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Introduction to Forum:
The Question of Historical Perspective in World Historical Analysis

Guest Editor: Helen Grady


     Teaching world history automatically immerses us in the wonderfully stimulating, yet often frustrating venture of constructing syllabi that represent the ways we are thinking about the history of humankind. Perspective is that all-important vision we bring to the exercise. Endeavoring not to privilege any one region or culture, searching for potential comparisons across cultural areas, and noting interactions among human communities as well as recognizing their vast diversities are imperatives we are conscious of in putting together a coherent course. The authors of these five articles give us wonderful food for thought as we rethink our approach to our world history courses. Each of the articles addresses questions such as: how do we organize the course; where do we focus our attention; and what periodization will work most effectively to reflect how we want students to contextualize the material. New thinking about perspectives challenges and energizes even as it might aggravate and worry. The Forum articles can trigger each of these results, and is all the better for that.

     Peter Stearns presents a thought-provoking exploration of the flaws of the long 19th century as a period in world history. To complicate his vision, he does recognize its merits, but offers a reconfiguration of the period that he sees as a more globally appropriate construct. Stearns' explanations for expanding the early modern era to the mid-19th century and the mid-19th century to the present as the contemporary period are cogent and thorough. The themes he generates for each period are convincing.

     Genocide, as a theme for world history, is what Brenda Melendy tackles in her article. She notes that is has long been a controversial one, but argues that it is a valid and compelling one. She establishes its rationale by listing the qualifications in its legal definition and offers categories of analysis to alleviate some of the frustrations implicit in that legal definition. Her case studies support her assertion that genocide is a theme that brings a rich and necessary context to the study of world history and offers striking examples for comparative analysis—a hallmark of the world history course. Additionally, Professor Melendy provides a rich list of resources for teachers.

     Confronting the hard realities of constructing historical narratives for new post-colonial states, Wynn Wilcox addresses the problem of establishing an entirely new perspective for these autonomous histories, one that resists relying on the "worldview or the chronology of colonialism and is charged with the task of constructing a pre-colonial history that connects with their post-colonial reality. Obviously this involves shifting from a Euro-centric narrative to one that gives indigenous peoples a central role. Professor Wilcox, while elaborating on the problems of the task, offers four potential models to solve those problems. The article is compelling not only for the provocative questions it poses, but also for the valuable exploration of each of the models Wilcox identifies to reexamine the establishment of perspective in writing the historical narratives of newly established nations.

     Both Jansen and Maxwell come to the task of how to construct curricula that reflects world history as well as their students' and their own individual perspectives with an awareness of the pitfalls of Euro-centric narratives and a commitment to avoid them.

     Jansen's goal is to construct a "global history curriculum" based in a "European point of view" (p 2). He is committed to using stories and images to engage his students, to exploring the multiple causalities that are central to the discipline of history and to having students understand the connections to contemporary society. He explores these "benchmarks" that underwrite his content as he unpacks his ideas for periodization. Interestingly, one of his five periods resembles to an extent some of the ideas that Stearns explored in reconfiguring the long 19th century.

     Maxwell, on the other, configures his curriculum from a regionalist philosophy of world history that demands all cultural regions of the world get individual attention. He selects regions rather than organizing ideas or themes because it discourages lumping disparate regions together when they have little or nothing in common. He discusses the course he and a colleague have constructed and reveals how the inclusion of regions of the world in that course matches up with a few selected world history source book's coverage of regions of the world.

     Taken together, the articles in this forum offer teachers new and discerning ideas for rethinking their courses. The excitement engendered when we experiment with new ways of looking is compounded by the rewards we reap when we put some of those new ideas to work. Each of these authors have given an abundance for us to think about.

Helen Grady, a retired high school history teacher from Philadelphia, can be reached at


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