Am I the only one who was taught “world” history as if it were mainly European history? Throughout primary school, I scarcely learned anything about the rest of the world unless it involved the West in some way. Aside from some token references in textbooks – which were often glanced at or skipped anyway – it seemed that very little occurred in most of the world for most of human history. In fact, one gets the impression that Africa, the Americas, and much of Asia were devoid of history until the Europeans showed up.
Indeed, how many people can recall the civilizations that existed in Sub-Saharan Africa prior to European colonization – or if any civilization existed in the first place? How many people know anything substantial about the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incans other than that were conquered by the Spanish? The Persians, who constituted one of the most ancient and advanced civilizations in human history, emerge first – and often solely – as antagonists to the Ancient Greeks, whose civilization is the one many world history teachers start from instead.
And what about the invaluable contributions made by the Chinese, Indian, and Islamic civilizations, each of which produced countless innovations, art forms, and philosophies? Their very existence changed the course of human history. Chinese civilization alone spans tens of thousands of years, most of them rich in all sorts of political, cultural, and intellectual developments. Yet by my recollection, the Chinese generally receive little more than passing acknowledgement of their ingenuity, much less any in-depth coverage.
To be clear, I’m not trying to denigrate the importance of European history. To me, there’s no competition between any of the world’s many histories – they should be taught collectively and with as much equal consideration as possible. Obviously, we know more about some histories than others, and certain time periods were more influenced by some nations than others.
But the point of history, as the root word shows, is to tell a story. It shouldn’t be limited to just the victors or superpowers. Every perspective is pertinent to a holistic understanding of history. Even if Europe was the dominant bloc for many of the last few centuries, does that make the point of view of “lesser” or colonized states any less valuable or insightful?
Also, my assessment comes from personal experience, as well as my own observation of what young people are learning now. I’m not aware of any research on the subject, although I’d be very interested to read other people’s experiences. But either way, I’m certain that if I had limited my worldview only to what was presented to me in (public) school, I’d be woefully ignorant of the astounding richness of human civilization across the planet and the ages.
Sadly, if my anecdotal accounts are correct, not a lot has changed. The American public is woefully ethnocentric and has little knowledge or concern for other cultures, languages, and global events. Most people have little understanding of their own nation’s history, much less that of foreign entities. The overwhelming majority of Americans don’t even have passports.
Some may argue that all this is a consequence of our superpower status, since smaller and comparatively weaker states must necessarily look outward to compete. Even geography may play a role – compared to other regions like Europe or East Asia, we’re quite isolated from other distinct civilizations. Another argument involves the nature of the public education system, which is too focused on math and reading at the expense of social studies.
So is the way we approach history the cause of our cloistered attitudes? Or is it the other way around? Are private schools any better? Whatever the case – and I confess having my own internationalist bias – I’m still lamenting the overall lack of appreciation for a genuine global history.