WORLD HISTORY IN THE CONTEMPORARY ERA
Historians vary in their reactions to any invitation to deal with recent developments. Some historians are deeply interested in what went before and distrust too much attention to the present, that might dilute the devotion to the past and that inevitably includes involvements and partisanships that can color judgment. In world history, we have seen that a number of historians have been much more concerned with probing early origins than in linking directly to the world around us today. World historians as a group believe that their subject helps people understand the contemporary world, but they diﬀer about how much they want to tackle current relationships directly. The more remote past may seem more fascinating, analytically safer, or simply a preferred alternative given the fact that all sorts of noisy disciplines focus on the present already. This chapter, in looking at contemporary issues in world history
and even (brieﬂy) orientations toward forecasting is not, then, an absolutely standard component of world history basics. On the other hand, all complete world history projects delve into the contemporary era at least to some degree, and at the same time dealing with recent and current developments involves some special problems that deserve brief focus of their own. Recent history oﬀers some special challenges. In contrast to some
of their instructors, world history students have been actively aware
of at most a small slice of the period. Communication across generations can be tricky. Current world historians, for example, were often educated by people deeply aﬀected by the world wars and even the depression. But the interwar years now seem a bit less decisive than they once did: the menace of Nazism, though not to be forgotten, is hardly as intense as it was some decades earlier. On the other hand, for students, the Cold War is not a remembered experience at all, so there’s legitimate discussion about how much detail to provide to catch an audience up with what many instructors actively remember.
A vital component of sorting out the contemporary period involves remembering analytical principles world history has emphasized well before one approaches any part of the twentieth or twentyﬁrst centuries. The most important ﬁrst step in deﬁning any period in history
involves making sure the dominant themes of the previous era – in this case, conventionally, the long nineteenth century – begin to yield in prominence. And it involves making sure that new dominant themes can be identiﬁed. If a period begins with a dramatic event or set of events, that helps as well. A new period should generate possibilities for deﬁning change – the new themes – but also for identifying continuities, both in individual societies and in the world as a whole. The second key step in deﬁning a period involves making sure
that the key themes apply to a number of regions – though perhaps in diﬀerent ways, and with diﬀerent responses – and not just one or two. In dealing with recent developments it’s vital not to assume that what one knows about patterns in one’s own society translates automatically to the world at large. The third key step consists of making sure that a number of key
topics are applied to the period. Not every major aspect of the human experience changes with each period, but no period involves just politics, or just economics. There has to be some topical range, and a careful eﬀort to see how many topics can be legitimately involved. And of course there will be debate. Particularly in dealing with
recent issues, one can expect a great deal of discussion and controversy about how to cut the contemporary cake. Debate should
not prevent some decisions, but it should also encourage a willingness to test and defend any major propositions. In approaching contemporary developments, in other words, it’s
really important to remember that we know a great deal about how to handle issues of timing and chronology.