A "Great Roads" Approach to Teaching Modern World History and Latin American Regional Survey Courses: A Veracruz to Mexico City Case Study

Article excerpt

In January of 2000, the authors of this article made a ten-day field trip along Mexico's Veracruz to Mexico City corridor, with notebooks, detailed maps, and digital camera in hand. This was all in support of their recent experience in teaching history survey courses on their respective campuses. Jim Brown of Samford University has been developing interactive three-dimensional topography models as a basis for his sophomore modern world history course. Doug Sullivan-Gonzalez, Latin American historian at the University of Mississippi, has been fine-tuning his introductory regional history courses in the Croft International Program there. We have both gravitated towards use of a "great roads" approach. Twenty years of discussion between us, including recent visits to each other's campuses and incorporation of some of the other's approaches, led up to this joint field trip. In this article we first outline an innovative "great roads" way of teaching "World History Since 1500" as it has evolved at Samford in recent years. Then at more length we develop the "Veracruz to Mexico City corridor" case study approach to the modern history of Latin America as we both now use it in our survey courses.

Teaching history survey courses requires paring and teaching by microcosm. The size and complexity of the subject matter make it hard to integrate this course without reducing the vast historic drama to vague general formulas on the one hand or unconnected vignettes on the other. Suppose a teacher presented as the great theme of the last five hundred years the following two-part process. First, unparalleled new power was generated by European and Europeanized countries through new kinds of social mobilization and technology, enabling them to explore and eventually conquer most of the world. Second, the rest of the world then fought to regain its independence, in part by borrowing crucial ideas from those same new powers, particularly those social catalysts of nationalism and socialism. This two-step process in world history can then be illumined by studying a sample country or countries from each of the world's major non-European regions--we have chosen Japan from East Asia, Indonesia from Southeast Asia, India from South Asia, South Africa from Africa, Israel/Palestine from the Middle East, and Mexico from Latin America. Each country's experiences, in turn, are sampled by using a "great roads" approach. This further limits and focuses the history, yet at the same time gives it a human scale filled with personal detail.

For some of these countries a single road works well. Japan's Tokaido or "East Sea Road" that runs from the old imperial capital of Kyoto to the newer frontier capital of Tokyo, for example, is a single dominant road that can be used to organize almost all important developments in Japanese history since 1500. The Grand Trunk Road in the British Raj that ran from Calcutta in today's India to Lahore in today's Pakistan, with an important spur on to Peshawar and the Khyber Pass, was based on the ancient key road connecting the Ganges basin with the Punjabi tributaries of the Indus. The part of it in India today is still of key importance and familiarly known to Indians as "the GT Road." Most important aspects of modern Indonesian history can be linked to the single Javanese road from Jakarta (the Dutch colonial capital Batavia) to the ancient cultural capital of Yogjakarta. It passes up through the hill country resort of Bogor, through the volcanic highlands university city of Bandung, and after Yogjakarta by extension on to the key industrial city of Surabaya. In other countries or regions where there is no clear single most important road, we specify a simple network of roads that achieves almost the same effect. With South Africa, for example, we concentrate on that elongated triangle of roads from Capetown inland through Kimberly to Johannesburg, thence to Durban on the Kwa Zulu-Natal coast, and from Durban down the coast through Port Elizabeth and again to Capetown. …