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Hispanic American Historical Review 84.3 (2004) 411-422
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Placing Latin America in Modern World History Textbooks
Susan K. Besse
Most two-volume world history textbooks divide the history of the world somewhere around 1500 , associating the conquest and colonization of the Americas with the birth of the modern world system. Precious metals, commodities, and slave labor from the New World and Africa spurred the development of mercantile capitalism, the rise of the bourgeoisie, and the maturation of European absolutist states. These, in conjunction with encounters with different peoples, gave birth to a synergy of political ideologies and philosophical tools that propelled Europe to world domination. Hence, the invention of America involved the simultaneous invention of Europe as the "West."
Yet, in most of the earliest world history textbooks, which were typically Western civilizations texts with a few new chapters grafted on, Latin America barely enters the narrative. William McNeill's 712 -page, 1997 edition of A History of the Human Community (first published in 1963 as The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community), includes less than 20 pages about Latin America. McNeill's thematic focus on contacts among strangers as the motor force of creative invention and historical change leads him to recognize the key role of China in world history. However, Latin American peoples and civilizations do not count among those that "achieved unusual creativity and then impelled or compelled those around them (and, in time, across long distances) to alter their accustomed style of life."1
Recent world history textbooks have been beefed up with additional pages about peripheral regions in general, and Latin America in particular, but this has not automatically rescued these areas from irrelevance. Even Peter Stearns, who includes a lengthy chapter on twentieth-century Latin America in his 2002 edition of World History in Brief, concludes that the region "has always occupied a somewhat ambiguous place in world history." First, it does not fit [End Page 411] neatly into either "Western" or "non-Western" societies, but is better seen as a "syncretic civilization." Second, although Stearns judges that continuing dependency makes Latin America a full participant in the world economy, it participates "not always influentially." Latin Americans "have generated neither dramatic cultural forms nor catastrophic military upheavals of international impact. Nationalism and literary preoccupation with issues of Latin American identity follows from a sense of being ignored and misunderstood in the wider world."2 Somewhat apologetically, Stearns predicts that the region will have an increasing international impact in the twenty-first century thanks to its growing population, economic advances, and new cultural self-consciousness.
Indeed, in the United States (where the Hispanic population has recently surpassed the African American population and continues to grow rapidly), it is easy to make a case for expanded coverage of Latin America in world history textbooks on the grounds of academic inclusion. Increasing numbers of Hispanic students will demand to learn more about their heritage, and other citizens of the United States will benefit from an awareness of the culture of minority populations with whom they live and work. These are important, but insufficient, reasons for increased coverage of the region in world history courses. New chapters that make up for past omissions—compensatory history—will accomplish little. Such additions are unlikely to convince either skeptical instructors or overburdened students that the new material is "significant" and thus worthy of much (or any) attention in a crowded semester. Like new sections about women pasted into old androcentric textbooks, such additions do not provoke a reconceptualization of the story; thus, they do nothing to overcome the marginalization of the history of Latin America in the field of world history.
Latin America will only be featured more prominently as globalization changes not only our present lives but also the ways in which we question the past. As Michael Geyer and Charles Bright have argued, neither triumphal narratives of the rise of Europe, nor a string of regional histories, can account for a global present that they define as being marked simultaneously by...