Global History: A short overview of A Short Overview

I read this book called Global History: A Short Overview by Noel Cowen. It’s an achievement not only because it condenses many dozens of millennia into a little over 200 pages but also because of the fact that there are many dozens of millennia to have to condense in the first place. From a fairly localised “spawn point” of sorts on one continent, we wandered our way across conveniently located land bridges onto all the others. It’s especially sad, in light of this, that our prevailing paradigm for much of recent millennia was adversarial, revolving around how we (whatever sub-group that was at any point in time) could obtain resources to the disadvantage of others.

This is a broad book, no doubt, wide in its scope, sweeping even. A book that condenses so much time into its space simply has to forego certain details. Still, I was concerned by how little attention was given to slavery, a concept that has been with us as long as war and conquest. I’m glad that Cowen acnowledges in his introduction that the work of civilisations is the work of people, but wasn’t much of the work done by slaves and serfs? I’ll give him the benefit of my concerns and assume that the dearth of detail afforded to the human cost of much of this work is a casualty of condensation.

I appreciate his committment to making the book global in scope but I wonder if the lens of civilisations doesn’t limit this committment somewhat. The scope of the thing narrows as it goes on. The last part really only focuses on Europe/USA, the Middle East and Asia. Cowen defines civilisations as settled populations who spread out until they are forced to break up or contract to the point of being different. I don’t mean to challenge the core of this definition, but it does mean that most of Africa, Australasia and the Americas fall out of focus. In the end, I’m not sure that I want to blame Cowen for this. He says from the outset that he will be focusing on Imperialist civilisations and those were in the best position to exploit the less geographically advantaged groups of sub-Saharan Africa, for example.

He certainly doesn’t glorify any suffering and writes in fairly strong terms about the “racist ideology” of Mein Kampf. I also really admire this sentence: “Marxism ceased in effect to be an independent factor in the determination of policy and became instead a ritual creed to justify a relentless tyranny” (80). I was taken aback by this, given his prior neutral tone, but I actually think it’s a perfect expression of the great problem of the Soviet Union, and wannabe authoritarian “socialists” generally. In his acknowledgements, he mentions that he was born during the Great War, so I suppose he wasn’t inclined to to maintain his detachment when discussing stuff he lived through rather than things that happened centuries or millennia ago.

Coming to the end of the book, I thought that reading this reminded me of when I did history in school. My feelings on its focus aside, I think the book effectively covers in one slim volume what the education system spreads out over years. While this is required in order to understand in detail the texture of history, I really think that assigning a few chapters of this at the start of junior school would help to contextualise much of the material covered later. Maybe students interested only in a basic overview of history would be happy with this or a similar text being the extent of their study of history. I generally favour a multi-disciplinary, integrated approach to my own education and I think a few books of this sort, covering various fields, would be good.

I’m sure this is the only book that Cowen’s written and I’m equally sure that he has likely died by now. He had been a reporter and spent most of his ife as a civil servant working in some interesting areas, including post-war reconstruction and, later, education. Googling his name yeilds only this book, amid pictures of Brian Cowen and Noel Coward. I’m looking forward to moving on, certainly, but this is probably my favourite book so far.

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