Edited by Jeanne E. Grant
It was with great interest that I read Dr. Lockard's case for various kinds of border crossing as a means to facilitate student and faculty engagement in the world around them. As Lockard's career with one University of Wisconsin comprehensive university ends, mine has just begun, and his excellent essay afforded me the opportunity to reflect on my just-completed first year of teaching world history. Perhaps, ultimately, I am more optimistic about our existing commitment to learning about the world around us than Lockard intimates he is here. This may be the naiveté of a relative newbie, but I am increasingly impressed by student desire to be more globally aware. My job, as I see it, is to channel much of this energy into an array of learning and experiential opportunities; to nudge students towards the boundaries Lockard writes of, and hopefully enable them to see the artificialities of many of the borders humankind has constructed. Indeed, my main addition to the insistence upon "border crossing" is that we should eventually go further; to understand the meaninglessness of many borders (perhaps through crossing them), and work to break down those that remain.
While I do not advocate the eradication of disciplinary boundaries, I am, like Lockard, convinced of the value of interdisciplinarity. This fall I will be teaching a class categorized as "interdisciplinary studies" on global consumer culture. This course will draw on economics, political science and environmental studies as well as history and aims to promote student understanding of the interconnectedness of their university courses as well as the world around them. As Lockard states, this is driven in part by the acknowledgment that out in the "real world" a single discipline cannot possibly generate all the answers (a point which, in itself, underscores the continued value of a liberal education). "Crossing Borders," then, in this case, will allow the class, including myself, to think through a contemporary issue that has a long history; a means of making history relevant while seeing the potential interconnections of various disciplinary approaches.
In his second section Lockard examines the necessity for Americans to connect with other cultures. It is certainly true that the U.S. seems to have become worryingly insular in recent years; with the limited coverage of international news by domestic media a prominent symptom of this wider phenomenon. As Lockard states, this ignorance has significant implications for foreign policy decisions, but again the general level of curiosity in my World History classes gives me hope for the future. For example, in an introductory class I was able to use the American government's Sunni-Shiite confusion that Lockard cites as a powerful case for why history—and especially world history—continues to matter. Student learning about this distinction could thus be centered on a specific task—how and why not to make the same mistake as their own government—that made our discussion intrinsically more interesting and pertinent.
I agree, too, that students need to experience other cultures. I have been fortunate to work at institutions which have commitments to providing these kinds of opportunities at relatively low costs. Even so, as Lockard explains, the expense of travel and study abroad is prohibitive for many. Some universities, including my own, are also developing domestic cultural immersion programs that cost less, and provide an alternative form of cultural-border crossing that, if well run, could prove invaluable. If foreign policy blunders can be attributed in part to a lack of global awareness, then much of domestic politicking should also be seen in the reproduction of a discourse about "different" and often presumed to be "irreconcilable" Americas. Study "away" in the United States allows students from non-diverse places (like Eau Claire) to experience regions where people of various backgrounds live and work together on a daily basis, places where "borders" do not seem as hard and fast. Finally, I would be remiss in overlooking the quite amazing commitment of students in seeking out and genuinely living in and with other cultures. At the conclusion of the African history course I taught in the spring I had one non-traditional student leaving to visit the Ethiopian orphanage from where he had adopted two children, one student entering the Peace Corps with an assignment in Sierra Leone, and one going to work in Rwanda. Another student reported on her Spring Break cruise during which (as well as the usual Spring Break antics, we might imagine) she talked with a South African about the post-Apartheid transition in his home country. While this may not be a representative sample, it speaks to the continuing curiosity our students have about the world, and, I believe, their commitment to making the world as a whole a better place to live. Moreover, with the rise of issues that threaten the whole world—environmental damage, in particular— this generation of college students is likely to make a genuine difference to America's view of itself in the world.
These shifts are also apparent in our jobs as historians. Border crossing is becoming the norm in terms of historical specialization; one only has to look at the relatively recent reframing of much of American diplomatic history as "America and the world" to understand, I think, that a wider perspective is increasingly expected in history departments across the country. This is, in part, a reflection of tough economic times, in which it is impossible to have a scholar of "Britain" and one of "India" and thus a specialist on the British Empire makes more sense. Nevertheless, this is not merely a desire to hire "jacks-of-all-trades"; much scholarship is showing true mastery of more than one region. Such scholarship, furthermore, is also investigating the supposed boundaries within which it operates. Recent work in my own field of French colonial history has sought to undermine the supposed distinction made between "France" and "the colonies"—reframing these entities as a singular "French imperial nation-state" in one notable example.
Moreover, as world history and related areas of enquiry makes clear, the "borders" with which our twenty-first century minds operate are not only invented ones, but ones which hinder our ability to make sense of our pasts. Indeed, much of world history makes sense only when viewed as something produced at the level of networks and connections that nations, states and even cities cannot quite capture. Entities such as an "Atlantic world," were created by traders, travelers, and workers—willing and forced—who forged positions for themselves in a "world" that knew very few borders. Randy Sparks' recent work on African slave traders who were themselves enslaved is a case in point. The subsequent journey of these men to the Americas and Europe before negotiating their freedom and returning home provides students with a fascinating glimpse into the various nodes in this oceanic network. This history works as a ripping yarn but also, and especially in the fact that the men return to their work as slave traders after their experience as slaves, raises complex questions about victimhood, complicity, identity and agency which mirror contemporary discussions about the "winners" and "losers" in the process of globalization.
It might in be my particular teaching focus on African history that leads me to be as wary as I am about borders. It was, infamously, a few nineteenth European politicians who prescribed the borders of colonial Africa, borders with which African nations still struggle. Lockard's push for more border-crossing is timely and well-made, but I hope too that such work will lead to a greater questioning of the boundaries themselves, and ultimately move us beyond them.