By JERRY H. BENTLEY
This fall, professors at more than two dozen community colleges across the country are teaching courses with a new, cross-cultural focus after attending "Globalizing Regional Studies," a seminar hosted by the Library of Congress in July 1999.
The instructors gathered for a three-week course whose purpose was to provide community college teachers with an opportunity to exchange ideas with leading scholars, pursue their individual research projects at the Library of Congress and explore new ways of organizing knowledge about the world, beyond the conventional approach.
About half of America's undergraduate students attend community colleges, yet community college faculty have less opportunity to conduct research or keep up with recent trends in scholarship than their colleagues in four-year colleges and universities.
The seminar enabled participants to meet with scholars who are active in seeking new ways to interpret global interactions. It also enabled them to use the rich holdings at the Library in carrying out research that will enhance the courses they teach.
Funded by the Ford Foundation, the seminar was a joint venture of the American Historical Association, the Community College Humanities Association and the Library of Congress. Co-directors of the seminar's program were this author and Charles Evans, a professor at Northern Virginia Community College. Lester Vogel of the Library's Office of Scholarly Programs served as the seminar's research director.
The formal program focused on efforts to move beyond traditional "area studies." After World War II, American political, military and business leaders realized a need for reliable knowledge about the major world regions -- East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Southwest Asia (often referred to as the Middle East), Russia and Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Africa, North America, Latin America and Oceania. To develop this knowledge they instituted programs of area studies at American universities. Major funding sources for many of these programs were the U.S. government and private organizations, such as the Ford Foundation. Meanwhile, the Library of Congress assembled extraordinary collections of publications on the world's various regions.
In many ways these initiatives led to improvements in understanding individual nations, regions and international realities. Area studies programs fostered expertise in world languages and generated libraries of information about foreign lands and peoples. Although U.S. area studies programs have generated more information than earlier efforts, the traditional approach has recently come under scrutiny. Some critics have charged that Cold War interests tainted area studies and influenced scholars' conceptions of global relationships. They argued that both the institutional structures and the substantive content of area studies were expressions of U.S. hegemony in the world. Some have questioned the scientific status of area studies, characterizing them as purely descriptive exercises with no theoretical or explanatory power. Others have pointed out that these programs have focused attention almost exclusively on individual societies and ignored transregional and global processes that have profoundly influenced the development of both individual societies themselves and the world as a whole.
The seminar explored possibilities of developing different approaches to international studies. During the past few decades, world historians have devoted attention to precisely the kinds of large-scale processes that area studies scholarship had overlooked, such as climatic changes, mass migrations, campaigns of imperial expansion, cross-cultural trade, biological exchanges, transfers of technology, the spread of ideas and ideals, and the expansion of religious faiths and cultural traditions. In exploring these changes, world historians have pioneered some promising ways to understand the larger world by taking a more global approach to the past.
The seminar's program brought together a series of guest faculty who discussed recent scholarship in world history under seven distinct but related topics: John R. McNeill of Georgetown University discussed scholarship on biological exchanges in world history; Patrick Manning of Northeastern University addressed the themes of migration and diaspora; Patricia Seed of Rice University spoke about cultural exchanges; James D. Tracy of the University of Minnesota dealt with issues that have arisen in the study of cross-cultural trade in world history; Edmund Burke III of the University of California at Santa Cruz explored the literature on imperialism and colonialism; Margaret Strobel of the University of Illinois at Chicago examined gender-related questions; Stanley N. Katz of Princeton University discussed civil society and democratization in global perspective.
Like the seminar's formal program, research projects undertaken by seminar participants also reflected the influence of cross-cultural interactions in world history. For example, Michele Dolphin of Front Range Community College investigated the encounters of African, European and Asian musical traditions in the United States; Maureen Nutting of North Seattle Community College studied transnational identity in the Japanese diaspora in Brazil; Joseph Walwick of Manatee Community College studied the domestic and global ramifications of Sputnik; Shelley Wiley of Nash Community College explored religious traditions of the African diaspora in the Caribbean; and Y.K. Hui of Frank Phillips College focused on the question of civil society in China and the Chinese diaspora.
Seminar participants are using their experience at their home institutions, where they are organizing talks, panels, workshops, seminars and curriculum-development projects to take advantage of area studies scholarship while moving beyond traditional area studies approaches.
For further information about the seminar and other Globalizing Regional Studies initiatives, see the project's Web page at www.theaha.org/grs.
Mr. Bentley is a history professor at the University of Hawaii. He also edits the Journal of World History.