Burton, Antoinette. A Primer for Teaching World History.
While many historians have claimed to teach World History, often they focused on just parts of the world and just as often their presentation was Eurocentric. The World History movement is more recent, and while many of its seminal texts were written in the 1970s and 1980s, it came into its own as a self-conscious project of teaching history (in a way that is global in scope, but avoiding Eurocentrism) in the 1990s. Still, there is a need for a book that guides teachers in the concept of World History as well as the strategy of how to make a course all-encompassing in a way that is not merely additive, and in a way that will fit in the usual time constraints of a semester. Antoinette Burton's book is particularly helpful to teachers who must design such a course. Her emphasis on choosing a theme that unifies (and narrows) coverage of the world's different regions, while also creating course assignments that develop students' skills, is particularly helpful to teachers at both college and high school levels faced with the otherwise daunting and overwhelming task of fairly and adequately covering the history of the entire world.
As Burton describes how to teach world history she describes the field at the same time. History courses should avoid "the West and the rest" historical surveys (p. 53). The standard comparison of civilizations, however, should not be ruled out entirely, but it should ideally give way to more complex and innovative approaches. Burton suggests that a world history course should begin before 1500 and study the "first globalizations" because the pre-modern world was "multiaxial," and it is important for students to realize that so that they do not think that "globalization" or "connections" between various parts of the world is a recent development (p. 19). Zeng He should be as well-known as Columbus and Marco Polo (p. 17). The Ottoman Empire, the Silk Road, and the various slave trades show regional interaction and interdependence. Burton cautions that one should not always presume that the "local" is rural or somewhere other than the United States, or that it is inevitably going to be superseded by the global (p. 55). Sometimes the "global" is beyond the United States, for example, with international migration such as Hajj travelers (pp. 56-7). Burton even challenges teachers to teach an entire course from the perspective of the "global South" (p. 59).
Burton calls world history an inter-discipline. World historians are dependent on geographers, among other fields. She claims that the world is a social concept that can be illustrated by comparing different styles of world maps. She says connectivity, defined by her as "the dynamic (inter)action of historical spaces," is an important concept and she challenges world historians to track and measure global interactions like events, practices, and movements (pp. 27-8). Focus on connectivity can help one to notice reciprocal relations between the local and global. But a course should not ignore the examples of non-connectivity or disjunction. Regarding teaching, Burton advocates identifying an interpretive focus for the course so that students and teachers alike are not overwhelmed. She cautions that all design principles "bear the imprints of power," in other words, some parts of the world's story are given importance, while others are neglected or forgotten, or described from a biased viewpoint (p. 35). To counteract the marginalization of women and gender issues that had been prevalent for centuries, Burton strongly advocates ensuring that women are covered in the world history syllabus. She readily admits, however, that historians are often stuck with a lack of sources to tell women's history as thoroughly as they would like. She suggests a way of comparing and linking various twentieth century women's movements (or rather, the use of female imagery in the popular political movements) in Mexico, Moscow, Ireland and Bengal.
When teaching world history, the goal is not to pack in as much information as possible. One also wants to teach students skills and to encourage them to think critically. As Burton explains, it is good to start with an historical example that is well known by folks in the community and then "denaturalize" the popular understanding of the event by introducing multiple dimensions of the event (p. 64). As she explains, "Attending to the global character of histories that have appeared to be national, regional, local, civilizational, or otherwise bounded is one of the main strategic interventions of world history as a method and a practice" (p. 74). Likewise the Treaty of Versailles and all of Woodrow Wilson's attempts to redraw the map of European nations should be seen in a much larger context of multiple countries vying for realignment of some sort at the war's end. The Versailles treaty served as a catalyst for a lot of movements hoping to bring social and political change. Or, one could follow the construction of the Baghdad to Berlin railway and notice how the Armenian genocide was involved. Part of the historian's work is tracing genealogy, meaning, searching for the "back story" of how some event came to be (p. 74).
Burton recounts what she calls "one of the most exciting class sessions in the whole semester," that is, Isabel Hull's account of the German destruction of the Hereto discussed in Absolute Destruction (p. 112). Hull attributes the Herero genocide to a military organizational structure bereft of politics or values that has winning a confrontation as its only goal. This same organizational behavior would soon (in a few decades) move on to conceptualizing and implementing the "final solution" against the Jews. Burton does not mention here that the most controversial aspect to Hull's coverage is that her thesis dispenses with racism as a motive for the genocide and pins it all (both with the Herero and later with the Nazis) on a military culture model. Burton says she does not take Hull's claims at "face value" and questions whether they are valid. She suggests that the oral evidence in Hull's study is not reliable, and that Hull is sensitive to this herself. One has to wonder, therefore, why Burton selected Hull. Burton's point seems to be that Hull indulges in overreach, and that it is important to involve students in noticing this. She raises the issue of the limits of an historians' "interpretive license" (p. 112). Is Hull an example of how not to read primary sources? Or is Hull held up as an example of a skeptical reader, so that students can emulate her? While Burton's particular class exercise example with Hull is not entirely clear to this reader, her point about developing students' skills is important and deserves the emphasis she gives it. The chapter is also chock-full of ideas of how to draw upon digital archives and novels.
Since studying World History is such an important corrective to past practices, it is good that Burton guides teachers. Any history teacher, and many others in interdisciplinary or area studies, will benefit from reading this book.
Gail M. Presbey
University of Detroit, Mercy
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|Author:||Presbey, Gail M.|
|Publication:||Journal of Third World Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2015|
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