The Value of Historiography in World History Teacher Training

By Benjamin, Craig | Social Studies Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

The Value of Historiography in World History Teacher Training


Benjamin, Craig, Social Studies Review


Introduction

The central argument this article promotes is that a critical component in the training of world history teachers must be an understanding of the historiographical tradition that underpins the evolution of the discipline. Historiographical training is limited at the undergraduate level generally and virtually absent from training world history teachers. Few teachers are exposed to the idea that history is an interpretive discipline based on the representation of evidence by historians. Textbooks and survey courses present history as a series of fixed realities rather than a narrative of enquiry. Few even acknowledge the glaring problems of coherence and meaning, because they are entirely focused on covering the content, leaving our teachers with no real sense of these problems, let alone solutions to deal with them. This makes the need for some sort of historiographical awareness all the more acute.

For several years now (based on the work of renowned historiographer Marnie HughesWarrington) I have been exploring through teaching and research the many visions of the nature and purpose of large-scale history that key thinkers in the field have been articulating for more than two millennia. The intention of this paper is to offer a brief overview of some of these approaches and their methodologies, in the hope that this knowledge will help world history teachers build greater meaning and relevance into their syllabi. For most of the time that history has been written, the most valued genre of all has been the 'universal', because only when history is viewed on the macro scale does it reveal any greater sense of meaning. Thinking about world and universal history is continuously evolving. There has never been any one, single conception of the meta-historical narrative, but an extraordinary range and variety. Exploring these not only helps us see history as something more than the sum of its chaotic parts, but also encourages us to teach history in new and more meaningful ways.

An investigation of historiography (which is the study of the writing of history) reveals the exercise of judgment by historians (what to include or exclude, where to start and finish); and the style in which they unfold those judgments in the pursuit of coherence and meaning. These are precisely the same skills that teachers need as they try to teach world history within the tight framework of state standards. In the same way that people who do history - the historians - need to make decisions every day about content, interpretation, style and meaning, so teachers of world history are pedagogical stylists, constructing their own syllabi according to precisely the same judgments. A short paper like this can only introduce some of the key philosophies and methodologies that have guided innovative thinkers in the field. I hope that this will encourage teachers to investigate further the rich historiographical tradition of world history, and find guidance from these multiple interpretations for their own classroom aspirations and methods.

A Brief Survey of World History Writing

Ancient and Pre-Modern Universal Historians

The true origins of world history are located in the creation myths of pre-literate societies, such as the 'Dreamtime' stories of the Australian aboriginal peoples. During the Paleolithic Era, groups of nomadic human foragers constructed complex oral accounts of their origins and lifeways that were genuinely epic in scale and scope. When humans started writing down their histories, they essentially built upon these earlier oral traditions, and updated them with the latest knowledge available. It is no coincidence then that the most significant early writers of history chose to structure their accounts on an epic and universal scale, including Herodotus, Sima Qian, and Diodorus Siculus. Herodotus, in his rationalist attempt to explain the Persian Wars as a clash between customs and values, included descriptions of the geography, culture and peoples of his known world. …

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