The Relevance of European History

World history is constantly being rewritten. Christopher Dawson here emphasizes the importance of the European contribution.

World history, as it is understood today, is an entirely new subject. Sixty years ago, when Acton was planning the Cambridge Modern History, he conceived it as a universal history which would not be a mere combined history of modern states, but a study of the development of universal historical forces.

Yet at the same time, he took for granted that this history would be a European one and that it was only, or primarily, in Europe and its colonies that the movement of world history was to be found. But the new conception of World History, as may be soon for example in the Unesco world history which is being written at the present time, rejects this conception entirely and aspires to produce a work which will be ecumenical in treatment and scope, embracing the whole history of every people from China to Peru without preference or prejudice.

The old European view of history is now condemned as provincial or parochial or “ethnocentric,” and it is generally admitted that if we wish to study world history we must pay as much attention to China and India and Islam, not to mention Indonesia and Africa, as to Europe.

At first sight this seems to represent a great advance, but even if this is so, the advance has still to be made. For the great European historians of the past, like Ranke and Acton, were members of an international society of learning and they spoke to a wide audience who knew what they were talking about. Today world history has no such educated public. General historical knowledge has not kept pace with the advance of specialized studies.

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