INTRODUCTION: WHAT AND WHY IS WORLD HISTORY?
The most important point to know about any subject, when beginning to engage with it, is: what’s the purpose; why bother? The basic reason to study world history involves access to the
historical context for the globalized society we live in today (whether one likes a globalized society or not). Correspondingly, the reasons world history courses and programs have soared over the past quarter-century in the United States but also a number of other places, are that more and more educators, and students, have realized how complex and interconnected the world they live in has become, and have identiﬁed the resulting need for a new kind of historical scope. Purely national or regional histories no longer do the trick, though they may be exceptionally useful alongside a world history approach. We need a history that shows how world relationships have emerged and how diﬀerent cultural and political traditions have formed and interacted. That’s what the world is about now, and that’s what world history can help explain. This said, there are some supporting rationales, though they are
much less important than the primary claim. A decisive factor in creating American interest in world history, from both high schools and colleges-universities, was the growing diversity of the student body. With more students arriving from backgrounds in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and often also with greater interest in their
heritage, the need to oﬀer a history that went beyond purely American or West European content became compelling. This was one reason world history initially spread more rapidly, as a teaching subject, at state colleges than at the elite private institutions whose enrollments were less mixed. But there were outright student protests at places like Stanford, pressing for more innovation in the history curriculum instead of a purely Western diet, and these currents unquestionably opened new doors for the world approach. World history oﬀers genuine new discoveries, a third reason to
move it forward as a subject area. We will see that additions are particularly telling for the periods 600-1450 and 1450-1750, where escaping a narrow Western framework is particularly refreshing (even, it can be argued, for a proper understanding of the West itself ). But world history adds new data and new points of view to virtually every period, even the great age of Western imperialism in the nineteenth century. New stories are available, new reasons to become intrigued with the past. Above all, new vantage points emerge that clarify what the past was all about and how it relates to the present. Most world historians would argue that in the process a more accurate view of the past emerges, and accuracy is not to be scorned. This returns us to the main points: world history fosters methods
of analysis that prepare people at all levels to deal with the issues that contemporary global society poses, and will pose in the future. All this assumes that world history can deliver on its promises.
The goal of providing the mixture of facts, skills and analyses that meet the demanding criterion of using the past to explain the global present is undeniably challenging. Students in world history courses should be able to say, at the end of their labors, that they’ve at least made serious advances in that direction.