The Wider World in the Peripheral Vision of Historians in Canada

By Luke Clossey

Fool's Mad Cap of the World, c. 1580

Fool’s Mad Cap of the World, c. 1580

Being a world historian in Canada can be an odd thing. Two of the founders of the “new” world history – William McNeill and L. S. Stavrianos – had roots in British Columbia. Toronto and Vancouver have more immigrants per capita than almost every other city in North America. Canada is a gloriously multicultural state, relatively innocent of the hyperbolic nationalism that sees in its own history a unique recipe for excellence (one popular textbook is subtitled “A Country Nourished on Self-Doubt“). At the same time, that self-effacement makes Canadians no less interested in Canada. Canadian history looms large in our departmental curricula, and the histories of other places, especially non-western places, are typically shuffled off into a corner. Despite the efforts and vision of some of its members, the Canadian Historical Association is far more for historians of Canada than historians in Canada (see Tom Peace’s analysis on this website of topics presented at the CHA’s annual meetings). My last SSHRC application, for a world-history project, was classified (probably with some odd bedfellows) as “history (other)”–right beneath “history (nursing),” a worthy field, but not quite the history of humanity.

An awareness of the marginalization of the history of the wider, non-western world in a country that today is so profoundly influenced by and connected to that same wider-world motivated more serious study. Over the last three years Nicholas Guyatt (University of York), a half dozen long-suffering research assistants, and I worked through the professional websites of some twenty-five hundred historians at some of the “top” universities in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. The results (found on our website) confirmed a great deal of our suspicions, and most of the surprises came from giving us a better sense of the magnitude of Western dominance over our history departments. Some 85% of our historians are working on the history of the West, a nebulous place which today contains only some 15% of the global population. Except for the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, whose faculty complement most closely matches global population patterns (despite its explicitly regional focus), none of the departments we surveyed achieved even a 40% proportion of historians working beyond the West.

Clossey - 1Canadian universities tend towards a middle ground between the American departments’ relatively broad geographical interests and the British departments’ extreme insularity. Our departments with strong regional emphases could compete with the second-tier American departments: Queens (Africa), SFU (Middle East), and especially UBC (East Asia). Also reassuring were the long-term trends, which suggested a slow but steady movement beyond the West for younger Canadian historians; similar trends have levelled off in the United States, and actually reversed in Britain. Importantly, though, world history (as distinct from, but related to wider-world history) did not fare well in our survey; even hyper-parochial Britain has more world historians, relative to the profession as a whole, than does Canada.

None of this is meant to suggest that we do not value Canadian history, or appreciate its own efforts to incorporate the histories of neglected or transnational Canadian populations. Among the many good reasons to emphasize Canadian history in Canada is its relative neglect abroad. Historians in Britain and especially in the United States pay no more attention to Canada than to the non-western countries. (Canadians today are some 0.5% of the world’s population, yet only 0.17% of historians in the United States work on Canada.) Abroad, Canada is in the wider world.

Historical Fields and GDP per capita

Historical Fields and GDP per capita

Although the British make us look cosmopolitan, in absolute terms our professional obsession with western history cannot be good for us or for our students. Distressingly, our survey found that the distribution of our historians correlated well with gross domestic production per capita–not absolute GDP, which would have suggested that societies of many poor people could pool their wealth to attract our attention. It also correlates well with fatalities in the west-versus-non-west conflicts of the late twentieth century. Thomas Friedman famously linked invasion to an absence of McDonald’s restaurants; we also find that having knowledge of a people’s history makes us less likely to bomb them. In another experiment to map global awareness, I asked my history undergraduates to list the most populated countries today. India and China aside, most students ignored Indonesia, Nigeria, and Brazil to list the old white dominions or newly war-torn lands, e.g. Australia and Afghanistan, each of which has some tenth the population of Indonesia. Our students are entering a global world with a western-centred geography of knowledge that might have served them well at the Congress of Vienna. To correct this, we will need to reassess how we teach, research, and–especially–hire new colleagues.

Luke Clossey is an associate professor of history at Simon Fraser University.  A synthesis of his study can be found in May’s issue of Perspectives.

6 thoughts on “The Wider World in the Peripheral Vision of Historians in Canada

  1. Nathan

    This is a great post, I’m glad to learn about this research and read informed commentary about this topic. I quite agree that history teaching in Canada does a good job of integrating imperial and transnational themes, but the basic context for the human past is our whole world and this should be better represented. I love world history as a teaching field and had the opportunity to teach a course entitled “The West and the World” earlier this year. The title suited the way I am able to approach teaching world history, including some discussion of the nature of the “West” (it was a post-1500 class). I hope to develop a more truly global historical perspective, and I think this is a field all Canadian undergraduate history programs should embrace.

  2. Ian Milligan

    Interesting stuff, and it’s great to see some numbers to back up the anecdotes. I was actually surprised to see that only about a quarter of historians are working on Canadian topics, for example!

    Of course, if we start hiring more global historians and less Canadianists/Americanists, we should start re-tooling our doctoral programs. We’re not producing many global historians – and I think to do so, we’d have to put a very real eye on the funding and research support given students. If somebody doing a local, regional, Canadian history has the same supports as somebody studying say Islam in Indonesia, we’re going to be structurally encouraging the former.

  3. Jim Clifford

    Great post. Did you include temporal data in your survey? How many historians/classics professors teach/research early Chinese, Indian or world history? I’m currently working my way through a new companion to world environmental history and realized my knowledge of Greek and Roman history is a lot deep than my knowledge of the rest of the world in the “classical” time period.

    I would also be interested to know your thoughts on to what extent entitlement numbers shape the trends you’ve identified? Do we need to do a better job selling non-western or world history classes to Canadian undergrads? If so, do you have suggestions?

  4. David Zylberberg

    Like those above, I find the analysis interesting and would appreciate seeing more Asian and South American History taught. I wonder though how much student’s language skills and library acquisitions play into this dynamic, and whether they need to be changed.
    Many Canadian undergraduates only read English, and the second languages vary regionally. Does this make it harder to teach the history of non-English speakers as it is more difficult to find primary sources and scholarly literature on topics? If we want to teach the history of more regions, do we need to instill language requirements for undergraduate majors, who include the next generation of graduate students?
    Meanwhile, the books in university libraries tend to reflect the focus of English-language scholarship. Does this make it harder to teach non-Western history? This presents a chicken and egg problem, but is a concerted effort for more translations of important Mandarin language historiography and purchasing non-Western books needed from our libraries?

  5. Nathan

    The options available for teaching non-Western history are definitely more narrow, but I think every university can support basic courses in world history. The field is quite common in American undergraduate curriculum, and even many state schools have libraries with smaller collections and bookstores with smaller selections (some simply rely on Amazon or similar book sellers) than small Canadian universities. I also think that most historians can teach the field even if it is not their area of research (it isn’t mine). There are good textbooks and some online resources that can help, and instructors can choose from books on broad topics they are familiar with that deal with relevant issues. At the junior undergraduate level, at least, historians can rely on good basic resources and their expertise simply as historians, rather than get too anxious about being experts in the field, or too worried about their schools’ resources and their students’ skills. Beyond this level, though, I do think your concerns apply.

  6. Karen Robert

    I teach history at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, NB, where we have developed quite a comprehensive undergraduate world history curriculum over the past decade. I am also the founding director of a new Institute for World History, to be launched officially in September 2014, whose mission is to promote world history teaching, research, and service in Canada.

    We have nine established positions in our department, with fairly balanced global expertise: World, Canada, U.S., Modern Europet, medieval (defined well beyond Europe), Latin America, Africa, East Asia, Africa, and South Asia. Our introductory course is a full sweep world history survey and all members of the department have also developed global and transnational courses that intersect with their own research interests (Citizenship in World History, Water in World History, etc.).

    World history teaching is absolutely feasible, not to mention important and deeply rewarding. We look forward to exchanging with other historians in Canada who are already doing World History or would like to develop a more global approach to their teaching and/or research.

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