Historians divide the past into periods to help organize a huge amount of information. This process of periodization is by no means objective or absolute. What's relevant about the passage of time depends on the topics you're interested in, the people you focus on, the questions you ask, the story you want to tell. Periods tend to be marked by continuities—while the separations between periods reflect identifiable changes. World history tends to focus on transition points when the nature or level of interactions among peoples in different regions changes significantly. This contrasts with the more traditional approach where the focus might be on periods of continuity and change WITHIN a particular region—Europe, for example. It also contrasts to older attempts to universalize human experience that subsumed all people into a period defined loosely by technology—say, the iron age—when, in fact, people created iron work at different dates in different regions.
Teaching New World History
When faced with the notion of teaching a “new world history,” many no doubt will chafe at the idea of adding something more on to a task that is already hugely challenging. “I already have to teach all those standards,” you might say, “and now I have to add on something NEW?” But teaching new world history is actually liberating, and in a fundamental sense can reduce the anxiety of teaching what otherwise may seem to be an endless stream of disconnected information. By providing a structured framework within which the story of humanity on our planet can be examined in various enlightening ways, it is less about adding in new material than it is about re-framing the way one organizes the material one already teaches. The focus turns to finding ways to connect seemingly disparate events, persons and ideas in such a way that patterns of human experience are highlighted and study is both more engaging and more meaningful. Teaching “new world history” can actually be more fun, more effective, and even easier!
What we call “new world history” often goes by other names – transnational history, transregional history, global history, and sometimes even comparative history. In fact, it's not even that new, but rather builds on longstanding strands of scholarship that were rejuvinated in the 1960s by the work of William McNeill and Philip Curitn, among others. This work looks for large patterns of human experience that transcend national or regional boundaries, and that may take place over very long periods of time. One fundamental goal of this kind of inquiry is relating the “big picture” of the human story to scales of exploration with which we're more familiar. This approach can lead to different periodizations and to new themes to study, and it challenges students and teachers to develop thinking skills in order to draw upon sources in new ways.
A history centered on events can be overwhelming to students and teachers alike, a parade of “one damned thing after another” (Peter Stearns). Emphasizing themes can help students to see connections across periods and regions.
- Interaction between people and their environment, including agriculture and disease
- Economic interactions, including developments and changes in economic systems; itineraries/voyages
- Political interactions, including developments and changes in political systems and state structures, and also state consolidation, expansion, and decline
- Social interactions, including developments and changes of hierarchies, gender roles, institutions like churches, education, and diasporas
- Cultural interactions, including development and changes in language, art, religion
Introducing students to scale in history is like giving each of them a new camera with a big zoom lens. They can widen the focus to take in a town, a region, a country, or the whole globe. Or they can focus tightly on an individual life or a specific ecosystem. However, that focus doesn't remove the connections that tie a person, group, or location to broader historical processes.
Scale can be an expanding field of vision, an array of concentric circles, or a telescoping unit of analysis. Whereas most local, regional, and national studies presume a single scale that provides parameters for study, the new world history intentionally moves among scales in order to demonstrate many layers of connections.
This timeline is a visual representation of scale. Looking at the whole chart is an attempt to create a global scale that spans the period from 3000 BCE to 2000 CE. You can frame any segment of this poster to get more detail about smaller pieces of this whole, sliding up and down a scale to observe more local detail, or more evidence of connections.
Working with primary sources lets your students think and write as historians. The scope of world history can make primary sources seem daunting, at first. Allowing time for students to read texts or carefully observe visual materials (including art, coins, graphs, tables, maps) can focus a class on specific content. Their efforts to make sense of the clues in a source, and to understand the ways the source links to information in their text books or to other primary source material is empowering. Students engage in creating their own knowledge, rather than simply memorizing line items in the state standards.
Some useful sources for classroom work include:
A classroom approach that is intentional about skills development serves two purposes. First, it helps students see a forrest rather than simply an aggomeration of trees. In a world history classroom, most of those trees have unfamiliar names. Gilgamesh, Han Wu, Olympe de Gouges, and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk may as well be botanical Latin if students don't have a context in which to understand events and ask produtive questions about connections and ruptures in human history. Second, helping students to be intentional in their application of methods and mental strategies gives them tools they can apply in other settings.
In the internet age, resourceful students can quickly look up names and dates, so what they need is not an events-centered classroom experience, but rather the experience of evaluating competing sets of information and drawing their own informed conclusions.
New world history encourges beginning students to:
- Recognize historical arguments
- Differentiate among competing interpretations
- Identify causes for change and continuity
- Locate specific events in time place
- Describe connections across geographic space and across time
- Identify opinions and explain perspectives/voice in primary sources
As students make progress, they can work to be able to:
- Compare historical process in different regions or time periods
- Evaluate different interpretations and make judgements about the soundness of arguments
- Differentiate between proximate and incirect causes
- Propose alternative interpretations
- Propose explanations for conflicting evidence in primary sources
- Propose explanations for conflicting interpretations in secondary sources