Big Geography and World History

By Dunn, Ross E. | Social Studies Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Big Geography and World History


Dunn, Ross E., Social Studies Review


Whenever I visit a new city, especially in a foreign country, I feel uneasy for awhile. I cannot relate where I am- on the street, in a hotel- to a wide spatial context. I feel like a horse wearing blinders. However, if I move around the city and look at maps, I begin to situate myself in space relative to the whole city and the region beyond. My direction-finding confidence returns.

Similarly, world history students may feel cognitively confused or disoriented (though not knowing exactly why), when they investigate historical events that occurred in places whose location they cannot situate relative to their own. For example, if a sixth grade teacher starts an ancient history course by taking the class straight into Mesopotamia, students may feel as though they have been plopped into some neighborhood of Middle Earth. This place may seem alien because they have inadequate conceptual tools for putting it in the same world frame that includes them and their classroom. A quick look at a world map may not be enough to establish a sense of the spatial whole. Throughout the school year, students may jump from civilization to civilization and topic to topic as if they were flying from one capital city to another but never staying in them long enough or studying maps of different scales carefully enough to understand the spatial relationships among these cities or between any one of them and the globe as a whole. If students learn about events in one place after another- the Indus valley, Kush, Roman Italy, northern China- without situating all of those places within the single spatial context of region, hemisphere, and world, they may find it harder to grasp the significance of particular historical developments.

In studying any period of world history, the primary terrain of investigation should be the whole globe. The earth, after all, is itself a "place" whose inhabitants have a shared history. Developments may take place within the confines of continents, civilizations, or nation-states, but those spaces remain parts of the world in all its roundness. If students are going to reside in world history's big mansion for several months, they should have the freedom to run around in it from attic to cellar until they have a clear idea of where their own bedroom is in relation to the bathrooms, the dining room, their friends' bedrooms, and the back stairs. When students start a world history course, they may have more success if they first explore the whole sphere, and keep coming back to it throughout the year, to sharpen their understanding of the layout of important places in relation to one another. If students get to know the planet's geographical personality, as it were, they may be better equipped to make historical connections between one place and another, to compare and contrast historical developments in different places, and to understand large-scale historical events that cut across particular civilizations or nation-states.

Students may learn about a number of large geographical features and concepts that help bolster their intellectual confidence as they move from one of world history's rooms to another. I call this spatial introduction to the world "big geography."1

Seven Continents- Really?

Lewis Martin and Karen Wigen's wonderful book The Myth of Continents teaches us that the conventional geographical notion of "seven continents" is a historical construct, not a fact of nature.2 If a continent is a very large mass of land surrounded, or nearly so, by water, Europe and Asia do not separately qualify. Europe achieved the status

of a continent because European scholars over the centuries decided they wanted it to be one. To make their case, however, they had to deploy a religious or political logic, not a geographical one. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries , Europeans debated at length the proper landward dividing line between the European and Asian continents. …

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