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The Global in World History Courses – Opening and Escaping the Nation-State Box

Take a look at a world map and what do you see? A common reply identifies our planet as  a  puzzle of nations pieced together by contiguous, interlocking (and distinct) borders. Each nation-piece of the puzzle seems to be its own little world, structured and organized with certain/unique people, places, landforms, ideas and “ways of life.”  The borders that connect them, although not physical lines, are recognized borders of identity, government, and culture.

In turn, each of these nation-pieces act as self contained packages, neatly understood and categorized in our world view that we could title


The real puzzle is how to teach history and society unrestricted by traditional national narratives that dominate education. When will high schools alter the national paradigm and incorporate alternatives: Transnational, Global Systems, and Regional “World” networks?

“Earth-nation-puzzle.”  An additional impact of this world view is the production of  the national history narratives. Courses in one’s nation, often required for graduation, are pillars of contemporary educational models. This is not a “bad” thing… it is, however, limiting.  In his 2009 work National History and the World of Nations, Columbia professor Christopher Hill argues that “the writing of national history in the late nineteenth century made the reshaping of the world by capitalism and the nation-state seem natural and inevitable.”   Tracing this historiography of the nation-state can take many routes. At least two stops along the way I suggest are:

1)  Recently deceased Eric Hobsbawm’s  The Invention of Tradition (1983) which argues that many “traditions” which “appear or claim to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented.”They distinguish the “invention” of traditions in this sense from “starting” or “initiating” a tradition which does not then claim to be old. The phenomenon is particularly clear in the modern development of the nation.

  2)   Prasenjit Duara’s 1997 Rescuing History from the Nation  argues that many historians of postcolonial nation-states have adopted a linear, evolutionary history of the Enlightenment/colonial model. As a result, they have written repressive, exclusionary, and incomplete accounts…he redefines history as a series of multiple, often conflicting narratives produced simultaneously at national, local, and transnational levels.

So, how does this limit our world view?  Conceptions of identity, culture, and history based on the nation are reinforced as natural phenomenon bestowed upon citizens at birth, immutable, and essentialized.  This generates a feeling of “American-ness” or “French-ness” or “Chinese-ness ” etc that we use to understand ourselves and “others” in the world and allows us to rank people on whatever “-ness.”  We come up with ideas of “Authentic Thai-food” and “Pure Spanish Experiences” and boast about stereotypical qualities that are somehow passed on to us through ethno-genes  which we can’t  alter.  (Isn’t this denial of responsibility what the existentialists were talking about?).  Fortunately, this imagined, oversimplified taxonomy is a social construct to which no man-made objective system can be applied.  Sorry Hulk Hogan, there is no such thing as a “Real American”… beyond citizenship.

So, what is the value of thinking beyond oversimplified categories related to the nation-state? I argue that being able to think with complexity and depth about the social constructs of identity, culture, and the nation is a 21s century/college and career readiness/global education-awareness-literacy, skill that is:

  • essential to understanding a networked globe of systems and flows of ideas and people.
  • coveted by  employers in a globally competitive market.
  • embraced and furthered by higher education
  • required in secondary education

So, how do we escape the limitations of  national history and identity, nation-state box? Below, I outline multiple ways teachers can explore teaching

Interesting how an imagined character became a symbol of authenticity for a nation. Say your prayers, eat your vitamins and you NEED TO WATCH THIS VIDEO! Fantastic.

beyond the nation-state. It is important to note, that I am not advocating denying the existence, power, and influence of the nation-state on history and contemporary society. However, it is but one way to engage reality and the world.   National borders create borders of thought. UT Austin’s Institute for Historical Studies says it better than I.

“humans have defined ourselves with borders and boundaries: markers in space, time, identity, aspiration, imagination, and as many other realms as our hopes and fears have conjured or devised…We also seek to understand borders as conceptual, ideological, and often porous divides that maintain systems of difference and inequality. Borders frame social and cultural spaces where different intellectual concepts, artistic styles, aesthetic movements, academic disciplines, or mass media genres encounter one another and negotiate their differences. Broadly imagined borders are functions of environments, religion, mobility, markets, citizenship, and warfare. Crossing borders can illuminate the construction of nations, communities, and intellectual categories and suggest how differing histories might be conceived.”

Consider these starting points, share them,  and let me know what you think.  I am confident they will help expand your students’ world views and facilitate their engagement with global constructs, realities, and possibilities.


  • 1Big History: Imagine exploring 13.7B years from before the Big Bang to modernity. Big history reveals common themes and patterns that help students better understand people, civilizations and the world we live in. David Christian developed big history to ask big questions and tie together big concepts. Now he and Bill Gates are working on the Big History Project to bring the course to life for high school students and invigorate interest in the big fields of science, math and history. See his Ted video.
  • Transnational History:  Many of the most significant developments in history — whether in religion, philosophy, the environment, or other aspects of life — happen “irrespective of national identities,” said Akira Iriye, a professor of history at Harvard University. “It’s a very exciting moment in the profession to see so many historians moving in this direction. This approach has been embraced by many including the European University Institute, Duke, and the Center for Transnational History.
  •  Braudel’s World:  Fernand Braduel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949) left a theoretical legacy that has been reinvigorated using Ocean based “worlds” of inquiry. These approaches see oceans as connectors not obstacles to flows of people, ideas, events, and things.

a) The Atlantic World: Over the past two decades a large number of historians have come to treat Atlantic World history as a formal area for scholarly inquiry.  This arose from recognition that many of the most significant historical forces of the Early Modern World could be better understood by analysis of their generation and impact over this broad geographic area.  Intercontinental trade, the exchange of ideas and technology, and the mass emigration of peoples reshaped life in each of the Atlantic continents in the Early Modern World. Scholarship here abounds.

Pacific centered US History by Bruce Cummings. Try starting the US national narrative not in Jamestown and Plymouth. Multiple narratives raise the bar of cognition and empowers students.

b)  The Pacific World: In Finding the Pacific World  it is argued that it is possible to define the “Pacific World” as a temporal and geographical category…   The idea that there was indeed a Pacific World, in a specific historical period, then, offers a starting point for closer analysis of the networks that existed within it and witnessed a philosophical and cultural consciousness of the Pacific, as demonstrated by trade, cultural connections, and deliberate international affiliation based on shared Pacific location.”
c) The Indian Ocean World: The Indian Ocean has been a zone of human interaction for several millennia, boasting a 1,500-year history of active high-seas trade before the arrival of Europeans in 1498. This website seeks to enhance the profile of Indian Ocean history, long neglected relative to the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean in both academic study and world history courses. This source is focused on secondary education.


1001 Inventions : The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization: Muslim civilisation stretched from Spain to China. From the 7th century onwards, men and women of different faiths and cultures built on knowledge from ancient civilisations, making breakthroughs that have left their mark on our world. Learn more about the 1001 Inventions educational programmes, blockbuster exhibitions, award-winning films, books and international productions.

A History of the World in 100 Objects: A 100 part series by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, exploring world history from two million years ago to the presentDiscover the 100 objects featured in the Radio 4 series; listen to the programmes online and download the podcast; see what The British Museums and other museums in the UK have contributed, and find out more about the project on the BBC.

 Gapminder: The brainchild of Hans Rosling, the website now contains a teacher’s page.  Gapminder is used in classrooms around the world to build a fact-based world view. Using the nation-state as the main unit of analysis, comparing data challenges the constructed identities we have of ourselves and others.

Teaching History Blog: Jeremy  Greene is a history teacher at Chelmsford High School in Massachusetts. He teaches all levels of world history and  is interested in world history curriculum and pedagogy and in  internationalizing or globalizing the US history course.  He is a member of the board  for the New England History Teachers’ Association and a member of the WHA’s Teaching Committee.His recent blog addresses these themes.

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Comment by Patricia E. Barrett on December 12, 2012 at 8:48am

Hi Craig--

Congratulations--yours is one of the most exciting new thought pieces I've seen.Your approach is truly seminal, and critical to the positive evolution of the global competence movement.

Another--perhaps equally seminal piece that you and others in this forum might not have seen is "Place-based Knowledge in the Digital Age" (by Thomas Fisher, Prof. of Architecture and Dean of the College of Design, University of Minnesota.)

Fisher argues that spatial media such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS)  have brought a new metaphor that increasingly dominates our view of the world, from a mechanistic view of reality to a networked one.(Think Google Earth.) As I see it, Fisher's thesis complements your way of seeing the world, and posits the spatial organization of knowledge as a way of moving beyong "disciplinary silos" and into a more holistic way of making sense of the world.

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