Robert Strayer, "The Centrality of Context in World History"

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     The greatest contribution of World History to the education of our students and our understanding of life in general does NOT primarily lie in the specific events, people, civilizations, and societies that are included in textbooks and courses. Rather, the significance of World History derives from the larger perspectives, contexts, or frameworks that it establishes. Sometimes context takes shape as we locate particular events within a larger chronology of change over time. Alternatively, context can be established through comparison as we define similarities and differences among two or more related events or cultures. Finally context takes shape within cross cultural encounters or connections, as events in one place influence those in another. It is within these “big picture” patterns that the more particular happenings (Egyptian civilization, the Roman Empire, the Mongols, World War I, the Chinese Revolution) gain meaning. In World History, nothing stands alone; context is more important than coverage.

    From the beginning, Ways of the World has sought to embody this principle. The book contains plenty of information, “facts”, and examples, but these are always framed in some larger context. A few examples follow....

  • The book begins in the Prologue with the largest possible context for the entire human story, drawing on what is now called “big history”. It includes the evolution of the cosmos since the “big bang” as well as the geological and biological history of the planet earth. Such a perspective, although very briefly presented, is enormously important, for as Henry David Thoreau puts it, all of us are “a part and parcel of Nature, not only a member of society.”
  • Ways of the World begins with a capsule summary of human history in a single paragraph, highlighting the Paleolithic Era of gathering and hunting societies, the Agricultural Era of farming and herding societies, and the Modern Era of industrial societies. This “big picture” perspective provides a context for all that follows.
  • Ancient Egypt, a staple in all world history courses, is framed in terms of the emergence of “civilization” as a wholly new kind of human community, which was a product of the breakthrough to agriculture and gave rise to societies based in cities and organized in states. The main features of Egyptian civilization become come into focus as it is compared to other “first civilizations” in Mesopotamia, Peru, India and China.
  • The Roman Empire, another standard inclusion in World History texts, finds a context in comparison with the Chinese empire during the Qin and Han dynasties and with the less prominent role of empire in ancient India.
  • Our presentation of the enormous Mongol empire takes place within the context of pastoral societies generally, while its impact on conquered peoples compares the experience of China, Persia and Russia.
  • European empire-building in the Americas is treated in relationship to similar imperial projects in China, Russia, and the Islamic world.
  • Communist revolutions of the twentieth century are compared with one another (Russia and China in particular) and both of them find a place in a larger set of modern revolutions including those of the United States, France, Haiti and Latin America.
  • Recent patterns of globalization are located in a much longer history of cross-cultural interactions including the earlier spread of goods, technologies, religions and disease among distant peoples. Modern globalization has an ancient genealogy.

     And so on….Thus contextualization is a central dimension of Ways of the World. It appears frequently in the narrative of the book, but it also finds expression in “Big Picture Essays” at the beginning of each major Part of the book and in “Reflections” at the end of each chapter.

     Most often context is established by “zooming out” to allow the larger contours of world history to come into sharper focus. But context can also mean “zooming in” to explore a specific instance of some larger pattern. Each chapter contains a “Zooming In” feature, which does precisely this. And each chapter also contains a set of primary sources, which allows a closer examination of some theme from the chapter, using documents, artifacts, and images from the past.

     Like Russian nesting dolls, the study of World History involves stories within stories within stories. While essential facts and information remain important, far more important are questions of location. Where do particular individuals, events, and societies fit in some larger context? For in both our individual lives and in historical accounts, meaning and significance derive from relationships. Establishing those relationships or contexts is central to World History in general and Ways of the World in particular.


Robert Strayer