of story, especially a story on a human level. Equivalencies would be micro-narrative or local narrative. I do not mean grand narrative or meta narrative, large-scale stories laden with an ideological viewpoint.

2 For an example of the enthusiasm and struggles of new world history instructors, see the blog entry by Gemma Norman, "The fundamental interconnectedness of all things.': The Benefits of Global History Courses," The Imperial and Global History Network, April 4, 2014,

3 "Teachers as Mediators of Conceptual Complexity in World History," World History Connected 9, no. 3 (October 2012).

4 World History Textbooks: A Review (New York: American Textbook Council, 2004), 4.

5 For example, see Robert Tignor, Jeremy Adelman, Stephen Aron, Stephen Kotkin, Suzanne Marchand, Gyan Prakash, and Michael Tsin, Worlds Together,Worlds Apart: A History of the Modern World from the Mongol Empire to the Present (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2002).

6 Peter N. Stearns, "World History: Curriculum and Controversy," World History Connected 3, no. 3 (2006); Michael P. Marino, "High School World History Textbooks: An Analysis of Content Focus and Chronological Approaches," The History Teacher 44, no. 3 (May 2011), 421-446.

7 Jerry H. Bentley, "World History and Grand Narrative," in Benedikt Stuchtey and Eckhardt Fuchs, eds., Writing World History 1800-2000 (Oxford University Press, 2003), 48.

8 Ross Dunn, The New World History: A Teacher's Companion (Beford/St. Martins, 2000), 6.

9 "A Global Perspective in the Organization of World History," in New Perspectives in World History, Bulletin 64 (Washington, D.C.: SCSS, 1964); reprinted in Heidi Roupp, ed., Teaching World History: A Resource Book (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1997), 8.

10 Bentley, 48.

11 W.G. Perry, Patterns of Development in Thought and Values in Students in a Liberal Arts College: A Validation of a Scheme (Harvard U., 1968); Schommer et al, "The Development of Epistemological Beliefs Among Secondary Students: A Longitudinal Study," Journal of Educational Psychology 89 no. 1 (March 1997).

12 Sam Wineburg, "Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts," Phi Delta Kappan 80 no. 7 (March 1999).

13 David Pace, "The Amateur in the Operating Room: History and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning," American Historical Review, 109, 4 (Oct 04), 1178.

14 Carlyle was a 19th-century Scottish philosopher and historian. For his theory of history, see especially his On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History (James Fraser, 1841).

15 For an overview of the challenges facing high school history teachers and students, particularly with the problem of "oversimplifying" history, see David H. Lindquist, "Avoiding the Complex History, Simple Answer Syndrome: A Lesson Plan for Providing Depth and Analysis in the High School History Classroom," The History Teacher 45 no. 3 (May 2012), 406-407.

16 Cynthia Hynd-Shanahan et al, "Thinking Like a Historian: College Students' Reading of Multiple Historical Documents," Journal of Literary Research 36 no. 2 (2004), 142-143.

17 Patrick Manning, Navigating World History (Palgrave, 2003), 116.

18 "World History's Narrative Problem," Hispanic American Historical Review 84, 3 (August 2004), 434.

19 R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford UP, 1946; 1956), 9.

20 Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1970), 29.

21 For example, see Michael S. Bisson, Teaching Complexity and Ambiguity in an Introductory World Prehistory Course," Canadian Journal of Archaeology/Journal Canadien D'Archéologie 37 (2013), 1-20.

22 "Thinking Like a Historian," 168.

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