Blogs > Cliopatria > "Defining Europe" and History itself

Oct 31, 2004 4:35 pm

"Defining Europe" and History itself

In a post titled "Defining Europe" over on H-World, Alexander Engel of Goettingen University raises some oh-so-interesting questions about the current debates on the past and future of Europe. In a nutshell, he points up that the historical construction of Europe is increasingly at odds with the move to include Turkey and other more"eastern" (dare I say Oriental?) states. He includes several interesting excerpts from the Draft Constitution of the European Union -- among which is the geographically erroneous notion that Europe is a" continent."

This brings up a wider point that I've been mulling over for some time -- regarding our tendency to use modern constructions (such as"Europe") and impose them upon our analyses of the past. Goodness knows the neither the Ancient Greeks nor the Romans ever thought of themselves as"Europeans" as we understand the word's meaning today. Indeed, if either group had been forced to identify a"world" to which they belonged, it would have almost certainly been built around the Mediterranean... and thus included many"non-European" regions. Thus, because we (or certain groups of us) tend to invest identity and meaning in these more modern constructions -- be they"Europe" or even"Africa" -- we then impose that identity upon the past. Such a situation suggests that our current meta-organization of knowledge in the form of"Area Studies" and"Ethnic Studies" programs does much to obscure the reality of history by imposing modern boundaries on the pre-modern world.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 11/1/2004

Jon, I teach world history, I like world history, and like you, world history has improved everything else that I do.

I am intrigued by any approach that makes it "the only unambiguous unit of historical study," and I hope you share more about why you think that.

I find it is just the opposite. Because World History theoretically contains all human action since, at least, the first literate culture, it is the most ambiguous. That is because its very breadth implies a "world perspective" that simply does not exist, and it provides no guidance whatsoever as to what perspective(s) suffice.

For all its admitted sloppiness, Western Civ has parameters that can be used creatively (and even undercut when necessary for good instruction).

Now the struggle for perspective(s) is, in and of itself, enlightening both to the instructor and, if shared creatively, to the student. It can even be a central theme. But that light emerges from ambiguity and not the lack thereof.

Jonathan Dresner - 10/31/2004

It's true that 'Western Civ' does not take an entirely arbitrary geographical limitation as its boundaries, but the cultural boundaries are almost equally arbitrary: it's only in the last decade or so that Islam has been integrated into the Western Civ narrative, and that quite badly so far; Persia is a mysterious source of gods and administrative function and coinage....

I think the time when the US could be considered almost exclusively under the rubric of Western Civ has passed, and even European imperialism and world trade never sat well in that narrative.

There's a value in cultural literacy, and in exploring historical roots, but if I'm teaching history, then it has to be better defined.

Oscar Chamberlain - 10/31/2004

There's always a struggle between a history of a given place and time and a history of a process, the evolution of a set of ideas, the evolution of culture.

One can, and in many cases should, look at ancient Mesopotamian civilization without reference to what survives of it. Yet what survives of it matters, too and is an appropriate topic for the historian.

The much maligned Western Civ course--really the old European civ course expanded to deal with a global American empire and a better understanding of the importance of Islam-- has an assumption at its core: It is important for people within western civilization to understand where that civilization comes from. I think that assumption is correct.

To some extent that's the perspective of heritage and not history. But heritage can be an honorable perspective in history(when used honorably and not as a tool of empire or for some other didactic purpose). The links between ancient Mesopotamia and europe and western civ exist. They exist in places as diverse as the lines on a globe and a statue of the Ten Comandments in an Alabama court house. They matter, and I think that a society more aware of those links (and thus more aware of a great deal of history, might even be a better one..

Hala Fattah - 10/31/2004

Dear All,
Ever tried to teach undergraduates that tribes existed in 11th century "Europe"? There are some constructs that remain forever attached to "underdeveloped" parts of the Arab/Islamic/Asian world, and tribes seems to be one of those.

Jonathan Dresner - 10/31/2004

I taught Western Civ for a few years, and after my initial enthusiasm at the great cultural literacy education I was doing, I began to realize that it was a historiographical mess. Switching to world history has been a very pleasant transition: it is the only unambiguous unit of historical study, and world historians have done much of the complicating and confusing with which you are grappling.

My own fields Japanese and Asian history, have been slowly and (eventually, I'm quite sure) dramatically altered by both the comparative and interactive aspects of world history. The projection back of national boundaries is a serious problem: one of my favorite assignments for my world history classes used to be forcing them to write a history of a presently existing country not as a country but as a territory, taking into account previous regimes, empires, etc. Bit of an eye-opener.

Jonathan T. Reynolds - 10/31/2004

I didn't mean to say that "Europe" never exists... just that it is a mistake to extend our modern conception too far back in time. Certainly it makes sense to talk about "Europe" post-Utrecht, and perhaps even back towards the 15th century, as voyages of exploration began to help those folks living in "Western eurasia" think of themselves as different from the folks they bumping into all over the world. Indeed, it is perhaps the process of making maps that really begins to create a notion of "Europe." Looking at medieval maps, however, points up that there was little notion of a division between Europe, Asia, & Africa at the time. Together, they formed a contiguous world which stretched out around the Mediterranean.

Our units of analysis should reflect the realities of the time being studied, not some time subsequent. As an analogy, we wouldn't/couldn't/shouldn't use the current borders of my fair state of Kentucky to talk about the history of Pre-18th century North America in any meaningful way. Why do we do the same thing with Europe, which is, if anything, and even more amorphous construction -- hewn out of ever-shifting political, ethnic, and ideological stock? Heck, many European/Western Civ textbooks go so far as to start in Ancient (3rd Millennium BCE) Mesopotamia -- an area notoriously short on "Europeans" at the time in question. That's pretty funny, when you get down to it.

Ralph E. Luker - 10/31/2004

This raises a good question -- indeed, a whole range of questions, but I'm not sure that it solves problems. For example, if Europe is _not_ a continent, which I'm prepared to believe, what is it and what would we call it? World history of the 15th through the 20th century was pretty dramatically shaped by people located in a relatively small part of "west Asia." I don't know that we've solved any problems by calling it that.

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