The Teaching of European History: The Next Task

Arthur Haberman and Adrian Shubert, October 2005

The origins of teaching a European history survey course in colleges and high schools were rooted in the notion that the West provides the historical backdrop for the culture and civilization of Europe and North America. What became known as Western Civ, beginning either with the Greeks or the Renaissance, was created during World War I to teach U.S. soldiers what they were fighting for in Europe, and it has been a core part of history education from the 1950s.

At first, the Western Civ courses emphasized the political, diplomatic, and military history of Europe, with a nod to intellectual history. Indeed, the Europe that was taught was a highly restrictive notion of what Europe was—geographically as well as thematically. If the course began in the Renaissance, it started in Italy and moved quickly to northern Europe. In effect, the course became one that emphasized the histories of Britain, France, and the Germanies, with another look at Italy during the Risorgimento and the Fascist era, and some Russian history. The master text was R. R. Palmer's (later on Palmer and Colton's) rather oddly titled History of the Modern World.

A big shift occurred in the last two decades, and that turn is recorded in the newer texts, such as those of John P. McKay (A History of Western Society) and Lynn Hunt and others (Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures). Now, social history was to be taught as well—including such areas as the history of women, labor, migration, and the family. This task is now complete, as witnessed by the materials used in basic texts and by the European history AP curriculum and examination. It should be noted that little changed in terms of the geographical notion of what was important in the West, and perhaps even in the very concept of the "West." Western Europe was most important. Actually, not even all of western Europe, because the Iberian states were not considered to have contributed much to modernity.

The next task for the curriculum is to transform both the concept of "the West" and of "Europe" and to include other societies which played an important role in Western development. Geographically and conceptually, "Europe" must now be understood to include more than those states which traditionally were considered to have contributed to the development of the liberal democratic West. Indeed, the curriculum has yet to catch up with the new Europe of today, which, in the EU, includes much of eastern and southern Europe, and is discussing the possibility of embracing Turkey and making some sort of arrangement with Russia. After all, Turkey and Russia were part of Europe for centuries and their cultures deeply influenced the West and drew from Western ideas. Similarly problematic are the facts that arguments about whether to be "Westernized" often came from those who adopted Western ideas about nationalism and that, for some reason, Scandinavia is rarely discussed in European survey courses, in spite of the region's importance.

The point is that the West, from the origins of the idea, has always been in the process of becoming; it is never fully in a state of being. It is real, but it has been fluid and evolving. Geographically, the West now refers to Europe, including Russia and Turkey, and the significant European settler colonies in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Oceania.

It was Arnold Toynbee, among others, who argued that civilizations are internally coherent and self-enclosed entities. Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations is only the latest version of this misconceived view. This approach, taken up in the curriculum today for many courses on modern Europe and/or the West, ignores the fundamental fact that civilizations have always communicated and interacted, not just in warfare, and that these encounters have had a significant influence on their histories.

Europe itself was hardly the wealthiest or most powerful area of the world in the Renaissance. Certainly, China and India had more sophisticated civilizations and more wealth. Even in the Americas, the city of Tenochtitlan was larger and more populated than was any European city in 1520, with a large trading culture that reached into distant parts of the continent. That Spain destroyed it does not argue for European superiority. That the New World influenced Spain and Europe's culture is clear, even in the horrors of the acceptance of slavery.

Thus, to take the teleological view that Europe in the Renaissance was destined to become the most wealthy and powerful area of the world is to teach bad history. Few in 1500, if any, thought it possible that what Marshall Hodgson described as an "insignificant outlier of mainland Asia" would rule most of the earth in the 19th century. And despite the achievements of the European Union, its place in the 21st century is far from certain.

The historical notion that modern Europe developed without great influence from other cultures is also an error. The outcome was far from certain even into the 17th century, when Europe was still on the defensive against the expansive power of the Ottoman Empire. And, of course, Europe in the 21st century is hardly at the center of the world, either in terms of political power or economic development. Europe dominated the globe for more than two centuries, but its time at the center of the planetary stage is ending.

We are suggesting that the new task, therefore, is to change how we teach the West. First, we must acknowledge that the West and/or Europe is more than Britain, France, the Germanies, and a few others at certain times. Second, the West must be taught as a civilization in process, not one with a set of core values expanding to other areas. When one moves beyond the realm of "great books," the concept of core values itself looks very flimsy. The Islamic world has a much longer history of religious tolerance than does Europe, and for most Europeans, basic civil rights were not an automatic inheritance but had to be extracted through great collective effort. Third, acknowledgment must be made that the West and other cultures interact and influence one another—from how we think to what we eat to how we view other human beings.

There is a growing and influential literature that challenges the traditional story of Europe in its glorious isolation: Kenneth Pomeranz's The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, J.M. Hobson's The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation, and C. A. Bayly's magisterial The Birth of the Modern World are only three examples.

Hence, European history courses must now tell at least two stories. One deals with the rise and consolidation of Europe as the most powerful part of the world between the 16th and 19th centuries, and the gradual emergence of some of its offshoots in other areas, including the United States and Japan. This course of events cannot be understood by focusing solely on developments within Europe and the West (let alone a small piece of Europe and the West) itself. Europeans (and their cousins) did not live in an isolated world. At every point, there were others, from the societies of the Americas, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere, who played an essential role. Some cooperated with the West for their own reasons; others were forced to comply; still others resisted, with various degrees of success. The history of the perceptions and actions of peoples from all of these societies is the other story which now must be told.

—Arthur Haberman is university professor emeritus of history and humanities at York University. Adrian Shubert is professor of history and associate vice president (international) at York University. They are the co-authors of The West and the World: Contacts, Conflicts, Connections.