Edward Farmer offered some very flattering views on my essay and my career, for which I am grateful. His comments are especially appreciated coming from a scholar of Farmer’s stature and accomplishments. In his interesting reflections on his own career and how he became a world historian Farmer reveals some similarities and contrasts with my career and approach to world history. We both ended up specializing on Asia and struggled trying to learn the Chinese language (he much more successfully than I). While Farmer became an Asianist in part because of his military service, I was able to take advantage of study abroad and then the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii. A large percentage of the American academic specialists on Southeast Asia who completed their graduate education in the 1960s or 1970s (some later made their careers in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Southeast Asia, or Hong Kong) were folks who had served in the Peace Corps or similar international service group, with the U.S. army in Southeast Asia, had studied at the East-West Center in Hawaii, or had enjoyed a study abroad experience in Asia. During the 1960s both Farmer and I, believing the war in Vietnam to be counter-productive and disastrous for both Americans and Vietnamese, became active in the antiwar Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars.
Whereas Farmer’s growing interest in comparative and world history came out of his teaching and writing at the University of Minnesota, mine came from doing my Ph.D. study in the immensely exciting Comparative World History Program at UW-Madison, where I not only studied with pathbreaking and inspiring teachers like Philip Curtin, John Smail, and Maurice Meisner but was introduced to the pioneering world history writing of scholars such as William McNeill and Marshall Hodgson. The Comparative World History Program, of course, also produced a number of graduates who became prominent world historians and WHA mainstays such as Ross Dunn, Patrick Manning, Michael Adas, Joe Miller, Frank Knight, and Richard Eaton. When I commenced my own world history teaching and writing I relied heavily on the ideas and writings of McNeill, Hodgson, and Curtin, as well as those of Leften S.Stavrianos, Fernand Braudel, and Eric Hobsbawm. But Farmer was also an influence. When I began work on my world history textbook I often consulted the Asian history text, Comparative History of Civilizations in Asia, that he jointly wrote with several colleagues; this innovative text took a much more comparative and conceptual approach than was the norm for textbooks at that time.
At Minnesota Farmer was instrumental in building what had been a rather parochial History Department into one that addressed world history and hired many top scholars of the non-Western world. One of the problems with the Comparative World History Program at Madison was that it was largely ignored by most of the Madison historians specialized on U.S. and European history, and even the East Asianists tended to remain uninvolved. Hence, it largely involved faculty and students specialized on Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. When key faculty left Madison for other universities (Curtin, John Richards, Peter Smith) or retired due to health issues (Smail) the leadership core was removed and the program had folded by the 1980s. At Minnesota Farmer and his colleagues have wisely involved a wider group of faculty with their world and comparative history programs. Farmer is right that world history involves more than we can ever know and therefore requires, as McNeill wrote decades ago, deciding what to emphasize and what to omit. Farmer resolves this problem by sticking to structured comparisons and case studies, a commendable solution. Farmer also points out that just sending or taking students abroad is not enough; they must engage intellectually and not just physically with another culture. Farmer’s distinguished personal and intellectual biography offers readers an interesting and valuable example of how one can become a comparative and world historian, as well as ways historians can incorporate this perspective into their teaching, curriculum building, and writing.
Edited by Jeanne E. Grant
(c) 2011 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 2, Spring 2011