- A Primer for Teaching World History by Antoinette Burton
While many historians have claimed to teach World History, often [End Page 300] 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presume that the “local” is rural or somewhere other than the United States, or that it is inevitably going to be superseded by the global (p. 55).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 [End Page 301] 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...