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The Centrality of Context in World History: Teaching the Twentieth Century

Robert Strayer


     The central pedagogical dilemma in the teaching of World History lies in the tension between inclusion and coherence. On the one hand, nothing automatically lies outside our purview as we seek to tell the story of humankind. Inclusivity has long been a hallmark of World History…and one of its greatest successes. We have largely slain the dragon of Euro-centrism and are able to deal with the history of China, Africa, pre-Columbian America, nomads, gathering and hunting peoples and more with the same seriousness and sophistication previously reserved for Western civilization. This great achievement, however, generates our most difficult pedagogical problem: the impulse toward coverage; getting bogged down in particulars; trying to cram it all in. Operating in this mode, we may well convey a sense that World History is just one damned thing, or one damned civilization, after another. In short, inclusion risks incoherence.

     We may on occasion forget that the calling of World History lies beyond inclusion. It is one of global perspective, of the big picture, of the ability to see the world and see it whole. A possible solution to this dilemma—the tension between inclusion and coherence—lies in maintaining, with perpetual vigilance, the centrality of context. So let me propose a mantra for our field: in world history, nothing stands alone; context is everything. This acts as a reminder that in World History every event, every process, every historical figure, every culture, society or civilization gains significance from its incorporation into some larger context or framework. This sensibility is highlighted in the new AP World History Curriculum Framework when it speaks about "framing historical processes and developments beyond a perceived list of facts, events and dates." Furthermore it lists "comparison and contextualization" as one of the four major "historical thinking skills."

     Beyond the day to day construction of our lessons and lectures, the remembrance of context addresses a distinctive problem of professional identity that afflicts most of us who teach World History. We operate in a culture that values and privileges specialization, but we are seldom specialists in the particulars of what we teach. We know that whole libraries have been written on practically every topic we address in our courses. Intellectually speaking, we walk on "thin ice" much of the time, constantly aware that specialists might challenge much of what we say or that students may raise specific questions to which we must plead ignorance. Here is a recipe for perpetual professional insecurity. Might that problem be mitigated if we come to define ourselves rather as "specialist of the whole," experts in finding the richest, most suggestive, and most meaningful contexts in which to embed particulars? The central task of World History pedagogy, after all, is not specialized knowledge; it lies in seeing relationships, making comparisons, grasping connections, understanding the big picture. In short, the heart of World History instruction lies in teaching contextual thinking. That is our specialization.

     Virtually every topic normally included in a World History course could benefit from contextualization. In teaching the Agricultural Revolution, for example, we might compare this enormous breakthrough with the more recent Industrial Revolution. The Silk Road trading network can be placed in juxtaposition with Indian Ocean and trans-Saharan commerce or located as a phase in a larger historical process of economic globalization. The experiences of Buddhism in China, Christianity in Western Europe, or Islam in West Africa represent episodes in the spread of these religious traditions, even as they provide case studies in cross-cultural contact and adaptation. European conquest of the Americas in the early modern era can be usefully compared to other empire-building projects of the time (Russia, Chinese, or Ottoman Empires for example) and presented as one element of a more general process of the "rise of the West." The making of an interacting Atlantic World might be juxtaposed with other sea based networks of communication and exchange in the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. And on and on….

     Nowhere is this contextual sensibility more important than in dealing with the twentieth century, arguably the most difficult time period to teach in a coherent fashion. There is too much data about so much of real importance, and we are too close to the events we study to sort out the essential from the ephemeral. As a step toward coherence in the teaching twentieth century World History, here are seven contexts, themes or questions that can help to frame the twentieth century, allowing us to keep the big pictures front and center, while providing locations for any number of particulars.

The World of the Twentieth Century: What's New and What's Old?

     This question provides an opportunity to explore the eternal historical issue of continuity and change and to challenge conventional periodization, which generally grants to the most recent century the status of a separate period in World History. For example, the World Wars were new in many ways, not least in the scale of destruction which modern technology made possible, but they had their roots and origins in older patterns of European political rivalry, in nationalism, and in the industrialization of warfare. Communism, implemented on a huge scale in Russia, China, and elsewhere, was clearly something new in human experience, although it was rooted in 19th century Marxist socialism and sought, like industrial capitalism, a modern society of economic growth and abundance. Twentieth century globalization was surely distinctive in the extent and density of connections it wrought, but world historians are prone to see it as the most recent phase of a much longer process. Whether this mix of old and new is sufficient to justify treating the twentieth century as a separate period in world history may make for an interesting class discussion.

The World of Western Domination: Eroded or Persistent?

     Clearly the West was globally dominant at the beginning of the century. To what extent did that century undermine or erode that dominance. How much of it persisted in the early twenty-first century? On the one hand, the collapse and devastation of Europe in war and depression, the loss of its overseas empires, the challenge of Islam, the rise of India and China, the growing power of the USA and USSR—all of this suggests the end of the European moment in World History. On the other hand, United States emerged as a new center of Western power; Europe recovered remarkably from the wreckage of war; the communist challenge faded away by the century's end, leaving the USA as the sole global superpower; and cultural westernization proceeded apace around the world. Here is a question that offers space in which many of the particulars of the century can find a place in a larger context.

The World of Capitalism: Threatened and Triumphant

     As an economic system, capitalism seemed solidly entrenched at the beginning of the century and arguably very successful, at least in terms of economic growth. The Great Depression displayed dramatically the internal weaknesses of that system, while the rise of World Communism represented the great external challenge to the capitalist world. Communists claimed to have found a better path to modernity—more rapid and more just. And for a time, many people saw reason to believe those claims. But communism, of course, also spawned some of the most horrific tragedies of a bloody twentieth century. And by the 1970s or 1980s, even its claims to economic superiority proved hollow. The fading of communism by century's end could be read as the triumph of capitalism. But the welfare state capitalism of that era different substantially from that of a hundred years earlier, thanks in part to the challenge of communism itself. How the recent economic crisis might alter this story line of capitalism could become the focus of a fascinating discussion relating past and present.

The World of Nations: Triumphant and Challenged

     Politically speaking, the world of 1914 was more one of empires than of nations. But nation trumped empire in the twentieth century, both as a form of political organization and as a focus of political loyalty. The nation-state also triumphed over other political loyalties: communism, pan-Africanism, pan-Arabism, Pan-Islamism. And yet, the nation-state itself has been challenged by a globalization process that undermined national sovereignty; by ethnic or regional separatism, which has broken apart any number of nations; by various efforts at world governance ranging from the UN to the WTO; by the exercise of US global power; and at least in Europe by the partial success of the European Union. So did the twentieth century witness the triumph of the nation? It is an issue that permits students to mobilize a range of particulars, placing them in the context of a big picture question.

The World of Social Promise: Fulfilled or Betrayed?

     More than any other time, the twentieth century was rich in the promise of liberation, arguably giving rise by the 1960s to something approaching a global "culture of liberation." Communists offered liberation from capitalist exploitation; feminists promised women liberation from patriarchy; nationalists sought liberation from imperialist domination; advocates of democracy worked for liberation from political tyranny; principles of "self-determination" raised the hope of many minority peoples for liberation in the form of self-respect, autonomy, or independence. We might want to ask our students to consider the extent to which these promises have been fulfilled, postponed, or betrayed in the course of the twentieth century.

The World of Industrial Society: Extended and Confronted

     In the early twentieth century, industrial societies were limited largely to Europe, North America, and Japan. By the century's end, industrialization had clearly become a global, though still highly unequal, phenomenon. Explaining the extent of this "globalization of industrialization"—the reasons for its successes and failures in various places—represents one of the most compelling intellectual, political, and moral questions of the twentieth century. That process has also given rise to at least two major challenges to the industrial project. One derived from the developing countries on grounds of equity and fairness, the so-called North/South conflict. Has the Western head-start in industrialization, born in part from imperialist exploitation, given those regions a permanent advantage in power and wealth, which limits the prospects of development for the Afro-Asian-Latin American countries? The second conflict, more fundamentally critical of the industrial project, grew out of the environmental movement on grounds of sustainability. Will the world's resource base and its environment permit the unlimited extension of industrial societies? Or will industrialization appear in retrospect as a limited and temporary phase of the human story?

The World of Religion: Diminished or Revived?

     At the beginning of twentieth century, many people, at least in the West, expected that religion was on the way out, eroded by modernity, science, education, and consumerism. There is, of course, some evidence supporting that point of view. Bearing the banner of a militant atheism, communists took the offensive against religion. Anti-clericalism in parts of Europe and Latin America sought to remove the church from public life, even as Turkey and Iran tried to restrict Islam to the private arena. Secularism spread particularly among the educated elites around the world. Declining religious belief and practice led some to speak of the "desacralization" of the West. On the other hand, Christianity of various kinds spread widely in Africa, South Korea, and China; Pentecostalism challenged Catholicism in Latin America; fundamentalist movements—Hindu, Jewish, Christian and Muslim—politicized and asserted their respective religious traditions; various eastern religious practices—yoga, Buddhism, Sufi versions of Islam—have penetrated the west. Always fascinated by matters religious, students may respond with enthusiasm to questions about the fate of religion in the twentieth century.

     Here, then, are seven contexts in which many of the particulars of twentieth century World History might find a meaningful place. All of them, however, deal with unfinished processes, whose outcomes are unknown and unknowable. This situation offers us another teachable moment. Most often world historians are relating stories with more or less clear endings. We know what happened to ancient Egyptian civilization, to the Roman Empire, to Buddhism in China, to the Haitian Revolution, and so we may, perhaps unconsciously, convey the impression that those outcomes were somehow "in the cards" or inevitable. An encounter with the vast uncertainties of contemporary historical processes invites fruitful speculation about alternative futures, about the extent to which the past shapes, or does not shape, that future, about surprise and unexpectedness in human history. It reminds us that all of our ancestors, like ourselves in the present moment, lived in a fog of unknowing about their futures. Those earlier futures, like our own, were to some extent open or undetermined. Such perspectives allow us to nurture a more humble and perhaps sympathetic posture toward our ancestors. However much we may differ from them in culture, sensibility, and manner of living, we share with them an immense ignorance as to what the future holds.

Robert Strayer is retired from the State University of New York at Brockport and California State University at Monterey Bay. He is currently teaching part-time at Cabrillo College. His most recent publications include Ways of the World: A Brief Global History with Sources (Bedford, 2011); The Communist Experiment (McGraw Hill, 2007) and Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse? (M.E. Sharpe, 1998). He can be contacted at


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