This week, I’m wrapping up my survey course on modern global history (1500 to the present). It’s the first time I’ve taught this course. So I have opinions.
Let me just put this right out there: I had long been skeptical about global history as a standard survey course. It seemed too unwieldy, too shallow or spotty in coverage, and way too vulnerable to political ax-grinding. I assumed this course would reinforce old stereotypes: that history is an endless parade of random facts and dates and battles and names of elite men. Or else it would turn into pure theory, and thus an exercise in polemic. Either way, it would have little of the texture of lived experience, which is what I reckon makes history compelling to ordinary powerless students.
After teaching a global history survey … I still pretty much think exactly that.
I ran into all the expected problems, but I’ve come to think the most important difficulty of the global history survey is about protagonists. Every remotely coherent history course, whether we consciously build it that way or not, is a narrative. Every narrative, whether explicitly or not, has protagonists who drive the plot and determine what subplots are relevant. No matter how hard we try, a modern global history survey is going to be about how (more or less) European empires, led by (more or less) white and male individuals and aided by (more or less) modern science and business methods, (more or less) successfully created the world we live in.
For most students, whether this story is told from a liberal, conservative, or leftist perspective will hardly matter. Demonizing empires or capitalists doesn’t make them look any less important. The crucial features of the story are embedded in the structure of the course, the same way that a narrative about American national progress is embedded in survey lectures on (for example) the horrors of southern slavery.
In a U.S. history course, though, I can devote whole weeks to the stories of slaves and other people who lived their lives out of the national-progressive stream. In a global history course, such people are just going to be anonymous grist in the mill of planetary progress.
But there’s good news too, and this is where I’m going to steer my ship of discontent back around to early America.
Teaching a global history survey has been excellent for me. It provides ways of thinking, languages of cause and effect, correctives to the implicit (or explicit) nationalism of my entire field. I feel far more comfortable talking about, say, the British East India Company as an operation that actually had something to do with India, or Manifest Destiny as a phenomenon related to the Risorgimento, or the Spanish conquest of the Americas as an aftershock of the fall of Constantinople, or the Stono Rebellion as a moment in West African history, or New France as something ultimately related to the Jesuit mission in China (by way of the port of Malacca). I’ve found it much easier to conceptualize the Atlantic as something other than a euphemism for the British Empire.
So after a semester of teaching modern global history, what I really wish is that this course—or rather, a seminar on the same topic—had been part of my graduate training in United States history. In fact, if I ever have substantial influence over a program of study, I think it’s one of the goals I’ll pursue first. I would make modern global history a capstone course for the history major and a regular component in graduate coursework.
But for first-year or out-of-major undergraduates? So far, I’d much rather start them off on the history of a town than of a planet.
 I know several people who strongly disagree, and I think it likely that they’ve found ways to make their modern global courses work well. I mean my generalizations as generalizations. I’m basing them partly on the hunch that most professors teaching global history in the United States are like me in having never actually been trained in global history as such.
 This generalization in particular depends on the students’ level of background knowledge at the beginning of the course. The better-prepared a student is, the more likely it is that her professor can use the survey to complicate her picture of how the world works. Even so, I’m not sure we can do much more than to make the course protagonists into antiheroes. They’re still in charge of the plot.