Blogs > Cliopatria > 252,000 years in 56 Pages

Nov 1, 2004 4:18 pm

252,000 years in 56 Pages

In recent years I have watched with a mix of wonder and trepidation as I've been transmogrified into a World Historian. As if all of Africa wasn't enough, I had to take on the world, too.

World History is a particularly daunting field, with the art being in making sense of the world without going on forever (a-la Will & Ariel Durant). David Christian (advocate and defender of "Big History" ) now seems to have raised (shortened?) the bar by having written a 56 page survey of human history entitled "This Fleeting World," ( free pdf download) which is part of the soon-to-be available Berkshire Encyclopedia of Word History. (Full disclosure -- I contributed an essay on"Africa as a Concept in World History" to the volume, which, along with many other letter-A articles, is available as a free pdf sample .).

Some historians may take exception to the fact that Christian doesn't exactly plumb the depths of the many controversies raised in his tour of world history, but doing so would have rendered the exercise impossible. As it stands, it makes a dandy overview and should serve to help bring potential instructors of World History up to speed on"Grand Narratives" in minimal time. A doff of the cyber-cap to Dr. Christian, with bonus points for sheer historical chutzpah.
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Jonathan T. Reynolds - 11/1/2004

A wise question, oh Great Blog Leader.

Certainly, even for text-minimalists such as myself, an overview such as Christian's would be TOO minimalistic to stand alone. However, as you suggest, it could easily serve as a mega-macro overview to help students find context for the barrage of information that any World History survey is certain to bring. I am sure that this is exactly the role it is meant to play in the Berkshire Encyclopedia.

Also, some World History teachers are today foregoing survey texts altogether (much to the horror of large commercial publishers), choosing instead a collection of primary texts, monographs, and works of fiction. A work such as _This Fleeting World_ could similarly serve to help students "locate" these more specific sources in the otherwise dizzying breadth of World History.

More so, I would hope that something like TFW would simply help those not trained in World History to adjust their framework for understanding wider history. Especially for those trained within "Civilizational" cannons (Western Civ or otherwise), there is a tendency to simply "append" other histories to their own narrative. Perhaps by being introduced to the much wider themes into which the Western or Islamic or whatever story itself fits (as opposed to vice versa) such sources can get people to think in broader World History terms.

Ralph E. Luker - 11/1/2004

I'm curious, Jonathan, about how you would actually _use_ a 56 page overview of world history in a one or two semester World History course. Would you have the students read the whole thing at the outset for a preliminary overview? Would it be a culminating assignment for a re-assessment? Surely, you wouldn't have them read bits and pieces of it scattered over the one or two semesters, would you?

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