Now that we have finished a full semester of transnational history, I am firmly convinced that traditional history is in some way lacking if it does not incorporate a transnational perspective. I also am somewhat amazed that my exposure to this way of analyzing history has come so late in my academic career. What is more, it is incredible to think that most history graduates will have gone through their entire university career without gaining any exposure to the topics that we discussed. This is something which we discussed at the unconference earlier in the semester (and disagreed about a lot!) and which I would like to explore further now. The question I wish to raise is whether transnational history should be taught as an integral part of the history curriculum, including at primary and secondary school level?
Let’s face it, our history education before coming to St Andrews was based almost entirely around the nation state. At A-Level, I studied a history of the Soviet Union, the history of post-unification Germany and Italian unification. All three of these topics are heavily ‘un-Transnational’. Take, for instance, Italian unification, which focused almost entirely on how a nation was built and how it interacted with other nations (for example, Austria, France and Britain). What is interesting is that within this, there would be countless networks that you could use to analyze the Risorgimento. Of course, there is some focus on the network of Cavour, Mazzini and Garibaldi, but there were also lots of freemason networks and other kinds of networks that could be included in this. However, I am not trying to say that we should not include nation-centred analyses, but rather that a national and transnational approach can be intertwined together. History curriculums could, say, examine the history of the nation state and its macro political and international history whilst also examining the individual actors and networks which comprise these broader processes.
Of course, if you were to include a transnational history curriculum in primary school, you would have to significantly modify the content in this course. Indeed, primary students may end up being put off history altogether if the teacher started talking about the complexities of Actor-Network Theory, strong and weak ties, and even Patricia Clavin’s ideas. One way in which you would have to modify the course to suit a much younger age range would be to have less of a theoretical approach to understanding transnational history and more of a practical, case-study focused approach. A class of primary school students would be much more interested in learning about postwar German guestworkers, the Singapore Mutiny and Lüderitzbucht than, say, Bruno Latour or Mark Granovetter. Another thing would be to bring out the micro and anecdotal aspect of transnational history into the curriculum by trying to introduce interesting transnational stories. The reading that comes to mind is Tonio Andrade’s piece which we read earlier in the semester. History could have more of a case-study focus which brings history to life in the imagination, something which I certainly felt when reading Andrade, perhaps my favourite piece of academic literature I have read during my whole time at St Andrews. We could also teach them about A Croatian Electrician, Two Army Officers, and a French Tennis Legend in order to help bring history alive!
Another important part of our transnational history course this semester that could be brought into school education could be all the different types of alternative learning which we experimented with this semester. I found the unconference idea to be a wonderful one and I think pair-writing could definitely be something that could be introduced in high schools (though I think getting them to meet on a Saturday like we did might be a bit of a stretch!). Another thing that could be introduced into the school system could be the blog post idea. What I found particularly useful about this was that it encouraged me to get into the habit of writing, whereas I previously tend to massively overthink things before I put pen to paper, I now feel more confident in just writing without even thinking about it. Why not also bring mapping and databasing into the school curriculum? History as a subject can very easily be criticized for not teaching students many practical skills. But, mapping and databasing goes hand-in-hand with transnational history and could really encourage students to pursue history beyond school. Moreover, if schools taught transnational history, I think they should also adopt the project idea which we are doing this semester. Many of my high school history classes involved just listening to teachers try and explain history to a class. I definitely think there needs to be more of getting students out there to research a part of history which they are actually interested in, rather than sticking to a set school curriculum. This kind of inquiry-based teaching would definitely help make primary and secondary school students more curious and develop personal interests in history.
So, what’s been the purpose of this post? It is partly to say that the primary and secondary school system should incorporate transnational history alongside national history. But, it is also to say how grateful I am that I have been exposed to transnational history (albeit maybe slightly too late in my academic career for my liking). It has encouraged me to think differently about how we as historians may wish to think about how we go about doing history and challenge our previous ideas about how history has to be focused around the nation. In many ways, I wish I had been encouraged to think in these terms earlier, even at primary school level, as it would have promoted my interest in history much more. So, yes, history at all levels should have a transnational focus.