Local Contexts, Global Frameworks, and the Future of the California History Course

By Wild, Mark | California History, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Local Contexts, Global Frameworks, and the Future of the California History Course


Wild, Mark, California History


Thomas Osborne's important essay comes at a propitious time for the kind of global or transnational approach to historical research reflected in his concept of the Pacific Eldorado. (1) After years of partial victories and periodic setbacks, advocates of a higher profile for the study of world history can take satisfaction in the proliferation of job postings for "world history," "global history," "U.S. and the world," and similarly conceived positions at American universities. (2) No less an authority than Gabrielle Spiegel, in her presidential address at this year's American Historical Association, has identified the robust growth of "transnational history" as a key contemporary development in the discipline. (3)

Osborne makes a strong case that California is ripe for global (or at least hemispheric) historical recontextualization. He retraces connections--some well known, some obscure--between the state and the Pacific world. Even ignoring the ever more visible consequences of those connections-the growing populations of Asian and Latino Californians, the explosive politics of border issues, and the state's enmeshment in Pacific Rim economic networks--his argument for Greater California's historical roots in the Pacific world is unassailable. We need to learn much more about this Greater California than we know, and scholars who follow Osborne's suggestions will make important contributions to the history of California and of the world.

Translating this scholarship to the classroom, however, will not be straightforward. Studying a subject (as an academic) is an open-ended proposition, but teaching it, if one aspires to any kind of synthesis, is not. The transnational turn has a bright future in the historical profession in part because it simultaneously identifies new subjects for research and offers a way to recontextualize existing narratives. It is, in other words, enormously productive of scholarship, that inflationresistant academic currency that under the right conditions can multiply indefinitely. By joining a flexible concept with contemporary concerns, Osborne is helping to create those conditions. Pacific world-themed histories of California can add their voices to a historiographic conversation that now includes studies with very different geographic orientations. This conversation will likely reveal arguments over interpretation and significance, but none of these orientations is, at least on the level of academic discourse, mutually exclusive of any other. The growth of scholarship is cumulative and without limits.

But teaching a class on the history of California--or any subject for that matter--has very real limits. Instructors must provide a broad historical synthesis of a complex subject that students can address with a reasonable amount of effort. Within the framework of a fifteen-week semester--or, for some of us, a ten-week quarter--comprehensiveness is a pipe dream. Instructors can present only a thimbleful of the most relevant, important subjects, readings, etc. from an ocean of available information. At institutions catering to working-class students who routinely juggle work and family responsibilities with their course loads, these limits are even more stringent. (4)

To guide their selection of course material, and to help students make sense of it, most instructors adopt themes as organizing instruments. In practical terms, then, Osborne is asking teachers of California history to reprioritize the organizing themes of their classes to give more attention to the Pacific world. To his credit, he is clear that Pacific Eldorado should not be the only framework for studying a state that is composed "of many geographies." Yet, given the aforementioned limits of history courses, I suspect that any serious incorporation of Osborne's concept into a syllabus will make things quite crowded for other geographies.

History on a global or transnational scale is a labor-intensive enterprise; those studying California's relationship with the Pacific world must spend time, pedagogically speaking, outside California proper.

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