Historical Thinking Needs Global Engagement

Mary Elizabeth Berry, July 2013

This is part of an online forum on a survey of historians' research interests by Luke Clossey and Nicholas Guyatt. A description of the survey can be found here. More roundtables can be found here.

When I succeeded him as department chair, the sporting David Hollinger left behind in the office a fine edition of David Hume’s History of England—a wry homage to my long campaign to relax the hold of Europe on our program. For a time, I took that campaign on the road, using my tenure as president of the Association for Asian Studies to give a whistle-stop talk called “How Many People Are in Your French Department?” (compared, say, to the number responsible for all the languages of Asia).

Any reprise of old criticisms here must begin, however, with praise. Let it be said, loud and clear, that the best US colleges and universities set the planetary standard for cosmopolitan engagement. They teach scores of languages (the total at Berkeley, to pick a home example, is over sixty); they build library collections in hundreds of vernaculars (amassing 17 million East Asian books in the past century, for another family example); and they attend throughout their curricula—from art history to women’s studies—to global evidence. These investments are neither universal nor sufficient. But they illustrate a commitment to international scholarship in the US unrivaled elsewhere. (Take a look at the general profiles [and the history faculties] not just of UK institutions but the École normale supérieure, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and the University of Tokyo.)

A focus on history departments rather than campuses can obscure this cosmopolitan reach, not least because institutional vagaries routinely consign full-blooded historians to other units. (Harvard, for instance, lists six historians of East Asia in the Department of History; an additional nine, all pre-modernists, hold appointments in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations.) So, too, gross totals conceal fine-grained variety, particularly in our great liberal arts colleges. (No US college is included in the Clossey-Guyatt survey.) Oberlin’s investment in the globe is conveyed by both faculty distribution (38 percent of historians work outside the US and Europe) and faculty breadth (the North American historians cover the Atlantic World, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Mexico and borderlands, foreign policy, and immigration).

Still, criticism is indispensable if even the standard-bearers keep most of the world on the periphery. Why? Let me highlight just one reason: the concentration of resources blinkers everyone’s work. Historical thinking is inherently comparative in practice, of course, since, explicitly or not, it puts in tension a subject fixed in one time and place with a related subject from another time or place. But historical thinking is also comparative in inspiration, since the questions that animate it, as well as the vantages that open answers, spring from alert surprise over the anomalies and symmetries produced by different circumstances. It is comparison, in effect, that enables the discovery of a subject and the understanding of its significance. An environment rich in comparative stimulation abets richer thinking.

Historians certainly find stimulation in wide reading and intimate field circles. What we gain by a hearty mix of specialists without a dominant core is the habit of outward vision that results from everyday departmental encounter–from sharing manuscripts and students to crossing the hall for ideas and books. Yet perhaps the biggest stretch in imagination comes from just knowing that your neighbors study Vietnam and Mexico and Kenya and Egypt; that they will be reading your work; and that whatever you have to say about labor history (or war or taxes or villages or families) must stand disparate scrutiny. We can all cite examples of exceptional synergies. (Locally, I would call out the dialogues between Thomas C. Smith and Jan de Vries on the early modern economies of Japan and Europe; and between Michael Nylan and Carlos Noreña on the classical cities of Chang’an and Rome.) The routine combustion throughout the faculty and student community nonetheless remains the great gift of cosmopolitan distribution.

How to achieve and improve it? Altering the faculty balance is both key and contentious, for good as well as not-so-good reasons. Here let me simply mention that ceaseless advocacy matters, as does a wide-ranging approach to searches. Recruitments in “world history” seem helpful to me only if the candidates are serious specialists in regional fields, since Esperanto should not be the first language of historians. I am wary, too, of yoking appointments in new fields to “new money,” which puts the onus of change on the dispossessed. Below, a few of the easier approaches to global engagement.

  • Bring historians appointed elsewhere on campus into the history department (under whatever rubric); get to know them; and award their courses history credit.
  • Formulate requirements for history majors that encourage substantial training outside the European and U.S. fields.
  • Formulate graduate language requirements and examination fields to remove field bias.
  • Encourage language training among undergraduates and count advanced language courses toward major requirements.
  • Encourage study abroad (and other off-campus training in foreign cultures) by granting generous local credit.
  • Build alliances with neighbors for course sharing and, more ambitiously, joint degree programs.

—Mary Elizabeth Berry is a professor of history and former chair of the history department at the University of California, Berkeley.