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Mission Impossible, Accepted

Robert Strayer


     Whose world history? The answer seems fairly obvious—everyone's…so long as they honor the standards of professional historical scholarship, which includes openness to critique from others. Almost a half-century ago, I taught world history in an Ethiopian high school classroom, guided by an Ethiopian- and African-centered curriculum. A different angle of vision from what I later came to think of as World History, of course. But genuine world history, absolutely!

     As to the issue of writing world history from within the highly privileged…and powerful…setting of American society, our touchstones should be those ancient virtues of humility, generosity, awareness, and empathy. In that light, it would be a very good idea to rename the WHA as the North American World History Association, operating within the larger context of NOGWHISTO.

     But when I consider the history of the world history enterprise in this country over the past 3–4 decades, what strikes me is the urge to celebrate rather than criticize. Most of the people in world history movement have in fact practiced the virtues mentioned above. Historians, mostly of European descent, have largely slain the dragon of Euro-centrism, at least in its more obvious manifestations. In professional historical circles, we now treat the history of Africa, pre-Columbian America, gathering and hunting societies, pastoralists, and much more with the same seriousness…and respect…formerly reserved for Europeans. We have been open to "history from below," increasingly willing to incorporate women, workers, sub-alterns of various kinds as historical agents, not simply victims. Our posture toward the global hegemony of West generally and the USA in particular has been critical, rather than celebratory. We have framed that hegemony in historical context that deny its earlier absolutist claims. We have been welcoming to perspectives that come from outside of our own cultural frame. In short we have demonstrated the possibility of transcending, at least in some measure, the limitations of time and place. If we cannot affirm that possibility, the entire historical enterprise collapses.

     Is there more to do in this respect? Of course! Like the struggle with our own egos in personal life, it is an enduring task with no final resolution. But the nobility of the historical profession, and that of world history in particular, lies in persisting in our "mission impossible." Like Sisyphus, we continually push the stone of our human limitations up the hill, knowing that we will never achieve consensus, complete clarity, or total objectivity. But world history—even in its limited "western" or WHA version—has achieved much in a short time. We can afford a moment of justifiable pride, before we return to the task

Robert Strayer is retired from the State University of New York at Brockport and California State University at Monterey Bay. He is currently teaching part-time at Cabrillo College. His most recent publications include Ways of the World: A Brief Global History with Sources (Bedford, 2011); The Communist Experiment (McGraw Hill, 2007) and Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse? (M.E. Sharpe, 1998). He can be contacted at


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