Historical Thinking History

Changing our vantage points

Keeping an open mind as a history teacher is about more than be willing to test our understandings of the past with new evidence.  It also means looking at familiar topics from new vantage points.

Recently on Twitter I’ve seen historians advocating more engagement with the public.  I’m all for it, but I also think that secondary teachers should engage with history.  Reading academic history provides both content knowledge and models of historical habits of mind that are necessary for globalizing world history curricula and developing historical thinking skills. We need to expose ourselves to new perspectives on the past, and observe how history is practiced. Since I want my students to understand how historical knowledge is constructed, I need to consult mentor texts, with full academic apparatus, that demonstrate how history works.  Embracing history as a way of knowing, not just a set of facts, means exposing myself to new understandings of the past.

Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton is such a mentor text ( my review on Goodreads). The book is the fruit of years of research that Beckert marshals to trace the rise of industrial capitalism.  One of his main conclusions is to rethink the relative peacefulness of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Looked at from the perspective of much of Asia, Africa, and the Americas…the nineteenth century was an age of barbarity and catastrophe, as slavery and imperialism devastated first one pocket of the globe and then another. It is the twentieth century by contrast, by contrast that saw the weakening of imperial powers and thus allowed more of the world’s people to determine their own futures and shake off the shackles of colonial domination.

As Beckert notes this is the opposite of the view from Europe, where a calamitous twentieth century followed a more peaceful nineteenth century.  Breaking free from Eurocentrism is one of the current developmental tasks for high school World History.  Doing this requires accumulation of more content knowledge.

Globalizing the curriculum means viewing familiar topics from different angles. To this end I’m curating resources and doing workshop presentations on the global aspects World War I.  And, for the past year I’ve been revisiting Russian history.  As a child of the late Cold War Russian history and literature have always interested me.  Teaching AP European History for a decade give me an opportunity to work with students on modern Russia.  Teaching World History reignited my interest in Russian History, but from a Eurasian perspective,
Viewing Russian History from the Eurasian steppe yields the same benefits as looking at European history from Russia.  The periphery can clarify the core, while yielding new understandings of interregional connections. Looking from the steppe the imperialism of the Russian Empire is more clear.  Charles Steinwald’s Threads of Empire  and Matthew Romaniello’s Elusive Empire consider the varying strategies employed by Russians in their imperial project, and the limits of Russian control. Both books demonstrate that Russian consolidation of territorial gains was slower and more contingent than I have generally understood and taught. As a World History teacher considering how Russian imperialism functioned opens the possibility of comparing it to the workings of other Empires.  Empire of Cotton reinforced this possibility. Beckert discusses how Russian cotton colonialism in Central Asia in the late nineteenth century worked similarly to the British India and German West Africa.

Cover of Erika Monahan’s Merchants of Siberia

Similarly, Erika Monahan’s excellent Merchants of Siberia analyzes Muscovy as an burgeoning state in Eurasian context, while also demonstrating the role that it played in trans-continental trade networks.  This changed my vantage point again, from the Steppe to East and South Asia, the origins of many of the goods traveling through Russia. Monahan shows how overland routes remained important even as global maritime networks rapidly growing.

The Russian books came to my attention through the Russian History Blog; and, the recommendation of a historian facilitating a Twitter discussion through #whapchat persuaded me to pick up Empire of Cotton. Learning online makes our learning offline better by point us to useful vantage points for viewing history.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

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