The Manning Proposal

In an attempt to describe the state of the field of world history, Patrick Manning explains the development of world history as a separate realm of research, study and education. Quite obviously, he is aware of the audience for Navigating World History. By targeting academics, professors, high school teachers and general history buffs, he draws a large picture on an even larger canvas that does little more than provide an outline of world historiography.

He states five distinct objectives that are each discussed in detail in each part: 1) defining world history in terms of current trends, 2) expansion of world history, 3) summarize the state of world history, 4) develop structures for logical analysis of research, 5) and offer guidelines for curriculum design. But perhaps more important, he weaves five separate but related themes throughout the book. First, world historians can provide understanding of the field through “navigational” techniques, and secondly, multiple patterns have emerged from the development of world history as a distinct field. Thirdly and unfortunately, teachers must teach a subject that covers too much content in too little time, making Manning’s attempt at summarizing and offering a guide on constructing a world history course all the more difficult. Theme four is his emphasis on Africa as a central focus because of the continent’s centrality in the connections that defines world history and its move away from a dominance focused history. As he writes, “historians should go beyond dominance to focus on interaction, (ix)” which he does well to support throughout the book – his strongest argument. Lastly, and one he repeats, is that world history struggles to fund its attempts at becoming a legitimate and well-defined professional field.

Rather than examine every detail, there are a couple of points that Manning makes that seem to resonate louder than others he makes. For one, in chapter six, he makes it clear that the study of interaction is much more important than the older and, he believes, outdated dominance focused histories and curriculums of the past. He argues that world history has always been about the interaction between peoples even if they define themselves in contrast to “others.” Though occasionally there are violent interactions, violence between groups or individuals are still interactions. However, he provides an example of the weakness of the dominance focused studies by comparing the Mongolian empire with the bubonic plague. Basically, he contends that, though the Mongols established a very large political empire, the bubonic plague wiped away all political entities that sought to control the world, making dominance a more impossible dream (111). Here, he is at once confusing and wrong. If interaction is what we want to study, then how is the Mongolians search for dominance not more important than the Black Plague? Did not the plague inhibit interaction while the Mongols enhanced it? If he is so much concerned with keeping interaction as the main focus, how is empire building a subject to avoid?

Lastly, Manning is right when he argues that global studies are a product of a globalized economy and political sphere. Since global studies provide a fresh approach to world history, he contends historians should embrace more interdisciplinary and inclusive approaches, but says little in how to do so. Ultimately, he fails to provide guidance in how to construct a curriculum that resolves the problems he details in the preface. However, his main weakness is his constant complaining about the lack of resources that world historians have at their disposal. He sounds like a Baptist pastor preaching about tithing every single week. Instead of offering options and alternatives to more funding and resources, Manning offers little that apprentice historians (such as we fine folks) can use to overcome these obstacles.

2 thoughts on “The Manning Proposal

  1. I agree with most of the points in your analysis. Manning offers several definitions of world history and several proposed responsibilities of the world historian. Early on, he defines world history as a “field of study focusing on the historical connections among entities and systems often thought to be distinct.” He also argues that the role of the world historian is “to portray the crossing of boundaries and the linking of systems in the human past,” and for the world historians of today, he believes their task is to “link speculation, logic, and evidence into a coherent analysis with the goal of developing broad, interpretive, and well-documented assessments of past transformations and connections” in mind. However, in the first chapter of his book, Manning maintains that the definition of world history is debatable, malleable and open to the redefinition appropriated by each generation of historians. Although these definitions are sometimes lost in Manning’s multiple goals and subject divisions, I believe these multiple definitions emphasize one of his main themes: World history is so vast, so multifaceted and so “evolutional” that one definition does the field no justice. After reading “Navigating World History” we may not be able to formulate a clear, concise and comprehensive definition of world history, but we can definitely conceive of several ideas and examples that are building blocks to that impossible definition.

    In the final section of his book Manning places an emphasis on the issues prevalent in teaching world history, and offers few solutions to the problems discussed. Despite such a lack, Manning must be commended for exposing and examining these issues. Ultimately, isn’t this the first stage in reforming any institution, or solving any issues? We have to identify the problems first, and in my opinion, Manning has done well in that task. Since the field of world history is so large, it’s quite possible that Manning, regardless of his expertise, cannot singlehandedly provide solutions to those problems. If he argues that the definitions of world history are debatable and flexible then the approaches to solving issues in and removing the limitations of the field are equally dubious and variable.

    Outside of the constructive criticism, I must admit that I found “Navigating World History” incredibly informative (of course) and surprisingly enjoyable. Although his goal of providing a “guide” to world history seemed ambitious from the onset, I am quite convinced that his attempt is profound in style and definitive in content. I enjoyed most the accessibility of the themes Manning emphasized and the examples he utilized. As an amateur in graduate study and without any teaching experience, I found Manning’s discussions easy to follow and his arguments easy to comprehend. I’m sure there is much more to learn about the enormous field of world history, but Manning’s book has provided me with a good start in comprehending the field, conceiving of how it’s studied and learning of how it’s taught.

  2. I concur with you that Manning’s work leaves a lot to be desired. While I did benefit from some of the historiographical references, I came away from the book feeling as though it was better suited for an entry level history class rather than a graduate seminar. I learned much of this stuff as an undergraduate or in my Master’s Program.

    I wasn’t explicitly aware of all of the interactions between disciplines, but I agree with your assertion that Manning speaks of these connections, but doesn’t fully flesh out how one should incorporate multiple disciplines to study history. One would think that this could be accomplished in 378 pages of text.

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