Eurocentrism in World History

Eurocentric Claims about the Humanities

by Patrick Kane

The teaching of world history offers a valuable paradigm for the teaching of modern history (1550-Present) and other periods of history.  The old paradigm of history based on the nation-state and the Rise of the West and Eurocentrism has been critiqued and replaced by the newer model of World History as comparative history.[1] This has greater relevance for the teaching of history to students of the humanities and social sciences.

One of the ironies of late twentieth century American culture is the preservation of an elite role for Eurocentric studies. In an era labeling itself as global, the reliance by Americans on a Eurocentric model for explaining history remains as a vestige of the old Hegelian model. This reliance occurred amid American entry into a post cold war strategy in which the relations of global power have been maintained but for which American intellectuals lacked a rational theory for explaining contradictions it found in its own formation and those of other societies and nation-states.  Of the modern democracies, Americans have perhaps as much difficulty as any in accepting discrepancies in customs and material conditions of living. Anthropology plays a more important role for Americans than other social sciences, for instance history or sociology, as the need to study and create markets for international products makes it more useful.

A similar problem is found in English historiography on Africa. The difficulties found in the British School of Africanists, including John Fage and their reluctant acceptance of oral history as a methodology, created a debate in African historical studies between African historians, including Adu Boahen, Afigbo and Ajaye. Similarly, the limited critique of colonialism within France led to its intellectual deconstruction and political resistance by the intellectuals of the colonized: Fanon, Albert Memmi, Ho Chi Minh, Aime Cesaire, and Camara Laye. The study of North African culture allows one to bridge the notion of traditional and postcolonial as a study of pop rai music and of the Algerian Jewish musician, Maurice El-Medioni, and their relocation to Marseilles, France, allows students and scholars an opportunity to ask questions about the production of culture as an ongoing and changing response of considerable fluidity and movement.

The development of world history as a new field of history has since the 1980s provided a better model for comparing regions and cultures of the world.  Within the past decade, the project of the California School, encouraged a reappraisal of world history as a method of comparison, and has shifted the paradigms of world history away from the core-periphery dependency theories of the Annales and World-Systems approaches. World history offers a possibility of comparing interdisciplinary fields, particularly of Africa, or Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the so-called subalterns.  Similarly the Eurocentric periodization of history with its privileging of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment as exclusive achievements of the Europeans has been challenged.  I teach and encourage students to challenge this exclusivity by making use of the studies by Jack Goldstone, Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World, (1991), to show how the development of capitalism in England may be compared with the development of capitalism in the Qing dynasty of China.  By extension, I encourage students to compare the development of arts in the Ottoman Empire or of China or Africa as undergoing significant transformations and Enlightenments of their own.  Here, Rifa’at About El-Haj in his Formation of the Modern State:  The Ottoman Empire, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Century, (2005) has shown the need for rigorous methodology and work in primary sources and interpretation to avoid the habit of Western historians, in their reliance upon secondary sources and the singularity of the nation-state, to repeat their stereotyped assumptions about Ottoman decline and autocracy in modern history.

For ancient history, this paradigm shift has found useful advocates in the serial project of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena, with its reappraisal of the relation and contribution of Egyptians and Africans to Eastern Mediterranean society.  Studies in archaeology and linguistics, including the rise of iron working in Zimbabwe and Joseph Greenberg, The Languages of Africa, shed light on the comparative treatment of ancient African history with Asian or European development.  For medieval and early modern history, the European focus on African slavery and the colonial phase has been reevaluated through the comparative concept of Atlantic African Diaspora culture and history.  Similarly the work of African historians has revised our understanding of pre-colonial African history and societies.

For medieval history the comparison of European and Islamic, Chinese and other Asian, African, and Central American societies is a useful method for teaching world history, as in Charles Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages, 400-800 (2000).  One cannot explain much of the development of world history from the 7th century through 1550 without a consideration of the various empires of the Islamic civilizations, and of the Mongol empires of Central Asia and their influence.  For Europe, the accumulation of wealth is centered on a relation between merchants, clergy and agriculture.  For this students may make use of architecture, and general works, such as George Duby, The Age of Cathedrals, to begin to study the phenomenon of monasteries and the formation of town centers, with their richly documented sources.  Similar approaches to other civilizations and cultures allow students to compare the American mound cultures, as at Cahokia, with monastic estates in Europe.

For early modern history, or the period after 1550, the rise of rival world empires is key to explaining the rise of European ascendance and colonization.  The wealth of the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal Empires during the 16th and 17th centuries was afforded by their own development of the commodities and by internal developments in the bureaucratic state that supported extended public services and commerce. The take-off of English industry and science after 1550 is a unique combination of an empire that combined science, economy and ideology that allowed for the development of the industrial revolution, but at an enormous social cost to its colonies in Ireland or India.  The study of the rise of the empires after 1550 affords students with rich sources both in political ideology and in artistic and cultural formation.  Recent scholarship on the Qing dynasty as in Peter Perdue, China Marches West (2007) or R. Bin Wong, China Transformed (1997) allows us to conceptualize the rise of China as another route to industrial formationFrom the 19th century, the rise of nationalism sets competition between empires as a struggle between European states over the share of the continental system and the world economy and headlong into the century of warfare that marks the 20th century and its continuing struggles in the early 21st century.

In my teaching I encourage students to make use of primary sources and to squarely confront the problems of power and societies in the formation and writing of world history.  Students with an interest in the humanities and arts are encouraged to make use of original letters or documents, or works of art as illustrative of the specific context of a historical formation or problem of world history.  A multidimensional approach to the use of sources allows for students to develop their own comparative skills in analyzing the comparative experiences of world societies and the diversity of this experience.

I encourage and make use of the seminar method of teaching, which after the introduction of the material and context, allows for students to compare and present selected primary texts for critical discussion.  A student interested in Italian Renaissance art may make use of Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, to compare with an interpretative work by Bram Kempers, Painting, Power and Patronage for a presentation on an aspect of power and society in 15th century Italy.  Picasso’s Guernica is an example of a commentary on a twentieth century civil war which may be compared with the reading of Arturo Barea’s The Forging of a Rebel., or Garcia Lorca.

On the other hand a student interested in African art, may make use of material on the importance of oral history sources for both Western African history and the arts as an avenue into interpreting the development of early modern or contemporary African history.  The writings of Adu Boahen on Western African history may be compared with developments in African philosophies on art and culture as a critique of the empirical model of Eurocentric approaches to African history.

By encouraging students to develop presentations in class, students develop their own critical skills of analysis and exposition.  Students may share presentations and proceed to develop their own critical essays or reviews of historiography or primary sources.  In this way the goal is to encourage the student to undertake a critical approach to world history and its relevance to the contemporary world and the development of social ethics.

[1] On the relevance of World History as a new paradigm, I am indebted to advantages and differences found among the works of Jack Goldstone, Peter Perdue, R. Bin Wong, and Rifa’at Abou El-Haj and his Formation of the Modern State (2005), and specifically to Peter Gran’s article, “Modern World History as the Rise of the Rich: A New Paradigm,” History Compass 5/3 (2007): 1026–1049.