Asia in World History: Notes on Pedagogical Scholarship

By Ellington, Lucien | Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

Asia in World History: Notes on Pedagogical Scholarship


Ellington, Lucien, Southeast Review of Asian Studies


After discussing high school and undergraduate students' problematic perceptions toward world history, Lucien Ellington describes four pedagogical works that can help students better understand the role of Asia in history--and that can help instructors teach about Asia more effectively in world-history survey courses.

Teaching Asia More Effectively

Pedagogical scholarship adds to the knowledge and understanding of teaching. (1) This essay is a discussion, with attendant suggestions, on how to teach Asia more effectively in introductory high school and undergraduate-level world-history survey courses that are required for either high school graduation, university admission, or undergraduate general education. The assumption of this essay is that only a small minority of world-history survey students at any of these levels will have unusually strong backgrounds or interest in world history.

How to teach about Asia more effectively in world history is an important question. Despite substantial progress in addressing the issue during the past decade and a half, probably no Asianist in this country interested in world history is satisfied either with current understanding about how to teach Asia effectively or with our students' levels of rudimentary knowledge about Asia.

Examining Problematic Student Perceptions

About two-and-a-half years ago, I began to grope toward working on two observed problematic student perceptions that I consider critical in addressing this issue. The first is a vague notion that in history, Europe was dynamic while Asia was static. Europe was the source of most of the world's greatest ideas, while a much different Asia was characterized by stagnant and static societies ruled by Oriental despots and peasant populations. (2)

Asian societies had little or no freedom, prosperity, or prospects of social mobility. The second problematic perception is that Asia and Europe had little or no interaction through much of history.

Most readers are familiar with the "California School" of Asian and world historians, whose cutting-edge scholarship challenged the conventional wisdom that Europe and "modern" are synonymous--and that nineteenth- and early twentieth--century Europeans either imposed modernization upon Asians or that Asians modernized by copying Europeans. (3) Although the works of California-School scholars have deeply influenced my own thinking and teaching, for the most part, I find their work not useful in disabusing world-history survey students of the stereotypes described in my introduction for two reasons.

The most important is that these scholars vastly overestimate how much knowledge the typical survey student possesses about European history. Although many students believe that, historically, Europe was advanced and Asia was backward, they also have little prior knowledge of European history. Much of the focus of the California School lies clearly upon comparative history and rigorous critiques of Eurocentric presumptions that rationalism, private enterprise, commercial economies, and science coupled with variants of Judeo-Christian values meant that, until recently, only the West could be advanced and "modern."

If students do not have rudimentary knowledge of European topics such as the scientific revolution, the three Enlightenments, John Locke (1632-1704), Adam Smith (1723-90), and the interplay between religion and nationalism, they tend to be more confused by an approach to world history that involves extensive comparisons. Comparisons that focus upon one narrow topic such as Keith Knapp's (2007) excellent article on the question of whether at any point in its history Imperial China had a "medieval period" can be effective; but broad-based comparative arguments tend to be lost upon world-history survey students because of their lack of extensive prior knowledge about European history, even in Eurocentric forms. …

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