A world history course of one’s own?

In this Aanzet-issue, which is our first bilingual publication, research on a variety of historical topics all over the globe is presented. The importance of research into the global processes that connect with local events is elaborated on by Rachel Gillett and Karlijn Olijslager, coordinators of the first-year course World History. With this column, they hope to inspire students to think about and contribute to issues of decolonization, selectivity and inclusivity within both the course itself and the curriculum of the history programme at Utrecht University.


2020 has been no joke. But there is a historians’ joke about it. Most historians specialize in a period of decades, sometimes centuries. A few narrow it down to a single year and its consequences (1968, 1989). Historians of the future, we suspect, will be asked which half of 2020 they specialize in. Perhaps even which month. This year has been historic on a scale unmatched in recent decades. A global pandemic. Worldwide protests against racism and police brutality. Contested elections and economic sanctions applied by superpowers against each other. 

Each of these global events have played out in uniquely local ways. And yet they reveal our shared humanity. Doctors and nurses across the globe struggled as they saw a deadly disease defy their expertise and sophisticated hospital equipment fall short and fail to save lives. Some of us lost and grieved for loved ones, often through the social distance of a screen with strict lockdowns in place. Yet parents in America are still left with school-aged children at home while in the Netherlands many are back at school. There are also similarities and differences in protests. One of Rachel’s former students is holding teach-ins at Harvard to educate scholars there about police brutality in her home country of Nigeria and she also supported #BlackLivesMatter protests in the USA just as crowds of thousands gathered here in Utrecht to support Black Americans and also examine racism in the Netherlands. This is world history. 

When we do world history we trace connections, and identify moments of global change, but also pay attention to the local, and the human. ‘Oma’s kruidnoten’ recipe can bring us into the complex and painful Dutch colonial past. World historians examine the ways in which humans encounter each other and are connected through these big networks and systems that influence our daily lives. The world history course at Utrecht asks students to analyse a rich and varied range of sources such as a drum, oral history, maps, music, and statues. It is inherently interdisciplinary because it engages with cultures who recorded their histories in a variety of different modes. It is precisely these approaches to history we apply in a course like World History. World history is not, however, and cannot be, the history of the whole world throughout recorded time. This is something we make abundantly clear in the first-year course “World History.” It is impossible to tackle the history of the world in a seven-week teaching block. So, we make choices, as every historian does in their work.

Maps are one of the sources students analyse in this course. For their first assignment, they visit the Map Room of Special Collections. Students make an analysis in which they discuss the choices the mapmaker has made, how they have been influenced by and/or contributed to a contemporary world view. One of the maps on display is this Buginese nautical chart, an example of indigenous cartography influenced by European sources and vice versa. This hybrid map illustrates course topics such as cultural encounters and politics of exchange in knowledge. Utrecht University Library: [Buginese nautical chart of the Malay Archipelago], Anonymous, 1816 (Map: VIII.C.a.2)

The problem of what we choose to cover is particularly difficult in World History. So, we have to be open about it. Recently, Marijke Huisman pointed out in an interview with DUB that the center of the curriculum is Europe and the transatlantic World. She questions what this means for our worldview and subsequently, what kind of sources we deem relevant for the writing of histories. Marijke’s argument pushes us to think further about the boundaries of our discipline, our UU history program and the place of World History in the curriculum. For example, the interconnected nature of the Haitian, French and American revolutions and their outcomes is now commonly acknowledged instate-of-the-field journals and conversations. This raises the question if it is better to include these perspectives in courses such as modern history or in a separate World History course? These are very pressing questions in the history department and students are part of that conversation so let us know what you think! We have a choice to include marginalized groups and individuals in courses that are not necessarily titled ‘World’ or ‘Global History’. But will this marginalize them still further? 

World history has long been a site for the examination of the questions which drive the current movement to decolonize the University. It has challenged the primacy many Western and European history training programs have placed on the textual. World History demands that we consider how empire and colonialism have shaped High School curricula, what counts as knowledge, what counts as evidence, and which debates are “significant” or which events are “consequential.” Doing history from a world historical perspective enables students and teachers alike to critically challenge dominant narratives and push the boundaries of our analysis. The best outcome of world history is when students and teachers alike develop the critical thinking skills that are at the core of our discipline. In every lecture and seminar, we seek to invite that critique and we hope that the course generates the same lively spirit of critical inquiry in the readers of this journal and in the faculty, who decide next year’s curricula. What are our founding assumptions? How can we include many perspectives, and place our cultural values in a global perspective? We leave you, then, with more questions than answers. And that’s how we end the course. More knowledge, better knowledge, and more questions to take that knowledge further.

Rachel Anne Gillett lectures in cultural history at the Utrecht University and writes about race, popular culture and empire. Her book, At Home in Our Sounds: Race, Music, and Cultural Politics in Interwar Paris is coming out in March. Karlijn Olijslager lectures in cultural history at Utrecht University and writes about representations of gender, class and race in women’s exhibitions in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Together they coordinate the first-year course World History.