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Hispanic American Historical Review 84.3 (2004) 431-446
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World History's Narrative Problem
Asking Latin Americanists to think about their region in the context of world history provokes an anxious sort of tallying. Does Latin America receive adequate attention in world history courses and textbooks? Within that query lies a justified suspicion: world history as taught in the United States does often relegate Latin America to abbreviated sections and asides, particularly in precolumbian and postcolonial eras.1 This is not a simple oversight, easily redressed by drawing the field's gaze southward. It is rather, I think, the product of an incomplete theorization of the narrative frames of ignorance. Latin America and other marginalized places might be better served—and the history of the world better conveyed—by rewriting the fundamental story.
The teaching of world history is the site of recurring struggle in the United States over the nation's relationship to the rest of the world: what it is, what it should be, and how it should be portrayed to young people. Proponents of world history have, in the subfield's various iterations over the course of the twentieth century, been motivated by similar issues, such as well-founded dismay at North Americans' scanty knowledge of foreign places beyond the West or the need to chart an alternative to a worldview myopically focused on [End Page 431] Europe.2 These concerns have rarely been addressed until recently, when world history courses finally began to make headway against their closest curricular rival, Western Civ, thanks to the momentum generated by decolonization and attendant social movements. The radical social contexts behind world history's firm foothold today often go unacknowledged, since the field in general is far from radical (the term probably fits neither the World History Association, nor its president, William McNeill, for example). Yet, particularly in circles friendly to postcolonial and poststructuralist thinking, scholars engage world history with generous but exacting critiques. They neither ignore nor reject it, but strive to push world history to fulfill its potential: to revise notions of center and periphery, civilized and savage, self and other, and other discursive buttresses of inequality.
Such engagement produces justifiable complaints about the ways most world history monographs, textbooks, and syllabi incompletely sever their ties to Western Civ. Too many world history courses, critics observe, simply add non-European regions without changing the story, producing a Western Civ [End Page 432] with "add-ons" or an "Afro-Asian fig leaf."3 (Alas, even in this critique, the Americas remain naked.) They note that Europe too often retains the status of the universal or poses as the origin of ideas or trends that are then developed elsewhere (the "first in the West, then on to the rest" logic). European themes such as nationalism, the displacement of agricultural society, industrial urban growth, capitalism, and so on, are imposed inappropriately elsewhere.4 Further concern centers on world history's comfort with the large, structural building blocks of Western Civ, whether of time, geographic space (continents, nations, etc.), or epistemology ("history" and "reason"). These structures are left undisturbed even when world history flips the focus squarely from Europe to not-Europe, an approach that allows for greater depth of coverage but little disruption of Eurocentric assumptions.5 [End Page 433]
These are valid expositions of world history's failure to move beyond Eurocentrism, and they are points that any scholar in the field ought carefully to heed. Still, I find it less useful to understand the problem as one of Eurocentrism than as one of narrative. What world history fails to transcend, I think, is not simply Eurocentrism, but narrative itself (bracketing, for a moment, the possibility that the two may be inseparable). World history's central problem is the fuzziness of its story. "Unlike the Western Civilization course," as Stanley Burstein has observed, "which is built around a generally agreed-upon story, there is currently no agreement concerning either the story that might undergird the world history course or the goals of the course."6
This deficit is the result...