Excerpted from “World History For Us All: History, Geography, and Time – Getting Started,” accessed July 15, 2019, https://whfua.history.ucla.edu/getting_started.php.
Learning to “think the world”
One of the wonders of our era is that for the first time in history, people everywhere in the world can experience the same event almost simultaneously. A spectacular example of this is the world-wide celebrations that greeted the New Year in 2000. The planet revolved through the time zones, midnight struck again and again, and the festivities broke out in rapid, rolling sequence around the planet. Among the first to celebrate were the people of the Kiribati and Marshall Islands, which lie in the South Pacific just west of the International Date Line. From there, the New Year swept on to Sydney, Beijing, New Delhi, Jerusalem, Lagos, London, Caracas, Seattle, and, at last, Honolulu. Those who had the stamina to watch TV long enough could see the entire relay of parties, prayers, and fireworks displays, for twenty-four straight hours. This spectacle was a compelling reminder of the unity of humankind as inhabitants of a single tiny “marble” suspended in the universe. Also remarkable is that millions of people could consciously witness the world-wide commemoration and reflect upon it in real time.
Electronic marvels invented in the twentieth century enabled men and women to “think the world” in a way that no one could have done in 1000 CE or even in 1900.4 We live now in what scholars have called a “condition of globality.” Careers, family life, community activities, and even mental health all depend to some degree on our understanding of the astonishing complexities that intertwine all human beings. The ability to “think the world”—its economy, science, technology, politics, and culture—must be a primary aim of all education today. This challenges us to rethink humanity’s history in a more holistic, interconnected way.
Millions of young people around the world spend their typical days—when not looking at a computer screen or talking into a cell phone—congregating with family members, fellow students, friends, or coworkers. But those bonds are only our most special. We are also connected, often unconsciously, to numerous other networks of human relationships that affect the course of daily life. Some of these “communities” may be fleeting (passengers sharing an airplane flying at 30,000 feet), and some may be very large (all members of the Roman Catholic Church). Some of them cut across many generations, such as family trees, or the communities formed by particular religions or nations. No individual anywhere in the world is truly isolated from such complex global relationships, not hunters in the Amazon rain forest, nor peasant girls in high Himalayan valleys.
In fact, most people are continuously affected by events and trends initiated in distant parts of the globe. Supermarkets in Wisconsin raise the price of coffee because of weather conditions in Brazil. An office conference call gets cut off, causing minor panic over a deal closure in Beijing. Or, on a very big scale, house prices in the United States drastically drop, triggering a chain of events that ends in a world recession! Our continuous encounters with the wide, wide world are an aspect of the dizzying pace of change, the single most conspicuous feature of contemporary life. Whether in the United States, Italy, Burma, or Swaziland, society is perpetually transforming itself because of the growing complexity of world communication, the flow of goods and financial transactions, and the apparently never-ending birth of new ideas, techniques, and products.
Our culture, that is, our language, institutions, laws, moral codes, and regular social routines, buffers us to some extent against the gales of change. Shared culture enables people to have some expectation of how others will think and behave. It helps us predict with at least some accuracy the shape of our affairs from one day to the next. In so far as we have a place in a familiar system of cultural values and organizations, we can usually cope quite well with new things or sudden change. When a social group—a family, religious denomination, business community, or nation—confronts something new or foreign, its members try to fit the strange thing into the existing cultural system with a minimum amount of fuss. Or the group may reject it altogether as useless or distasteful. So far, for example, American children have stoutly resisted Marmite, the yeast paste that British children love to spread on bread. And not everyone in the world likes peanut butter. On the whole, social groups do well at using their cultural yardsticks to sift through the new and strange, accepting one item, rejecting another, so that life does not appear to change all that much from one month to the next.
Yet in today’s globally interconnected world, the forces of change, ricocheting around the world, are much more encompassing than we generally realize or wish to believe. Global change is not simply a matter of one event there (war in the Middle East) affecting some condition of life here (a rise in the price of gas). Nor is it just that products or ideas spread quickly from one place to another. The most striking feature of global interaction is that a significant development occurring in one place is likely to set off a complex chain reaction, disrupting and rearranging numerous relationships over an extensive area, maybe even around the world.
When did the world get like this? For how long have peoples of the globe been interconnected? Since the Industrial Revolution? Since World War II? Since the invention of the Internet? A better question might be: How far back in time would we have to go to find a world divided into a collection of entirely separate, self-contained societies, each moving through time along its own track, unresponsive to developments anywhere else? The answer is that we could cast back two hundred, five thousand, twenty thousand years and still not find such a world of completely atomized societies. Indeed, even the early history of humankind hundreds of thousands of years ago is a story of long-distance migrations of hunting and foraging bands across Africa and Eurasia, a process that involved interaction between one group and another wherever such contact took place.
Some important geographical terms
To “think world history” in a way that makes room for all peoples requires that we see the spherical surface of the planet as the primary place where history happened. Students need, therefore, to have a basic knowledge of what the World History for Us All model curriculum has called Big Geography, that is, the largest-scale features of the earth’s physical and natural environment. These are the patterns of topography, vegetation, climate, and weather that cut across particular nations or cultural groups and that give the world as a whole its distinctive “face.”