Global history: Old and New? Select Works from the Letitia and Toubia Hachem Collection
It is no surprise that today, within the academy, contemporary history grates against the familiar explanatory strategies and analytic categories with which scholars have traditionally worked: with the current shift towards increased globalization and connectedness in our modern world, definitions of "global histories", "world histories”, "international history" abound, overlap, and sometimes contradict one another. Regardless, in our modern global realities, they take on new dimensions, leaving us with an acute awareness of a gap, and of an urgent need to fill in a void, to connect, through historical understanding, our extra-connected, and globalized present world. The challenges to achieve this historical understanding of our present abound: perhaps most important here is the fact that most historical methodologies, perspectives and categories still struggle with—if they don’t anymore strictly operate within— a "universalizing image or a normative construct of what some civilization or some intellectuals would want the people of this earth to be", one inherited from 18th and 19th c. historiographical frameworks. More recent attempts at addressing this challenge by avoiding binaries (core and periphery, rich and poor, the West and the rest, even North and South, etc.) still feel the need to struggle with expectations of unified world conventions or world systems paradigms. The result is that what we have before us, as Geyer and Bright state, is a contemporary history that “do[es] not add up to a history of the world as we find it, nor do[es it] any longer account for the patterns of difference that proliferate within it. This is a crisis, above all, of Western imaginings, but it poses profound challenges for any historian: the world we live in has come into its own as an integrated globe yet it lacks narration and has no history.”
What might historical works from previous centuries teach us regarding the role, place and import of history and historical writing for an understanding of our present era and of our future? What could the search for the global nature of relations among the freshly juxtaposed regions, disciplines, and methodologies amongst our recent global histories gain from history itself? Here a few questions seem apt to raise: Has history, one of the few “historical” disciplines left within our modern mostly a-historical landscape, retained a sense of its own history, and if so, to what aims does this awareness of its own past, goals, methods and aims, inform History’s present and future (both in terms of writing and teaching). What place does history nowadays seek to carve for itself within the liberal arts curriculum? What aims does it seek to further in the education of our youth and future generations? There was a time when the writing of history was called the ars historica (16th c.), when history tried to emulate Aristotle’s Ars poetica; there was a time—the long 18th c. as it was called— when history was the discipline to teach and learn from for building a sense of humanitas—there was even a time when history was thought to need correction, expansion, and further inclusiveness for a better historical sense (our own modern 20th c.).
What historical awareness --or lack-thereof--will our new global era end up embracing? And to what ends should we seek to integrate historical teachings within liberal arts education institutions in the 21st c.? May the past "errors and infirmities of mankind" help us all gain a better understanding of what "wisdom", if not a better life, may look like, or at least revive what Bernard Williams has seen as one of the main virtues of history which he so aptly described as enabling us to appreciate "the strangeness or questionability of our contemporary assumptions."