Yesterday on MSNBC Rep. Steve King of Iowa suggested that no group besides “old white men” has made any significant contribution to the history of civilization (video below). Obviously, this was a controversial comment, and it looks like from the video that King meant it to be. Sadly, though, it was not all that shocking, at least to me.
Traditionally, history has organized itself (and been organized) as a discipline along nation-specific lines. Thus, when historical research or teaching crosses the boundaries of multiple national histories, there is some question of what it should be called. Current candidates include world history, transnational history, and global history. While these terms imply somewhat different things, they all suggest the possibility of writing about history on a scale larger than the national but not from the fixed vantage point of “western civilization.”
Perhaps most notable among these was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the well-known German philosopher. Hegel believed that history was a story of progress and that the spirits of nations themselves were the main characters in this great drama. As nations marched on through history, their great men (not a euphemism for ‘people’) made the decisive interventions necessary to keep things rolling towards the rational end of the universe: liberty for all enshrined in moral law within a state. A noble goal, to be sure, but not one toward which all peoples had advanced or were capable of advancing equally. Hegel explained that history only began when societies moved beyond clan-based organization to the rational expression of morality through laws. “Oriental” (broadly conceived) societies had not achieved this and were thus essentially without history, at least as it is properly understood, according to Hegel.. (Hegel Philosophy of History.)
So no, Rep. King’s remark was not shocking to me. It was not shocking both because it echoed Hegel’s privileging of “Western” contributions to a “universal history” of moral progress and because it was spoken in the context of a political event that itself expresses Hegel’s belief that the national spirit is the primary force in history. While not shocking, both King’s comment and the political theater that commonly surrounds elections are genuinely disturbing to me as a scholar of a “people without history.”
There is a way of teaching the history of the world that reinforces Hegel’s and King’s view of it. That is to begin with ancient Near Eastern civilizations (or just skip to Greece) and follow the path of history up through the Roman Empire, the crusades, the renaissance and reformation, the enlightenment and age of revolutions, the industrial revolution, etc. This is the approach of a standard course on “Western Civilization” (“Plato to NATO”). There is certainly nothing wrong with studying these elements of history, but the Western civilization narrative is deeply problematic in a variety of ways. Most immediately, through silence it reiterates Hegel’s opinion that “oriental” societies lack a history that is relevant to the progress of the world. It is this narrative that makes it possible to casually question the contributions of any non-white men (and I don’t think King meant it as a euphemism for ‘people’) to history.
In short, this is the rationale for developing an alternative to teaching world history. The problem and potential ways of addressing it are too complex to discuss here. But it is also one of the reasons that I identify with world history, even though I am specifically trained as a historian of China. Unless I am teaching students a version of world history that is different from what Rep. King is peddling, a version that doesn’t presuppose that everything important comes from the “West,” then there will be little point in teaching them the history of China. This means both incorporating Chinese (and other “non-Western”) histories into world history courses but also using China-specific courses to challenge students’ views of the entire world. If I can at least make it impossible for a future congressperson to glibly dismiss the history of anyone who isn’t a white man, then I’d say that’s a success.