Teaching Empires in Global Perspective: Strategies and Approaches

Saturday, January 5, 2013: 9:20 AM
Balcony K (New Orleans Marriott)
Andrew Kellett, Harford Community College
Reflecting the centrality of empires both to human history, and to modern popular culture, scholars have been studying imperial history (especially why empires fall apart) since at least Gibbon, if not earlier. This interest has only intensified over time, because of the question of whether the United States is (or should be) a global empire. It should also be clear that “empire” can be useful to teaching global history to undergraduates. Due to the centrality of empires since the Bronze Age, they can offer a solution to the thorny problem of how to organize and present the millennia-worth of material in a global survey in ways that students can “hang their hat on.” Teaching “empire” comparatively can also teach critical thinking skills, since along with mastering basic facts and concepts, students can assess what empires did, and how subjects responded, and why. Furthermore, American students can use imperial histories to better understand how their country developed.

In my portion of this roundtable presentation, I will address some of the risks and rewards of teaching “empire” in comparative global perspective to undergraduates. I will draw my examples from a 200-level “Special Topics in History” course I teach on this subject, which could potentially become a “capstone” course for history majors. Beginning with Rome and Han China and ending with America’s 20th-century “imperial” presence, this course compares and contrasts empires to get at such core issues as:

  • How different “centers” constructed and maintained imperial systems over various “peripheries”;
  • The ideas that motivated empire-builders (e.g., “What did the Romans think they were doing?”);
  • How subject peoples responded to and dealt with imperial systems;
  • How and why imperial systems eventually collapsed;
  • How empires throughout history influenced later empire-builders (e.g., the influence of Rome on the British Empire).