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Reading Vermeer's Hat: A Professional Reading Model for Novice World Historians

Thomas Mounkhall



     Entering the field of world history must be a daunting task for new academics. There are many quality world history monographs available that have been written since the 1980's and this trend seems to be accelerating. In addition, the title of our discipline indicates that there is an exponential amount of factual data to be processed.

     This article will specifically describe a model of a professional reading program that will allow scholars beginning to study world history to manage the field's overwhelming factual record and to visualize the subject conceptually. Its focus will be the understanding of the core themes that underlie world history. Once this process is learned, the themes can serve as a continuous guide to future professional reading of the scholar-educators and serve as a means of addressing the most challenging task for any instructor: the selection of course/lesson content. It will be argued here that once educators have developed their own core world history concept list, they will be able to use it for selecting and omitting content for any lesson in the subject area. This reading program will also address one of the consistent criticisms of our area of expertise from some in the academy, namely that our sphere of academic inquiry given its wide temporal and spatial scopes, lacks sufficient particularity. Through careful recordkeeping, which will be demonstrated in this article, instructors will be able to efficiently find clear, specific examples of the core world history themes to be addressed in any course/lesson.

     In addition to pursuing the important goals already mentioned, this article will emphasize three other salient purposes related to the work of developing scholars in our branch of learning. The first of which is a full treatment of constructed learning theory in world history. This epistemological system holds that newly acquired data is best learned when the receiver links it to mental constructs or concepts which have been previously learned. An illustration would be a learner becoming aware that the Mughal conquest of north India and later the Indian Deccan Plateau in the early-to-mid-16th century c.e. was partially made possible by the use of cannon technology which can be employed to supplement the formerly learned general ideas of imperialism and technological superiority. The very act of labeling Babur's invasion with these concepts gives thematic meaning to the new data and it also furthers the depth and breadth of the learner's understanding of world history. Application of this cognitive learning theory is a very powerful learning activity and it sits at the base of this article's entire argument.

     Consequently, this article should act as motivation for inexperienced academics to construct their own thematic list. The list provided here may serve as a template, but should be modified over time, with the main agents of change being their own reflections on the reading of professional literature and their experience in the classroom. The concepts communicated in Timothy Brook's 2008 monograph, Vermeer's Hat, cited below should thus be a starting point for cognitive activity, not as an end, but will, it is hoped, walk new world historians through a series of cognitive steps by which they can begin to develop their own disciplinary awareness.

Research Foundations for the Project: Metanarratives

     Any serious learning activity in world history as this system models must start with a clear metanarrative. For those not familiar with the term, it simply means what is the basic story that underlies any world history exercise whether that be writing a book or teaching a course. Professional historians employ metanarratives to frame research questions, to select sources and to organize their thinking on the discipline. Even though metanarratives are very powerful cognitive tools they do have a potential negative aspect, which must be cautioned against. They are merely imperfect mental constructs, that can be reduced or inflated to the level of an ideology that doesn't allow for multiple perspectives.

     Most historical studies have a metanarrative at their base. Some of them are obvious1 and some are more complex.2 World history is no exception since there are many metanarratives at work in our discipline. The compare/contrast model associated with Philip Curtin gets much attention.3 The world systems approach has also been very influential in our field.4 Two of Alfred Crosby's books have created a very interesting biological metanarrative.5 However, the overarching idea that makes the most sense to this author and is at the base of this study is the theory of William H. McNeill, which he initially articulated in his 1965 seminal work The Rise of the West.6

     McNeill's main point is that during the past one thousand years one of the most influential change agents in the human narrative has been an ever-increasing number of cross-regional connections. Consider the major alterations in human experience that have occurred from the Western European mastery of the oceans starting approximately at the beginning of the 16th century c.e. Witness Columbus in the Caribbean, DaGama in India, Magellan around the world, Bering in Alaska and Cook in Hawaii. Think of all the important changes that have developed in Western Europe, in the regions linked by these voyages and in the experience of humanity. However imperfect, McNeill's contribution allows this author to make sense of much of the world history scholarship one encounters in reading world history scholarship.

     The writer's plan of professional reading has been equally influenced by Jerome Bruner's work on constructed learning theory and William H. McNeill's aforementioned metanarrative. Bruner's contribution to constructed learning theory allowed the author to use this model thematic approach to the discipline for the goal of lending meaning to newly acquired information that I have come across in world history monographs.7 For example, the knowledge that the Safavid Shah in the 17th century c.e. forced a community of Armenian merchants to move to Isfahan, Persia and run his long-distance trade networks was completely new to this author. However, contextual meaning for this data was achieved by linking the Armenian experience to the two world history themes of forced migration and trade diasporas. McNeill's insights have helped to produce a working world history theme list, which has been complemented by much professional reading in our field over time. This combined system of world history thinking allows the reader to effectively handle the comprehensive nature of our subject. Its application allows for the rapid and historically accurate context for new data to be established.

Classification of World History Themes

     The model under consideration was set up primarily for teaching world history efficiently. Consequently, it separates past human behavior into abstract categories for emphasis purposes while fully realizing that human experience is integrated. The four general groups of world history themes are: political, economic, cultural and biological. Once again, the limitations of this process are obvious but its practical applicability will become evident as the design is developed further.

     Until the 1960's, most historiography in the United States privileged political history. For example, consider the focus on the Greek-Persian Wars and the Punic Wars in traditional world history courses. The sacrifice of the Spartans at Thermopylae and the exploits of Hannibal are important historical events that deserve consideration but their emphasis may have forced such significant topics as the Achaemenid road system and the Greek-Roman cultural synthesis in the Eastern Roman Empire to be deleted from courses. Suffice it to say that political aspects of world history deserve treatment but not to their privileged status in the pre-1960's history academy.

     As one develops a working world history theme register, the number of legitimate concepts available for inclusion is huge. In the political sphere alone one may consider the set of representative democracy, dictatorship and monarchy. Obviously, these are important to the human narrative, but each one does not directly meet the core world history notion of cross-regional processes. Great Britain of 1689 c.e. and Stalin's Communist system, and the Ming Dynasty will all appear in the world history survey, but they may not serve as central organizing ideas in this system.

     Scholar-educators must choose their operational world history theme list very carefully. This central task should be informed by a set of selection criteria. One such criterion should be whether a theme has been given serious attention by disciplinary scholars. The core list should also be individualized in that its components readily support the metanarrative of the field held by the planner. A final and basic selection component should address efficiency, which requires a relatively short list of four to five concepts in each of the aforementioned categories. Considering that the final plan for this process contains four major classifications, that creates a blueprint of a total list of from sixteen to twenty world history themes. If the selection process is rigorous, it will result in a practical, conceptual guide for teaching the discipline and it will also produce in time a clear, fundamental understanding of our field.

     A reasonable world history thematic checklist of political nature will serve as a practical model for the entire checklist. Examples of imperialism must be addressed in a world history narrative as must its counterpart—self-determination. Cross-regional war, which has at least a two-thousand-year history, belongs on my register. The large grouping of diplomacy, international law and peaceful conflict resolution also make the cut. That Dutch pirates sat off the coast of 17th century c.e. Manila waiting for the Manila Galleons to start their annual return voyage to Acapulco is one example of many that have persuaded me to add cross-regional piracy to the theme list. This blueprint is not perfect but it allows for an emphasis on global political behavior, which will, in turn, facilitate the selection of specific examples to be used in teaching.

     My economic world history concept list owes a great debt to the seminal scholarship of Philip Curtin.8 As a result, the notion of long distance trade leads the list and serves as a core component of our discipline. Curtin's influence is also quite evident in the selection of the concept of trade diasporas for the list. Armenian merchant communities working and living in 17th century c.e. Istanbul and Tehran are a fine example of this notion. The multi-national corporations introduced by the British East Indies Company and the Dutch East Indies Company in c. 1600 c.e. both qualify for the list. The final two economic themes to be included deal with technology. The transfer of technology, which can be witnessed in the diffusion of the Islamic treadle loom to Mexico after Cortez by way of Andalucía, is certainly on the register. Technological superiority completes the set of economic themes for this grouping. By considering the use of firearms by the Russian American Company's takeover of the Aleutian Island chain and its indigenous population in the 18th century c.e., the significance of this concept in the human narrative is made clear.

     The movement of ideas around the world is an integral component of this suggested world history theme checklist. Ideas are powerful and they have acted as influential change agents in the human story. Consequently, cultural diffusion tops this conceptual category. The process of cultural synthesis, through which local peoples mix ideas from abroad with notions from their indigenous culture, readily complements the exchange of ideas. An unfortunate result of the cross-regional diffusion of ideas is the concept of cultural superiority. The construction of a Catholic church directly on top of the Inca Temple of the Sun in 16th century c.e. Cuzco, Peru as a prime example of this type of activity. The specific process of spreading a belief system or missionary work and its complement the acceptance of a foreign religion by an indigenous group or conversion are both key elements in this thematic category. Finally, the list includes the modern phenomenon of the switch from a religious based culture to a more secular societal organization. A contemporary illustration of this development is a recent move by the then Bolivian president, Evo Morales, in which he mandated that Bolivian citizens' public identity no longer be based on a Catholic baptismal certificate but a civil certificate of birth.

     The model's list of biological world history notions has been greatly influenced by the scholarly contributions of Alfred Crosby as referenced previously. The migration of groups of humans and the forced migration of laborers top the listing. Genetic mixture, which is an unintended consequence of the cross-regional movement of peoples, naturally follows as a checklist component. If one considers the influence of the Afro-Eurasian horse on the cattle business of the Brazilian pampas and the relationship of Mesoamerican maize on the growth of the Early Modern Chinese population, the inclusion of fauna diffusion and flora diffusion on this list seems almost mandatory. Completing this section of the register is the notion of disease diffusion, which has played such a large role in the human narrative. Consider for a second the devastating effects of the Bubonic Plague on 14th century c.e. China, Mongolia, Egypt and Italy.

     As mentioned previously, the above detailed classification system of four categories of world history concepts is only suggested as a means of focusing concentration on one aspect of the human past. This method is academically efficient but it can be misleading in that it may convey the message that human experience has been compartmentalized. In fact, all of us realize that our present lives are quite complex and experience a myriad of integrated initiatives, many of which work simultaneously. Consequently, this model register of themes is completed by the category of integrated world history themes. Consider, for example, the migration of New England missionaries to the Hawaiian kingdom in the 1820's c.e. The theme of migration is present in this narrative as is the concept of cultural diffusion. Consider also the establishment of the Portuguese trading center at Macao off the south Chinese coast in 1557 c.e. Of course, Catholic missionaries were present in the colony but the two prominent motivations of the Portuguese crown were imperialism and long-distance trade.

     The model cross-regional theme register is now complete and the entire list can be found in Appendix I of this article. Since the entire project is a human construct, it is imperfect. However, it certainly addresses my metanarrative of the field. It contains twenty-five examples of cross-regional thematic encounters that have acted as significant change agents in world history. Scholar educators are strongly encouraged to create their own checklist based upon their view of the discipline. The second half of this article will demonstrate an application of the model theme list to the work of Timothy Brook in his book Vermeer's Hat.

Application of a World History Theme List in a Professional Reading Program: Vermeer's Hat

     Timothy Brook's 2008 monograph, Vermeer's Hat, is an innovative and interesting contribution to world history scholarship. One of its many strengths is the use of painting as a vehicle for developing important insights in our discipline. Brook is at least in partial agreement with William McNeill's metanarrative of cross-regional contacts as important change agents in the human narrative. His book addresses specific examples of seventeen of the twenty-five world history themes on my own thematic checklist. As a result, I found it a great monograph to employ for illustrative purposes.

     Each chapter in Brook's book has many clear illustrations of the world history themes on the model list. Chapter three entitled A Dish of Fruit contains specific examples of eight of the model concept list and therefore will be employed for demonstration purposes. For example, page sixty-five has a fine illustration of an Early Modern trade diaspora in its description of the first Portuguese trading colony set up in 16th century C.E. Macao off the coast of southern China. A second interesting example deals with the theme of technological diffusion and is to be found on page sixty-one. Here, Brook describes the development of a tin-glazed ceramic process by Medieval Muslim artisans for the purpose of approximating the quality of blue and white Chinese porcelain, which they had come into contact with by way of the Silk Roads. Through Muslim expansion into al-Andalus, the pottery process became the core productive technique of Italian majolica and later talavera ware from Puebla, Mexico. This chapter also has clear exemplars of political global themes such as imperialism and cross-regional war and cultural concepts such as cultural diffusion. The illustrations in this paragraph should be sufficient to indicate the thinking and classification process to a reader as he/she reads Brook's text. The entire list of world history themes from Chapter three and their relative page references can be found in Appendix 2.

     At this point in this article, it is important to re-emphasize the positive contributions that a reading program of this nature can make to a serious, novice world historian. Let us say for example that new world history scholars are reading chapter three of Vermeer's Hat and on pages sixty-three and sixty-four they encounter brand new information for them about 17th century c.e. Dutch piracy in Southeast Asian waters. If they have not previously developed the conceptual understanding of piracy, there is a good probability that the new data will pass through their brains and be lost in a sea of novel information. However, if the world history concept of piracy is well developed and contained on a basic conceptual list, the novice scholars can readily give thematic meaning to the new information. In other words, the Dutch capture of the Santa Catalina with its fifty tons of Chinese porcelain in the Strait of Malacca in 1603 c.e. will immediately be placed in the category of piracy by the reader. This cognitive process, which appears quite simple, is in fact a very powerful learning activity that facilitates long term retention of the facts about the capture of the Santa Catalina. At the same time, this epistemological act both deepens and widens the scholars' general understanding of the discipline.

     For a second illustration, we turn to the reading of chapter five. In this example let us assume that all the following world history themes are in the reader's list and that they are all understood at the thematic level: long distance trade, technological diffusion, cultural synthesis, flora diffusion and integration of cross-regional processes. On page 119, the readers become acquainted with new knowledge of a late 17th century c.e. Dutch Delft plate that shows a Chinese celestial figure smoking tobacco. As the readers think about this data, they realize that tobacco has its origin in the Americas. Upon further reflection, the readers scan their entire list of world history concepts and decide quite reasonably that tobacco smoking in China is a clear illustration of flora diffusion. The new world historians read on and on page one twenty-six they come across Brook's statement that the indigenous American notion that smoking is a vehicle to the spiritual world was also transferred to Tibet in Early Modern World History. The readers possibly consider placing this East Asian information in the category of cultural diffusion. However, upon further thought, they realize Brook's main point and they categorize the Tibetan behavior as an example of cultural synthesis. It would be instructive for the readers of this article to read chapter five in its entirety and discover the specific illustrations of these world history themes that have not been identified in this paragraph: technological diffusion, cultural diffusion and integration of cross-regional processes.

     For new world history scholars, it is important to realize that learning and teaching world history are complementary tasks. Too often in the academy, the study of historical content is privileged and the teaching of the discipline is relegated to a second or third tier of status. This certainly should not be the case. If one teaches our subject well, the educator's overall understanding of our discipline will be both deepened and broadened. In conjunction with this point, the next step in the application of this template is to classify all of the illustrations of world history themes in Brook's book by page number as they appear in the text. In other words, the first example of long distance trade in Vermeer's Hat appears on page fifteen of the text. After reading and classifying the details about the Dutch East Indies Company, readers should begin to list the theme and corresponding page numbers in the back of the book. As readers come across the information about the export of beaver pelts from the 17th century c.e. Quebec to France where they were fashioned into high end hats, which is on page forty-four of the text, they should readily add this page reference to the grouping of long distance trade at the book's end. The same process should be employed for each example of cross-regional themes in Brook's text that relates to the readers' total world history concept list. After employing this system with the entire book, the novice scholar will be left with a classified list of seventeen core world history themes along with numerous illustrations of each that can be employed in effective teaching of the discipline. The list stays in the book, which stays on the scholar-educators' book shelves for future reference. A model of the completed list can be found in Appendix III.

The Case for Critical Thinking Development

     In addition to focusing on world history themes, there is a second, equally important aspect of using Brook's text for academic development. That aspect is the development of sophisticated thinking skills in the novice world historians and their students. The phrase sophisticated thinking skills is here understood to refer to cognitive activity that is more demanding than the memorization of world history data. It is also important that the sophisticated thinking skills are domain specific to our branch of learning. For the new scholar-educators, their academic development will be accelerated once they are aware of the conventional modes of thought employed by serious scholars in the discipline. The case could be made that the development of advanced cognitive activity in world history students should take top priority. Most of our students will not go on to be academics in our subject area but they will be expected to function at complex cognitive levels as adults in our post-industrial society.

     A close reading of Timothy Brook's book will reveal that he is also an advocate for the development of sophisticated thinking skills in the field of world history. It is obvious from the first section of this paper, that his text features the cognitive skill of constructed learning. Each chapter is full of specific examples of important world history themes. However, Vermeer's Hat is also very strong in its emphasis on six other core thinking skills in our discipline. Compare/Contrast thought is modeled on page one hundred and sixteen as the narrative specifies the different approaches to ocean navigation in Early Modern China and Western Europe. Page sixty-six contains an excellent illustration of recognizing the relationships of events over time and place in its explanation that the sparse number of Portuguese merchants in the Early Modern Indian Ocean was an open invitation for the Dutch East Indies Company to establish its long-distance trading system in 1609 c.e. Java. Page thirty-five illustrates the world history cognitive skill of multiple perspectives in that it describes the different views of military organization held by Champlain and his Montagnais allies in Early 17th century c.e. New France. Multiple causation is displayed on page two hundred and twenty-three where the text narrates the many reasons for the growth of the 18th century c.e. British Empire. Page two hundred and twenty-three also demonstrates the influence of world history on the present in its description of the influence of the Peace of Westphalia 1648 c.e. on the conventions of world order in 2017 c.e. In addition, page two hundred and fifteen contains a clear example of the need to develop a historical sense. At this point in the text, Brook makes the important distinction between what the historical narrative is in a painting and how the 17th century c.e. Delft viewers interpreted the story.

     As is the case with the world history themes in Brook's book, it is strongly recommended that novice scholars keep their own classified list of cognitive skill types and specific illustrations in the back of the book. Once this task is completed and the book is on the book shelves, the list will serve as an invaluable tool for the planning of world history lessons. It bears repeating at this point that teaching and studying world history are flip sides of the same coin. Through the process of classifying cognitive skills and specific examples, new scholar-educators will both deepen and broaden their overall understanding of our field. A composite list of world history cognitive skills and examples from Vermeer's Hat will be found in Appendix IV.


     It is hoped that careful reading of this article by novice world historians will result in many positive results. The primary intent was that the model demonstrated here will allow scholars new to our discipline to effectively manage the exponential amount of details in our branch of study. World history addresses the entire human narrative and mastering this entire corpus of information most likely appears overwhelming to inexperienced scholar-educators. The suggested model describes a clear path for novice scholars through which they can make some conceptual sense of our subject area.

     Using this blueprint, a novice world historian will be guided toward developing a thematic understanding of our discipline. Themes or concepts are very powerful cognitive tools which have many academic applications. As novice scholar-educators develop their own world history thematic list, they will develop a conceptual perspective on our field, which is necessary to function effectively as a career academic in our discipline. A well developed, core world history theme list will also serve as a vehicle for giving clear, immediate meaning to newly acquired details in our subject. Finally, novice world historians' concept lists will facilitate efficient world history lesson planning and classroom teaching.

     Another significant positive consequence of careful reading of this article by academics new to the field is that they now have a much clearer idea of the academic merits of constructed learning theory. As demonstrated, this powerful, cognitive process fosters a necessary conceptual understanding of our branch of study and assists in identifying the core, sophisticated thinking skills of world history scholarship. Readers also now possess a systematic process of applying this epistemological activity during their ongoing reading of domain specific literature.

     The complementary relationship of world history scholarship and world history teaching is also well illustrated in this article. Readers following the processes demonstrated herein will be much better prepared to teach our discipline. As the reading program of novice scholar-educators progresses, their bookshelves will be filled with countless, specific examples of themes worthy of teaching in any form of a world history course. The complex task of world history lesson planning should be made much more efficient by the ready availability of domain specific ideas and illustrations for teaching purposes.

     In closing, it bears repeating that all activities of new scholars in the field are directed toward increasing their cognitive recognition of the depth and breadth of our discipline. This article has certainly highlighted the importance of metanarratives and world history themes in our field. Readers have also encountered examples of many of the modes of thinking that currently inform world history scholarship. Not only has this article identified these central aspects of our discipline but it has modeled a specific method of addressing all of them in a measured and efficient manner.

Thomas Mounkhall has conducted teacher-training workshops and seminars in world history from New England to Hawaii for many years, including one of the NEH-supported initial workshops in Advanced Placement World History in 1999–2000. He presently trains in-service world history teachers for the Mid-Hudson Teacher Center at SUNY New Paltz. He can be reached at



Self Determination
Cross-Regional War
International Law
Peaceful Conflict Resolution
Cross-Regional Piracy

Long Distance Trade
Trade Diasporas
Multinational Corporations
Technological Diffusion
Technological Superiority

Cultural Diffusion
Cultural Synthesis
Missionary Work

Forced Migration
Genetic Synthesis
Fauna Diffusion
Flora Diffusion
Disease Diffusion




Cross-Regional War- p. 64
Cultural Diffusion- p. 55
Imperialism- p. 66
Technological Diffusion- p. 61
Trade Diaspora- p. 65


Political Cross-Regionals:
Cross-Regional War-p. 64, 105
Imperialism- p. 66, 193
International Law- p. 68
Piracy- p. 63

Economic Cross-Regionals:
Long Distance Trade- p. 15, 42–44, 55, 59, 63, 65, 74, 88, 137, 157, 159, 161, 170–178, 189
Technology Diffusion- P. 18, 51, 61, 62, 131, 141
Technological Superiority- p. 39, 180
Trade Diaspora- p. 65

Cultural Cross-Regionals:
Conversion- p. 167
Cultural Diffusion- p.- 55, 69, 126
Cultural Synthesis-p. 126, 218
Missionary Work- p. 203–204

Biological Cross-Regionals:
Disease Diffusion- p. 51
Flora Diffusion- p. 119, 121, 124, 128, 133, 137, 147
Forced Migration- p. 91, 96, 166, 187, 198
Genetic Synthesis- p. 207
Integration of Cross-Regionals: 115, 124, 132, 133, 216


Constructed Learning- Theme/Example- too many in text to list
Compare/Contrast- p. 116
Historical Sense- p. 215
Influence of World History on Present- p. 223
Multiple Causation- p. 223
Multiple Perspectives- p. 71
Relationship of Events Over time and Place- p. 67


1 Donald R. Wright's The World and a Very Small Place in Africa (London: M.E. Sharp, 1997) places its metanarrative in the title.

2 For a complex metanarrative about United States history in global context, see Thomas Bender's, A Nation Among Nations: America's Place in World History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006).

3 For the genesis of Curtin's comparative method, see Philip D. Curtin, On the Fringes of History (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005), 129.

4 For a concise summary of the world systems metanarrative, see Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World System (New York: Academic Press, 1976), 231.

5 For Alfred Crosby's important contribution to environmental world history, see Ecological Imperialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986) and The Columbian Exchange (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1972).

6 A statement of this seminal world history metanarrative can be found at William H. McNeill, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1963), 578.

7 A seminal statement of using the thematic structure of a subject to lend meaning to newly acquired information can be found in Jerome S. Bruner, The Process of Education (New York: Vintage Books, 1963), 17.

8 For an excellent treatment of economic cross-regional processes, see Philip S. Curtin's, Cross-Cultural Trade in World History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

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