For the past several years globalizing my World History classes has animated my teaching practice. I was fortunate to be able to share some of this work at the second annual Minnesota History Fest, where I presented “Putting the World in World War One in the World History Classroom.” Teaching about World War One presents an excellent opportunity to add content from Africa, Asia, and Oceania to a World History survey course. Continuing to globalize World History curricula is necessary for educational equity and academic authenticity, and, as a bonus, this task makes the class more interesting to teach.
The Need for World History
Integrating all parts of the world into World History promotes equity by ensuring that all students see themselves and their classmates reflected in the course. Windows and mirrors are important in all classrooms, regardless of their degree of racial or ethnic heterogeneity. Students should see the world with all of its diversities in their academic learning.
In World History this not just an issue of equity, it is also fidelity to the discipline. Candice Goucher and Linda Walton’s short essay concisely and usefully answers the question “What is World History?”. They begin with the intuitive notion that “World history seeks a global perspective on the past, one that acknowledges and integrates the historical experiences of all of the world’s people.” For most high school world history teachers doing this requires intentionally adding more global content, since the legacy course is either “Western Civilization” or a “World History” class originally built around a Western narrative.
A World War
World War One presents an interesting case in this process, because its origins were European and it was very consequential. This guarantees it a place in both European and World History classes. But, in World History, we should always “seek a global perspective.” As I did this for WWI, myriad global connections came into view, as the 70+ slides in the director’s cut of the presentation attest. Learning online made this possible, especially links between podcasts, online academic writing (1914-1918 Online is great), and digital collections (especially the IWM). With access to so much information, our courses do not need to resemble those we took or previously taught. Bonus: learning about global connections is fun!
Moreover, World Historians, according to Goucher and Walton, analyze global perspectives for “integration and difference.” Studying patterns of contact and comparison makes World History as a discipline different from courses that study various regions of the world discretely. Discussing World War One in this way foregrounds the global connections and differences produced by European colonialism.
These global connections made it surprisingly easy to find events with multiple regions, and even continents, represented. As an example, Dr. Santanu Das produces a litany of participants on the Western Front:
Between 1914 and 1918 in a grotesque reversal of Joseph Conrad’s, vision hundreds of thousands of nonwhite men were sailing to the heart of whiteness and beyond to witness the horror, the horror of Western warfare. Indeed, if we visited Ypres during the wartime, one would have seen Indian sepoys, Tirailleurs Senegalais , North African Spahis, Chinese and Indochinese workers, Egyptian and South African labor corps, Maori pioneer battalions, First Nation Canadians, aboriginal Australians, in addition to the white troops and workers from Europe and the British dominions. (from his podcast starting at 2:43)
Despite the overwhelming whiteness of most images of the Western Front seen in high school World History materials, it was a multiracial space. As Goucher and Walton claim “the processes of world history have drawn peoples of the world together,” in this case at an iconic site of modern warfare.
Combat outside of Europe also drew people from around the world. The photograph below illustrates this for East Africa. The East African sailors posed on an Australian cruiser that was blockading a German warship.
Indian soldiers, East and West African laborers, and British and German officers participated in this theater, a four-continent encounter. In East Africa, colonial relationships created significant differences in experience of the Great War. The deaths of one million East Africans, including nearly 100,000 conscripted porters, tragically illustrates this. Insatiable colonial labor demands disrupted agricultural production. The resulting drop in agricultural production caused hundreds of thousands of deaths from diseases and famine. This tragedy should be included in any discussion of the human costs of the war.
Considering issues on a global scale is especially important for our world today. Indeed it might be, “humanity’s attempt to fully understand itself in an age of globalization” (Goucher and Walton). We live in a global world, and our politics are consumed by the implications. World History can help students to understand this, because globalization is nothing new. Humanity is in its sixth century of considering this essential question: How do we live in a global age?
Answering this has been more and less urgent at different times over the past half millennium. Our current World History course began to form in the second half of the 20th Century, a time dominated by the Cold War. The Western Civ courses that I had in high school and college helped me to understand how 19th century “ism’s” and 20th century world wars produced a bipolar world. The lack of attention to much of the human experience was a serious problem that contributed to the persistence of white supremacy and white nationalism. But, Eurocentrism at least led us toward understanding the major global issue of the day. Well taught Western Civ and European History classes have much to offer students, of course. They are not, however, a substitute for World History. Putting the world into our classroom discussions of World War One reminds students that globalization is nothing new.
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