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The Question of Historical Perspective in World Historical Analysis


Regionalism and the Critique of "Eurocentrism":
A Europeanist's Perspective on Teaching Modern World History

Alexander Maxwell


     A world history course, like any course, should impart useful knowledge to its students. Many history teachers draw inspiration from what might be called the Ziggy Marley philosophy of history: "If you don't know your past, you don't know your future."1 World history, however, starts from different premises: educated people should understand something about cultures other than their own. World history offers students knowledge not about their own history and culture, but those of others. Given the complexity and diversity of the human experience, however, what knowledge deserves priority? This essay outlines a "regionalist" pedagogical philosophy for designing a modern world history course. It then describes a first-year course developed for university students in New Zealand, discussing its strengths and weaknesses in light of the regionalist teaching philosophy.

     Though I support world history both as a professional historian and as a human being, I may have an unlikely background for a world history advocate. When world history initially emerged as an academic subfield, it drew much of its support from scholars unhappy with the "Modern Europe" survey, or its close relative, "Western Civ." Patrick Manning suspects some world historians consciously exclude European content because they see themselves competing with historians of Europe.2 Yet I am a Europeanist: I work on national movements in the late Habsburg Empire, wrote my first book about Slovakia, and have published several articles on Hungary and Macedonia. My graduate training focused almost entirely on modern Europe. I have never taken a course specifically devoted to world history, either as an undergraduate (in Davis, California and Göttingen, Germany) or during my graduate training (in Budapest, Hungary and Madison, Wisconsin). I have taught incarnations of the "Modern Europe" survey in the United Kingdom, the United States, and New Zealand. I do have some non-European interests: I once spent a year in Japan, read widely about the Islamic world, and have published a few pieces with extra-European content. Nevertheless, anybody examining my CV will recognize me for a Europeanist.

     My enthusiasm for world history derives from a pedagogic ideal that might, for lack of a better term, be called "regionalism." In both my research and my teaching, I stress the importance of geographic diversity. Chinese history is more than the history of Beijing; British history – even English history – is bigger than London. Regionalism opposes what James Blaut has called the "Center-Periphery Model of the World,"3 insisting that "peripheries" receive individual attention. Paris may play a uniquely significant role in French history, but Alsace, Brittany, and Provence are not interchangeable. Regionalism can also operate on a continental level. Europe is more than Britain, France, and Germany; lectures on "Modern European History" should cover countries other than the Great Powers. When I taught "Twentieth Century Europe," I tried to mention every country in the continent, and while I regrettably found no way to include Albania, Iceland or Lithuania, I did discuss several "less commonly taught" countries: Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Norway, Portugal, Turkey and Ukraine. I take a similarly regionalist approach to my Soviet history course, devoting half of my lecture time to non-Russian regions, including Abkhazia, Armenia, Belarus, Bukhara, Chechnya, Crimea, Georgia, Kalmykia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Nenetsia, Sakha, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. I have previously published an article explaining regionalism in my German history teaching,4 and observe with satisfaction that other scholars advocate regionalism in African and American history teaching.5

     The regionalist philosophy of world history assumes that every world region deserves attention. Students benefit from cosmopolitan cultural capital in a wide variety of future careers, and informed citizens require broad perspectives. Ideally, undergraduates should learn something about every country in the world, since future events of global significance may occur anywhere. In the last five hundred years, France has admittedly played a more important role in global affairs than, say, Thailand, but the future is unknowable: perhaps Thailand's age of greatness is at hand! If something important happens in Thailand, future citizens (read: today's students) will benefit if they have sufficient background knowledge to respond appropriately. Instructor expertise, alas, is limited, and classroom time remains scarce: no introductory survey can meaningfully discuss every country in the world. Nevertheless, world history instructors can aspire to cover all the world's major cultural regions. Such, at any rate, are the regionalist pedagogical convictions that inspire my personal interest in world history and inform my teaching.

     A regionalist approach to world history divides the world into distinctive regions. How many regions? The problem of classification has several solutions, all imperfect. However, a regionalist philosophy rejects regions such as the "Third World," the "Developing World" and the "Global South." Asia, Africa, and Latin America can not be lumped into an undifferentiated collective. Papua New Guinea is not Peru; Mongolia is not Mozambique; Indonesia is not Iraq. Regionalism also discourages thinking in terms of the traditional five continents. "Asia" in particular requires further differentiation. At the very least, China, India, and the Islamic World deserve separate treatment.

     I suggest that syllabus designers define world regions in cultural or civilizational terms. When contemplating my own teaching, I categorize the world into ten regions: (1) Western and Central Europe, (2) the Middle East, including North Africa, (3) Latin America, including the Caribbean, (4) East Asia, (5) North America, (6) greater Russia / the U.S.S.R., (7) Sub-Saharan Africa, (8) South-East Asia, including Indonesia (9) the Indian subcontinent, including Pakistan, and (10) Oceania, including Australia. Note that "Asia" is subdivided into 5 subcategories.

     My classification scheme reflects my own possibly idiosyncratic mental map of the world, as well as my focus on modern history. The category "Middle East" depends partly on Islamic heritage and would have little meaning before the seventh century; scholars discussing antiquity might find a contrast between "the Mediterranean" and "Persia" more meaningful than my dichotomy between "Europe" and "the Middle East." The regions "Greater Russia" and "Latin America" reflect even more recent events. Scholars teaching "World history to 1500" would clearly require different regions, but even scholars teaching modern world history might wish to contest my categories, or dispute how I have drawn the borders between them. I treat Vietnam as "South-East Asia," for example; while others might prefer to place Vietnam in "East Asia." I welcome such disagreements. World history can only benefit from different approaches, and a regionalist teaching philosophy can accommodate multiple symbolic geographies. I like my categories, but I encourage readers to devise new classification schemes that reflect their own historical understanding and their own pedagogic objectives.

     World historians should, I suggest, take regionalism as seriously as historians of a single country promote multi-culturalism, and for similar reasons: educated people should appreciate perspectives they do not share. Regionalism in world history nevertheless differs from multi-culturalism in national history. Multi-culturalism has come to imply awareness of ethnic or racial diversity within a single country, and thus varies from place to place, since minority, indigenous and/or subaltern groups vary. Multi-cultural teachers in Australia, for example, presumably feel more forcefully the need to cover Aboriginal history than multi-cultural teachers in Brazil or China. Regionalism in world history, by contrast, addresses a comparably universal body of knowledge. Regionalist world historians in Australia, Brazil and China should all feel the same pressure to discuss India, the Middle East, Russia, and so forth.

     Ironically, many advocates of "multi-cultural" education show little interest in educating students about the world's multiple cultures: their interest extends only to oppressed groups within their home country. As an example of multicultural provincialism, consider the quintessentially American parameters with which American author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich, in a much-cited passage,6 defined multiculturalism:

     When I say multiculturalism, I do not mean African American students studying only African American subjects; I mean African Americans studying Shakespeare (perhaps taught by African American professors). I mean Caucasian students studying African American history, Asian American history, and so on. That is my idea of genuine multicultural education.7

     Teachers of American history are, of course, right to cover African-American history, Asian American history, and so on. Nevertheless, I suggest that Americans cannot acquire a "genuine multi-cultural education" solely by studying other Americans. Given Shakespeare's status as "a naturalized American hero,"8 furthermore, I doubt that reading the bard will turn African Americans into global citizens. African Americans, like any other sub-variety of Americans, should learn about historical figures who influenced parts of the world other than the United States: Sunzi, Saladin, Stalin, Sukarno, and so forth. Multi-culturalism in national history courses may familiarize citizens with their local context and its peculiarities, but regionalism in world history courses allows citizens of the world to partake in a global heritage.

     Several experts in world history, alas, have explicitly rejected the regionalist ideal for world history. Marilynn Hitchens advises world historians to discuss "streams of activity that are of importance to the whole global community over time. Therefore, regionalism … should be avoided," though, oddly, she also provides a checklist of eleven civilizations for world history courses to cover.9 Ross Dunn fears that organizing world history "by civilization (or region by region)" means that "historical developments that cut across civilizations and conventional regions receive minor attention."10 He suggests that the "Different Cultures Model" of world history fails "to locate the experiences of different societies or cultural groups within some larger frame of meaning."11 Perhaps the most stinging critique of regionalism comes from Patricia Lopes Don, who memorably condemned "the composite area studies approach" for courses which "represent the history of the world as a series of adjacent geographic boxes in which the history of each has little to do with the others."12 Don suggests that world history courses should "have a purpose or an organizing idea" and "a kind of macro-story line."13 The advantages of an organizing narrative in any history syllabus surely require neither justification nor elaboration. Hichens, Dunn, and Don, furthermore, are right to observe that regionalism, on its own, does not provide world history courses with such an organizing narrative.

     Nevertheless, rejecting regionalism in the name of organizing narratives seems odd when most world history experts so harshly criticize one of the most influential narratives in modern world history: the European birth and subsequent spread of so-called "Western" civilization, sometimes called the "European Miracle."14 Not all teachers of world history have undergone training as world historians, and several scholars trained in European or American history find themselves forced into world history in the middle of their teaching careers. Stearns worries that high school world history teachers are "hastily chosen – in some cases, the least experienced teachers were dragooned."15 Susanna Calkins, herself a critic of "composite area studies," similarly notes that professors teaching world history "are not necessarily familiar with world history pedagogy."16 Inexperienced and unwilling instructors often teach world history by adding some non-European content to a Modern Europe syllabus, or to some version of "Western Civ." The resulting courses are the bugbear of world history experts. Ross Dunn criticized the "Western Heritage Model"17 of world history, but most critics prefer to disparage "the West and the Rest."18 Peter Stearns, for example, dismissed "the unacceptable West-and-rest approach,"19 while Anthony Steinhoff pathologized "the 'West and the Rest' syndrome [emphasis added]."20 I prefer to avoid pejorative epithets and so will speak of the "Western Heritage Model."

     Critics generally attack the Western Heritage Model as "Eurocentric." The accusation conflates at least two components that, I feel, require differentiation. Firstly, a "Eurocentric" course may be "Europe-centered," devoting disproportionate attention to the European continent at the expense of other world regions. Secondly, a "Eurocentric" course may promote a certain problematic interpretation of world history that downplays European racism, violence, and injustice; exaggerates European achievements while overlooking those of non-European societies; justifies European imperialism as "progress"; and generally promotes what Blaut memorably called "the colonizer's model of the world."21 For clarity's sake, I refer to this second meaning of "Eurocentrism" as "Europhile triumphalism."

     The overwhelming majority of professional historians, Europeanists and non-Europeanists, would surely reject Europhile triumphalism as a pedagogical ideal. Most scholars like to believe that their interpretation of history is "balanced." Scholars may, however, disagree in good faith where exactly the "balance" lies. One scholar's dispassionate summary of European achievements may strike others as an absurd caricature of European self-glorification; another's fair critique of European imperial aggrandizement may strike others as knee-jerk Europhobia.

     I suspect that some Europeanists, however, have become suspicious of scholars who discuss Europe solely in terms of colonialism, racism and imperialism. Perhaps some world historians specializing in non-European history may need reminding that Europe is a legitimate object of scholarly interest in its own right, not merely because European imperialism affected non-Europe. European history is more than the history of imperial powers: the examples of Bulgaria, Ireland and Poland remind us that European peoples have also experienced colonial exploitation. Scholarship that exalts virtuous non-Europeans against a caricature of European wickedness does not do justice to European experiences. Europhobia, no less than Europhile triumphalism, makes for bad scholarship.

     When scholars attack Europhile triumphalism within a Europe-centered historical narrative, moreover, the critique of "Eurocentrism" can push syllabus designers in contradictory directions. Blaut has denounced "the myth of the European miracle," arguing that pillage and colonial depredations, rather than any supposed European virtues, "brought about the rise of Europe and led to Europe's ultimate hegemony over the world."22 Yet Blaut explicitly placed Europe at the narrative center of modern world history, suggesting that "Fourteen ninety-two gave the world a center and a periphery."23 Even as Blaut denounced "Eurocentric historians" for historical thinking that "falsely favors Europe or Europeans [emphasis in original],"24 he placed Europe at the center of his analysis: his 1993 book contains more references to Europe than to any other world region.25 A world history course structured around Blaut's ideas, however free of Europhile triumphalism, would evidently remain Europe-centered.

     The Western Heritage Model is inevitably Europe-centered: achieving Dipesh Chakrabarty's laudable goal of "provincializing Europe"26 requires some other narrative. Nevertheless, syllabi organized around the Western Heritage Model may still devote significant attention to world regions other than Europe. Daniel Segal noted that several explanations of European hegemony devote considerable attention to East Asia, treating China and/or Japan as Europe's "nearest rival," and thus "a foil for identifying the crucial difference that made 'Europe,' so to speak, 'Europe'."27 The Americas, and particularly North America, also feature prominently in such courses, since they qualify as part of "the West." When Blaut criticized "Eurocentric explanations for most of the crucial developments in world history," specifically problematizing 14 numbered historical propositions, of those four developments took place in what Blaut himself called "the Middle East."28

     The Western Heritage Model may not be best practice in world history teaching, but I doubt it is as inherently censurable as its critics sometimes seem to believe. In the right hands, the Western Heritage Model, the modern Europe survey, and "Western Civ," can all offer students a meaningful educational experience. Students could legitimately complain about repetition if compelled to study Western Heritage Model in addition to "Western Civ," but if, as Stearns observed of Texas high schools, revised educational standards have "so emphasized world history that the opportunity to teach strictly European history in high school programs withered,"29 then the Western Heritage Model seems to me a defensible approach to world history. Jared Diamond's well-received Guns, Germs and Steel, furthermore, demonstrates that non-Europeanists can discuss the reasons for European hegemony without succumbing to Europhile triumphalism.30

     The regionalist approach to teaching modern world history rejects Europe-centered narratives, but equally rejects narratives that seek to counteract Europhile triumphalism by privileging some other world region. Molefi Asante, admittedly not a world historian, has proposed an "Afrocentric approach" to history which "seeks in every situation the appropriate centrality of the African person [emphasis added]."31 Asante has attracted numerous critics,32 but admiring Japanese-American scholar Yoshitaka Miike champions an equivalent "Asiacentrism,"33 focused specifically on East Asia. No less an authority of post-colonialism than Edward Said, pondering "what kind of identity" should "dictate our educational processes," reacted skeptically to such non-West-centric narratives:

     Do we say … let us elevate ourselves, our history, our cultural or ethnic identity above that of others, uncritically giving this identity of ours centrality and coercive dominance? Do we substitute for a Eurocentric norm an Afrocentric or Islamo- or Arabocentric one? … In short, do we used the freedom we have fought for merely to replicated the mind-forged manacles that once enslaved us, and … proceed to apply them to others less fortunate than ourselves?34

     Critics of "Eurocentrism" can hardly expect Europeanists to follow where Said refuses to tread. On the contrary, scholars who justify non-European provincialism as a counterweight to "Eurocentrism" encourage Europeanists to dismiss legitimate criticism of the Western Heritage Model as so much special pleading.35 I have sometimes encountered dismissive attitudes from some of my own colleagues. Europhobic narratives may also be counterproductive if scholars with European interests respond with redoubled efforts to give a balanced view of the continent, and thus retain a Europe-centered focus.

     I suspect the Western Heritage Model enjoys the popularity it does because Europeanists (and Americanists) pushed into world history see no compelling reason to do anything else. Movements for "Afrocentricsm" and "Asiacentrism" promote historical narratives which privilege a particular world region; if Africa or Asia can occupy the center of attention, why not Europe (or "the West")? Miike himself distinguished nasty "Eurocentrism" from "Eurocentricity," which he defined as "a legitimate culture-centric approach to cultural Europe and people of European decent."36 And if, as Dunn suggested, world history should examine "historical developments that cut across civilizations," then the Spanish, Dutch, British, and French empires qualify in a way that even important non-European countries like Brazil, Indonesia, and Nigeria do not. Critics who wish to persuade Europeanists (or Americanists) teaching world history to abandon the Western Heritage Model for a more balanced narrative thus need arguments other than "that's Eurocentric!" Several denunciations of "Eurocentrism" have lapsed into Europhobia, and I fear many Europeanists (and Americanists) have simply stopped paying attention.

     Regionalism guarantees a course narrative more geographically inclusive than the Western Heritage Model. It more effectively insists on inclusive regional coverage than the contentious critique of "Eurocentricism." Whether teachers wish to explain the "European miracle" or criticize European imperialism, regionalism requires that world history lectures seriously consider multiple world regions. I suggest that advocates of world history rethink their opposition to regionalism. Regionalism may not itself offer any organizing principle, but it offers an appropriate starting framework within which meaningful organizing principles can be developed.

     A wide variety of possible organizing principles are compatible with the regionalist philosophy of world history. World history courses have been structured around religion,37 war,38 revolution,39 and technology.40 "Globalization" has proved so popular that Bruce Mazlish distinguishes "world history" from "global history – that is, the study of globalization."41 Feminist scholars have developed gendered world history courses,42 and Stearns has proposed the comparative study of childhood in order to merge global history with social history.43 Neither religion, nor war, nor revolution, nor technology, nor the social history of gender and childhood are restricted to any particular world region. The regionalist philosophy is compatible with any and all of these themes: regionalism merely demands careful attention to geographic diversity.

     The great choice of possible approaches reminds us that world history, as a discipline, has neither devised a master narrative nor selected any particular body of factual knowledge for students to master. The hostile response to Eric Hirsch's proposed list of "core knowledge,"44 furthermore, suggests that no world history canon is likely to emerge. Politicians and standardized testing may constrain high school teachers, but university faculty enjoy considerable freedom to devise world history courses that reflect their personal interest and expertise.

     The pedagogical freedom in world history contrasts strikingly with other established teaching fields. European history courses, for example, trod an established path through Ancient Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and so forth. A syllabus for "Europe since 1500" practically arranges itself. "World history since 1500," by contrast, offers faculty the intriguing professional challenge of developing a large-scale historical narrative from scratch. When my department revised its first-year teaching plan, therefore, I therefore championed world history over other suggestions and volunteered to teach it. The course was first offered in 2010 and has since been taught in 2011 and 2012.

     All courses must adapt to institutional constraints; mine run as follows. The semester lasts 12 weeks. The class meets twice a week for an hour-long lecture, though the first and final lectures are disrupted by tutorial enrollments, returning essays, exam revision, and other administrative housekeeping. During weeks 2 through 11 students also have an hour-long tutorial with teaching assistant, typically a postgraduate student. All first-year courses in my department are team-taught: I give my lectures in conjunction with a colleague. We divide the lectures equally, so both of us have five full weeks and one additional stand-alone lecture. I give my stand-alone lecture in the first week; my colleague in the final week. We compile a book of readings in place of a textbook.

     My colleague and I differ sharply in our research specializations and teaching interests. My colleague, an economic historian working on the Atlantic slave trade, organizes his lectures around commodities. The history of commodities is an established strategy in world history;45 various scholars have written global histories of cars, cod, food, oil, potatoes, salt, sugar, and spices.46 My colleague devotes each of his five main content weeks to a single commodity: silver, sugar, rubber, cotton, and oil, respectively. Each week's first lecture provides a global overview of that commodity; the second lecture gives a case study considering that commodity's impact on a specific country. His final stand-alone lecture speculates about "commodities of the future."

     My own research on the intellectual and cultural history of nationalism enjoys little synergy with my colleague's quantitative economic history, but I nevertheless adopt the "overview / case study" structure to discuss political ideologies. I devote my five main content weeks to monarchism, nationalism, racism, socialism, and Islamism. Since modern students are unfamiliar with the social inequalities inherent in monarchism, I use my stand-alone lecture to extend my initial discussion of divine kingship.

     The two halves of the course link together because my colleague and I discuss the same case studies.47 The "sugar" week, for example, takes Haiti's plantation economy as its case study; my "nationalism" week then examines the Haitian revolution. Iran illustrates both the oil industry and political Islam. Our two narratives, we hope, complement each other, turning our differing expertise to pedagogical advantage.

Figure 1: Main Content Weeks in "Global History: Commodities and Ideologies"Table Fig. 1

     Figure 1 somewhat overstates the symmetry between our "case study" lectures. In weeks 2-3, both of our case study lectures discuss the Spanish Empire under King Carlos I (alternatively "the possessions of Habsburg Emperor Charles V"), but my colleague's "silver" lecture concentrates on the mining activity in Potosí, while my "monarchism" lecture remains mostly in Europe, culminating in the 1566 Dutch revolt. The "racism" case study examines the Meiji reforms, but the "rubber" case study really discusses Malaysia, if primarily as the source of Japanese rubber and object of Japanese imperial aggrandizement. The Haiti, Uzbekistan, and Iran segments mirror each other closely.

     In short, our course boasts not one but two organizing principles. My colleague's lectures, taken as a whole, consider the industrial revolution; my lectures examine the spread of democratic ideals. Both narratives find reflection in the course title, "commodities and ideologies." Weekly readings and the final exam alternate between the two themes. The main research essay offers students a chance to specialize: we each set two essay topics; students choose one from the four possibilities.

     Many things might be said for or against our world history course, but how does it measure up against the yardstick of regionalism? Gaps inevitably remain, but the overview lectures provide considerable geographic breadth. My lecture on monarchism, for example, covers god-kings of ancient Mesopotamia, the Christian concept of rule by "God's grace," the Islamic idea of the caliph as God's representative, the Chinese "mandate of heaven," Buddhist iconography in South-East-Asian palace architecture, the golden stool of the Ashanti, Sikh inscriptions, Inca art, and a Swazi royal festival. My colleague's lecture on sugar discusses India, various Mediterranean islands, equatorial Africa, the Caribbean, and Brazil. My lecture on socialism mentions Britain, France, Germany, the United States, the U.S.S.R., China, Korea, Venezuela, and South Africa. Readers may decide for themselves whether the socialism lecture, say, strikes a good balance, lacks focus, or scandalously omits some important laboratory of socialist thinking and/or praxis (Cuba, Naxilite India, Sweden, Yugoslavia, etc.).

     Our lectures inevitably deviate from perfectly balanced geographic coverage because of our "overview / case study" structure. No five case studies can do justice to the world's diversity; and particularly not as measured by my self-chosen mental map with its ten distinct regions. My colleague and I, selecting case studies that fit our course narratives, in practice covered (1) South America and Europe, (2) the Caribbean, (3) East Asia and South-East Asia (4) Russian Central Asia and (5) the Middle East. The choice of neglected regions reflects pedagogical decisions, but also gaps on our knowledge. I can not boast a deep understanding of African history; neither of us can claim any serious expertise in India.

     We attempt compensate for some of our geographic lacuna in the first writing assignment, a précis. Our department has serious a problem with unintentional plagiarism in upper level courses; the assignment aims to teach paraphrasing skills. We ask students to read three scholarly articles on a single topic and write a citation-free essay in the style of an encyclopedia article. Since the pedagogical objectives of the précis assignment are essentially decoupled from our course narratives,48 we choose articles about a region neglected in the course lectures. So far, we have assigned articles on Chinese mariner Zheng He (in 2010), the silk road (in 2011), and the Indian city of Goa (in 2012).

     My colleague and I felt we had achieved a satisfactory level of regional diversity as we first taught the course, but intuitive feelings may conceal subconscious bias. After the course was finished, therefore, I measured our regional balance by analyzing our PowerPoint presentations. I sorted each slide of each lecture into a world region or into the category "non-regional." Figure 2 gives our statistics for both 2010 and 2011. Figures include both overview lectures and case study lectures. Since classification is not an exact science, I rounded all figures to the nearest percentage. I calculated all figures and am solely responsible for any errors.

Figure 2: PowerPoint slides by world region, "Global History." Table Fig. 2

     After teaching the course for the first time, my colleague and I pondered the distribution of our regional coverage. Were all eleven categories to receive equal coverage, each would earn a score of 9.1%, a figure conveniently close to the percentage of "non-regional" slides. However, we did not feel the need to cover all regions equally. We were satisfied to give Oceania scant coverage, for example, partly because the region is sparsely populated, and partly because our students in New Zealand have other options for learning about their home region. Our relative neglect of India and sub-Saharan Africa, by contrast, is less principled and less defensible. My colleague would like to include more African history; I find the neglect of India more problematic.

     If we devote too little attention to some world regions, we devote too much attention to others. Our disproportionate coverage of Latin America and the Caribbean derives mostly from the choice of case studies, but may also reflect a certain failure to differentiate an over-large region into distinct cultural zones. (When gathering the 2011 statistics, I distinguished "Caribbean" slides from "Continental Latin America"; pleasingly, 8% of slides examined the Caribbean; 7% Latin America.49) Finally, our 2010 lectures devoted 21% of all slides to Europe: more one slide in five! In 2010, this figure struck me as excessively Europe-centered.

For the second iteration of the course, therefore, we sought to shift the regional balance, concentrating particularly on the "overview" lectures. We both considered East Asia an important world region and thought the 2010 figure of 8% too low; we tried to boost our East Asia coverage into double digits. I completely rewrote my "racism" lecture, adding segments on China, India and Australia and abbreviating coverage of Latin America and Europe. I expanded the Chinese content of the "socialism" lecture at Soviet expense. We also tried to put more Africa in the course. We both tried to reduce the share of European slides. After teaching the course in 2011, I re-calculated the total course statistics and measured the differences.

     The 2011 figures show that we successfully increased our East Asian content, but signally failed to reduce our European coverage. I found this result disappointing. I had felt the need to cut European content more keenly than my colleague, yet still used a higher percentage of European slides: my lectures contained 26% European content, my colleague's only 15%. I initially expected to write this article in the spirit of mea culpa, perhaps as the "confessions of a Eurocentric world history teacher." After examining the distribution of regional content in other world history narratives, however, I began to doubt that our course sins greatly against the spirit of world history.

     While researching this article, I learned to my surprise that our lectures have a significantly lower percentage of European content than most world history courses taught in the United States. In a study of world history standards for American high schools, Craig Lockard's "rough count" found that European history comprises "some 40 percent of their content."50 Dunn complained that world history textbooks have a "half-West-centered curriculum."51 Stearns calculates that "the average high school world history course and textbook" remains "67% western [!], which means that other societies and larger global forces receive both inadequate and inconsistent treatment."52 Stearns also reports that AP College Board guidelines, devised to address this scandalous state of affairs, advocate world history courses whose content is "33% western at most."53 If we interpret the category "western" as "Europe + North America," then the 2010 and 2011 versions of our course respectively contained 28% and 27% western content, comfortably within the AP College Board guidelines. Even my comparatively Europe-centered half of the course (the "ideologies" lectures) meets AP guidelines: in 2011, my "ideologies" lectures had 32% "western" content.

     Our course also has a low level of European content compared to three world history textbooks intended for university classroom use. I prefer to teach from primary sources and thus avoid narrative textbooks, but my institutional library contained three document collections intended for world history teaching: Discovering the Global Past: A Look at the Evidence,54 World History in Documents: A Comparative Reader,55 and The Global Experience: Readings in World History.56 I classified their contents into the same categories used to analyze our course lectures, omitting any volumes or chapters on the period before c. 1500. Once again, all judgment calls and errors remain my responsibility.

     Figure 3 reveals, to my great surprise, that the world history textbooks in my small sample over-emphasize European history significantly more than our course. The textbooks respectively contain 35%, 46%, and 40% "western" content; we have 5% less European content than the least Europe-centered textbook. Unexpectedly, World History in Documents proved the most Europe-centered, despite having been compiled by tireless world history advocate Peter Stearns!

Figure 3: Regional Content in World History NarrativesTable Fig. 3

     World history course content must reflect the world's history. Since no course on "World history since 1500" can wholly ignore European colonial empires, some disproportionate coverage of Europe seems inevitable. Several historical processes that cut across world regions have European origins. I learned from my colleague's lectures that Spanish mines in Bolivia imported slave labor from Africa, and that British botanists planted Brazilian seedlings in Malaysian rubber plantations. In both instances, however, a European power initiated and directed the global interaction. In my own lectures, I observed that both the Vietnamese and Venezuelan declarations of independence refer to the French Declaration of the Rights of Man: exploring the national idea through declarations of independence led inexorably to European influence, even when examining non-Europeans such as Francisco de Miranda and Hồ Chí Minh. My disappointment with our 2010 figures, it seems, reflected my own unrealistic expectations. In our course, I conclude, Europe has been acceptably provincialized.

     Figure 3 not only measures the share of attention paid to Europe, but also shows the unequal coverage of non-European regions, documenting a shifting pattern of neglect. The Global Experience emphasizes East Asia, giving Japan and China separate and detailed coverage, but neglects India, Russia, and South-East Asia. World History in Documents strongly emphasizes Russia and North America, neglects sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, and wholly ignores South-East Asia and Oceania: no other narrative wholly ignores two of my ten world regions. Discovering the Global Past, perhaps the most balanced coverage in this sample, neglects the Middle East and ignores Oceania. Our course provides strong coverage of the Middle East, but neglects sub-Saharan Africa, South-East Asia, and India. Europe, North America, and East Asia are the only regions to receive sustained attention in all narratives. Neglect of India appears ubiquitous.

     Gathering statistics about regional coverage gives instructors quantitative feedback about the regional balance of their teaching. I have already described how the 2010 figures inspired useful lecture revisions for the 2011 iteration of the course. The 2011 figures in turn led us, among other things, to select an Indian topic for the 2012 précis assignment. The 2012 figures, when available, may inspire further modifications.

     Instructors should gather whatever statistics best reflect their historical understanding, and interpret them according to their own pedagogical objectives. One might, for example, try to match course coverage to the relative importance of various world regions. Different scholars will obviously define "importance" according to their own idiosyncratic criteria, but assume, for the sake of argument, that the ideal world history course would cover each world region in proportion to its share of global population. One could then subtract the percentage of course content, as calculated in Figure 3, from each region's share of global population in, say, the year 2000.57 Stearns gives Sub-Saharan Africa 4% of his attention; in 2000 Sub-Saharan Africa contained 11% of the world's population. I calculate: 4 minus 11 equals a deficit of –5. Figure 4 applies such calculations to our course and the three textbooks. As always, I am solely responsible for any errors. The results confirm that world history narratives consistently overemphasize Europe and underemphasize India.

Figure 4: World History Coverage Compared With Global Population in 2000Table Fig. 4

     After approaching world history with excessive trepidation about striking a good regional balance, I ultimately found comparative statistics about regional coverage reassuring. Syllabus designers should aim for broad geographic coverage, but may legitimately over-emphasize some world regions at the expense of others: any compelling course narrative will prevent a statistically perfect regional balance. If omissions are inevitable, they become acceptable.

     Of course, no scholars like to see their favorite region overlooked. Some Africanists, for example, have publically urged other world historians to include more African content in their courses. Jonathan Reynolds, co-author of Africa in World History,58 suggested that Africa should not "appear as a 'patch' in our world history quilt," but instead "be part of the very warp and weave of the fabric – interwoven with other similar threads from distant parts of the world."59 Goucher similarly wrote that "world history without the flavors of Africa's past can no longer satisfy the appetites of our global community."60 Such appeals, I hope, should arouse equal sympathy when made on behalf of India, Russia, South-East Asia, and so forth.

     Reynolds and Goucher would presumably disapprove of our course. My colleague and I cover "Africa" more than the statistics in Figures 2 – 4 suggest: we both devote significant attention to Egypt, which my statistics count as "the Middle East."61 Nevertheless, we devote only 3% of course time to sub-Saharan Africa, less that a third of that region's share of global population. I wonder, however, what Reynolds and Goucher would suggest if asked to replace metaphorical quilts and flavors with a quantitative target. Would they be satisfied with, say, 9% of total course lectures? What about 6%? Since every world history course inevitably neglects one region or another, I also wonder how Reynolds and Goucher justify their own inevitable lacunae.62 Let the world history instructor who achieves a perfect regional balance cast the first stone!

     Critics who object that I, as a Europeanist, am unlikely to see "my" region neglected should recall that I specialize in East-Central Europe. How much attention do Croats, Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, Romanians, Serbs, Slovaks, Slovenes, and Ukrainians receive in world history courses? I struggled to include these peoples in my "Modern Europe" survey, and manage only the most tokenistic coverage in world history lectures.

     World historians should guard against the tendency to overemphasize their favorite region(s) and neglect others, but the regionalist philosophy demands equal vigilance from all world historians. Yes, European specialists must feel obliged to cover more than Europe in a world history course, but so too must non-European specialists feel an equivalent obligation to cover unfamiliar world regions. The problem of Europeanists and Americanists teaching Europe-centered world history has attracted plenty of attention, but Africanists, Latin Americanists, and other non-Europeanists should not feel free to succumb to analogous temptations. The regionalist philosophy encourages all world history teachers to expand their geographical horizons.

     I suggest, finally, that scholars of European history have something to contribute to world history. All types of regional knowledge can enrich our collective understanding of the human past. I would like to end, therefore, with words of encouragement for "western" historians designing their first world history course and uncertain how to proceed: take regional diversity seriously, but have confidence in the relevance of your expertise and trust your instincts.

Alexander Maxwell is Senior Lecturer in History at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, where he runs the Antipodean East European Study Group. His first monograph, Choosing Slovakia: Slavic Hungary, the Czechoslovak Language, and Accidental Nationalism, appeared in 2009. He has edited The East-West Discourse: Symbolic Geography and its Consequences and The Comparative Approach to National Movements: Miroslav Hroch and Nationalism Studies. He has published articles on Hungarian, Macedonian, and Polish history. He has also published articles on pedagogical issues. He can be reached at


1 The passage features prominently in Ziggy Marley's 1988 song "Tomorrow People."

2 Patrick Manning, Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past (New York: Palgrave, 2003), 102.

3 James Blaut, The Colonizer's Model of the World (New York: Guilford Press, 1993), 14.

4 Alexander Maxwell, "The 'Regionalist' Approach to Austrian History: Austrian Studies within the Context of German and East European History," Teaching Austria, vol. 2 (2006), 56-69. For a recent version of my "regionalist" German history syllabus, see URL <>, for my "regionalist" Soviet history syllabus, see URL: <>.

5 Candice Goucher, "Connecting Africa to the Themes of World History," World History Connected, vol. 2, no. 1 (November 2004), paragraph 2; David Wrobel, "A Place for Regions in the Modern U.S. Survey?" Journal of American History, vol. 94, no. 4 (2008), 1203-10.

6 For critical comment on Ehrenreich's opinions, see John Wilson, The Myth of Political Correctness (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), 80; Tom Lewis, " 'Political Correctness': A Class Issue," in: Jeffrey Williams, ed., PC Wars: Politics and Theory in the Academy (New York: Routledge, 1995), 103; Matthew Frye Jacobson, Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 231-32.

7 Barbara Ehrenreich, "The Challenge for the Left," Democratic Left (July-August 1991), 3.

8 Kim Sturgess, Shakespeare and the American Nation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), back cover.

9 Hitchen's favored civilizations are: Japan, China, South-East Asia, India, Persia, Judaea, Greece, Rome, West Africa, Europe, and America. Marilynn Hitchens, "World History as a Course of Study: Rationale, Goals, and Formulations," in: Heidi Roupp, Teaching World History in the Twenty-First Century: A Resource Book (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2009), 10, 11.

10 Ross Dunn, "The Two World Histories," in: Linda Symcox, Arie Wilschut, eds., National History Standards: The Problem of the Canon and the Future of Teaching History (Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishers, 2009), 63.

11 Ross Dunn, "Constructing World History in the Classroom," in: Peter Stearns, Peter Seixas, Peter Stearns, Peter Seixas, eds, Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives (New York: NYU Press, 2000), 130.

12 Patricia Lopes Don, "Establishing World History as a Teaching Field: Comments from the Field," The History Teacher, vol. 36, no. 4 (2006), paragraph 6.

13 Lopes Don, "Establishing World History as a Teaching Field," paragraph 17.

14 Eric Jones, The European Miracle: Environments, Economics, and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); see also Ronen Palan, "The European Miracle of Capital Accumulation," in: James Blaut, ed, 1492: The Debate on Colonialism, Eurocentrism, and History (Trenton: Africa World Press, 1992), 97-108; Jack Goody, The Eurasian Miracle (Cambridge: Polity, 2009).

15 Peter Stearns, "World History: Curriculum and Controversy," World History Connected, vol. 3, no. 3 (July 2006), paragraph 9.

16 Susanna Calkins, "Establishing World History as a Meaningful Diversity Requirement," World History Connected, vol. 3, no. 1 (October 2005), paragraph 6.

17 Ross Dunn, "Constructing World History in the Classroom," in: Peter Stearns, Peter Seixas, Peter Stearns, Peter Seixas, eds, Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives (New York: NYU Press, 2000), 124.

18 For critiques of the "West and the Rest," see Peter Stearns, "Where did World History Come from?" in: Heidi Roupp, Teaching World History in the Twenty-First Century: A Resource Book (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2009), 7; Cristóbal Saldaña, "Why Historiography Belongs in the Classroom," in: Heidi Roupp, Teaching World History in the Twenty-First Century: A Resource Book (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2009), 166; Daniel Seagal, " 'Western Civ' and the Staging of History in American Higher Education," American Historical Review, vol. 105, no. 3 (June 2000), 770-804; Charles Hedrick, "The Ethics of World History," Journal of World History, vol. 16, no. 1 (March 2005), 33-50.

19 Peter Stearns, "World History: Curriculum and Controversy," World History Connected, vol. 3, no. 3 (July 2006), paragraph 14.

20 Anthony Steinhoff, "Taking the Next Step: World History and General Education on the American Campus," World History Connected, vol. 3, no. 3 (July 2006), paragraph 8.

21 Blaut, The Colonizer's Model of the World, 10.

22 Blaut, The Colonizer's Model of the World, 51.

23 James Blaut, "Introduction," 1492: The Debate on Colonialism, Eurocentrism, and History (Trenton: Africa World Press, 1992). 2.

24 James Blaut, Eight Eurocentric Historians (New York: Guilford, 2000), 200.

25 Searching with Google Books suggests that The Colonizer's Model of the World contains 92 references to "Africa," 85 to "Asia," 55 to "America," 55 to "China," 49 to "India," and 3 to "Australia." The equivalent figure for "Europe" is 100, but the search engine cannot display more than 100 results: the true figure may be much higher.

26 Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

27 Daniel Segal, " 'Western Civ' and the Staging of History in American Higher Education," American Historical Review, vol. 105, no. 3 (June 2000), paragraph 53.

28 Blaut classified the Neolithic development of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, Mesopotamian literacy, Mesopotamian metalwork, and Levantine monotheism under the rubric of "greater Europe." See Blaut, The Colonizer's Model of the World, 7-8.

29 Peter Stearns, "World History: Curriculum and Controversy," World History Connected, vol. 3, no. 3 (July 2006), paragraph 9.

30 Blaut, ever contrary, criticized Diamond for both Eurocentrism and "Eurasia-Centrism"; see Eight Eurocentric Historians, 166. On Diamond's influence on world history, see Tom Laichas, "A Conversation with Jared Diamond," World History Connected (May 2005). For Diamond's argument, see Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (London: Jonathan Cape, 1997).

31 Molefi Asante, "The Afrocentric Idea in Education," Journal of Negro Education, vol. 60, no. 3 (Spring 1991), 171; see also Asante's An Afrocentric Manifesto: Toward an African Renaissance (Cambridge: Polity, 2007).

32 See Stephen Howe, Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (London: Verso, 1999); Clarence Walker, We Can't Go Home Again: An Argument about Afrocentrism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); Tunde Adeleke, The Case Against Afrocentrism (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009).

33 Yoshitaka Miike, "Beyond Eurocentrism in the Intercultural Field: Searching for an Asiacentric Paradigm," in: W. J. Starosta, G.-M. Chen, eds., Ferment in the Intercultural Field: Axiology/Value/Praxis (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2003), 243-76; for Miike's biography see John Burnett, "A Matter of Perception," Ka Lono Hanakahi, vol. 20, no. 1 (September 2004), URL: <>. Miike and Asante later collaborated on The Global Intercultural Reader (London: Routledge, 2007).

34 Edward Said, "Identity, Authority, and Freedom: The Potentate and the Traveler," in: Louis Menand, ed., The Future of Academic Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 223-34; for a slightly different version, see Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 399-400.

35 See for example Ben Shapiro, Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America's Youth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005); for a more sophisticated critique of anti-Eurocentricm, see Arthur Schlesinger, The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (New York: Norton, 1992); for a discussion of the debates, see Joan Scott, "Multiculturalism and the Politics of Identity," in: John Rajchman, The Identity in Question (London: Routledge, 1995), 3-14; Diane Ravitch, "Pluralism vs. Particularism in American Education," The Responsive Community, vol. 1, no. 2 (1991), 32-45.

36 Yoshitaka Miike, "An Anatomy of Eurocentrism in Communication Scholarship," China Media Research, vol. 6, no. 1 (2010), 3.

37 John Super, Briane Turley, Religion in World History: The Persistence of Imperial Communion, (London: Routledge, 2006); Dominic Sachsenmaier, "World History as Ecumenical History," Journal of World History, vol. 18, no. 4 (December 2007), 465-90; Mary Jane Maxwell, "Structuring the World History Survey: A First-Timer Confesses," World History Connected, vol. 2, no. 2 (November 2004).

38 Deborah Smith Johnston, "World History Makeover: World History Syllabi," World History Connected, vol. 2, no. 2 (June 2011); for a textbook, see Stephen Morillo, Jeremy Black, Paul Lococo, War in World History: Society, Technology and War from Ancient Times to the Present (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008).

39 Michael Richards, Revolutions in World History (London: Routledge, 2004); Zenon Wasyliw, "Revolution as a Theme in Teaching a Twentieth Century World History Course," World History Connected, vol. 4, no. 2 (February 2007).

40 Daniel Hadrick, Technology: A World History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); H. Loring White, "A Technological Model of Global History," The History Teacher, vol. 20, no. 4 (August 1987), 497-517; W. Bernard Carlson, Technology in World History: The Modern World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); for a textbook, see James McClellan, Harold Dorn, Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).

41 Bruce Mazlish, "Global History and World History," in: Bruce Mazlish, Akira Iriye, eds., The Global History Reader (London: Routledge, 2005), 16. On world history as globalization, see Anthony Hopkins, ed. Globalization in World History (London: Pimlico, 1992); David Northup, "Globalization and the Great Convergence," Journal of World History, vol. 16, no. 3 (September 2005), 249-64; Christopher Corley, Jay Walsh, "Integrating Globalization into the Curriculum: Two Examples," World History Connected, vol. 1, no. 2 (May 2004); Michael Geyer, Charles Bright, "World History in a Global Age," American Historical Review, vol. 100, no. 4 (October 1995), 1044.

42 Ulrike Strasser, Heidi Tinsman, "Engendering World History," Radical History Review, vol. 91 (2005): 151-164; Merry Wiesner Hanks, "Women's History and World History Courses," Radical History Review, vol. 91 (2005), 133-150; see also Peter Stearns, Gender in World History (London: Taylor and Francis, 2006).

43 Peter Stearns, "Social History and World History: Prospects for Collaboration," Journal of World History, vol. 18, no. 1 (March 2007), 43-52.

44 Eric Hirsch, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987); see also Eric Hirsch, The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006).

45 "Commodities as an Approach to World History," University of Santa Cruz, Center for World History (15 August 2007), URL <>, accessed 4 June 2011.

46 Erik Eckermann, World History of the Automobile (Warrendale: Society of Automotive Engineers, 2001); Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography Of The Fish That Changed The World (New York: Walker, 1997); Raymond Grew, Food in Global History, (Boulder: Westview Press, 2000); Leonardo Maugeri, The Age of Oil: The Mythology, History, and Future of the World's Most Controversial Resource (Westport: Greenwood Publishing, 2006); John Reader, Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009); Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History, (New York: Walker, 2002); Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (London: Penguin, 1985); Jack Turner, Spice: The History of a Temptation (New York: Knopf, 2005); Andrew Dalby, Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

47 Choosing compatible case studies required compromise. My colleague originally planned to give his "sugar" case study lecture on Barbados, but Haiti better fit my "nationalism" theme. Uzbekistan nicely illustrates both "cotton" and "socialism," but would not have been our first choice for either theme.

48 The articles must (1) be brief, (2) cover a coherent topic, and (3) each contain significantly different content, since students lose marks if they fail to use all three articles. Finding a set of articles that fulfill all three criteria is challenging. Plagiarism fears, furthermore, require us to set three new articles every year. Given such difficulties, we gave up trying to link the précis topics to either of our course narratives.

49 Judgment calls while gathering figures may explain some of the reciprocal gain and loss between "the Middle East" and "North and Central Asia": Uzbekistan and Baku (which featured prominently in the "oil" overview lecture) lie on the frontier between these two regions.

50 Craig Lockard, "National Standards and the 'Ownership' of World History," Review of Education Pedagogy and Cultural Studies, vol. 17, no. 3 (1995), 271.

51 Ross Dunn, "Constructing World History in the Classroom," in: Peter Stearns, Peter Seixas, eds, Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives (New York: NYU Press, 2000), 161.

52 Peter Stearns, "World History: Curriculum and Controversy," World History Connected, vol. 3, no. 3 (July 2006), paragraph 13.

53 Peter Stearns, "History Debates: The United States," in: Irene Nakou, Isabel Barca, eds., Contemporary Public Debates over History Education (Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishers, 2010), 52.

54 Merry Wiesner, Bruce Wheeler, Franklin Doehringer, Ken Curtis, eds., Discovering the Global Past: A Look at the Evidence, vol. II (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007).

55 I counted sources from Parts III, IV and V, covering the period 1450 to present, excluding a final 11 page section on environmentalism, for a total of 243 pages. See Peter Stearns, World History in Documents: A Comparative Reader (New York: NYU Press, 2008), 161-404.

56 Stuart Schwartz, Linda Wimmer, Robert Wolff, The Global Experience: Readings in World History, vol. 2 (New York: Longman, 1998).

57 Global population figures calculated from: "List of countries by past and future population," Wikipedia (15 May 2011), URL: <>, accessed 25 June 2010.

58 Erik Gilbert, Jonathan Reynolds, Africa in World History: From Prehistory to the Present (Prentice Hall, 2004).

59 Johnathan Reynolds, "So Many Africas, So Little Time: Doing Justice to Africa in the World History Survey," World History Connected, vol. 2, no. 1 (November 2004), paragraph 22.

60 Goucher, "Connecting Africa to the Themes of World History," paragraph 20.

61 The "monarchism" lecture discusses Pharaonic Egypt; the "cotton" lecture, Egyptian cotton; the "oil" lecture, Nasser's nationalization of the Suez canal; the "Islamism" lecture, Sayyid Qutb and the Muslim brotherhood.

62 Both Reynolds and Goucher kindly sent me copies of their own syllabi, but both courses cover the time period before 1500, rendering irrelevant any statistics gathered according to my ten-region classification, and thus any direct comparison.


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