Does the world have a history? The question may seem rhetorical—after all, we study the history of the universe (cosmology) and the history of the earth (geology), so why not the common history of those who live there? Throughout the recorded past, people have interacted within and across communities: exchanging, trading, fighting, conquering, migrating, mingling, and intermixing. The history of any one community or country is inexplicable without reference to the existence and behavior of other communities and countries. So rather than subdividing it into the contingent and ephemeral nations, states, and continents that form the subject matter of conventional history, why not make a virtue of necessity and treat the history of the world as a whole?
It is a seductive notion, sometimes accompanied by an implicit utopian postulate: we are all “citizens of the world,” or should be, so why not cast our story as a shared experience? A lot of schools and colleges in the US now offer courses in “World History.” In many places these substitute for histories of states or regions (Europe) whose previous salience in the curriculum is shunned as the legacy of discredited cultural and political bias. We live in a “global” (or “globalizing”) environment, the argument runs, so the time has come to teach our past in accordance with our present condition.
There are two problems here. The first is obvious: when you try to explain everything, you run the risk of conveying nothing very much at all. As John Roberts puts it in his history of the world in the twentieth century, “general explanations are generally unhelpful.” In the old days we studied English history, for example, as though it unfolded in splendid autonomy. The lives and opinions of the rest of humankind served only as a backdrop to the national story. Today we risk being so preoccupied in shading in the broader human experience that we lack the time or inclination to delineate any national story at all. The gain in breadth is offset by an undifferentiated blandness.
The second difficulty lies in a problem of perspective. History is a story, a story needs a narrator, and a narrator needs to be standing somewhere. The view from nowhere doesn’t work. The fulcrum of the narrative need not be a place; it can just as well be a philosophy of history or a political ideology. That is why the great liberal histories of the past worked so well, telling a confident tale of human progress centered on the civilization of Europe. It is also why the best Marxist historians have written such successful general histories. And it is the reason most history textbooks are so unspeakably boring, hamstrung by their authors’ efforts to tell everyone’s story from all possible angles and to offend no constituency or point of view. The history of the world can be rendered interesting and convincing from various perspectives (which is not to say that they are all equally true), but no one history can embrace…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.