From the Chair: The Tyranny of National Histories

16 Feb

I got back last night from a conference at the University of Heidelberg in Germany where I participated in a conference entitled “Lives Beyond Borders: Toward a Social History of Cosmopolitanism and Globalization.” Although I definitely felt like the least cosmopolitan person there (all the papers and comments were in English, though I was almost the only person whose first language was English), it really gave me an opportunity to think more deeply about the people I study–international civil servants of the United Nations–as well as an entire host of other people whose histories–whose stories and biographies–don’t naturally fall within the history of a particular country.

For example, one of the heroes of my book The Birth of Development, is Sir John Boyd Orr, the first Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization, who won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1949. Since the British government had actively campaigned against his nomination to the FAO in the first place, it’s not all that surprising that he’s not remembered in British history. But he’s equally forgotten in Scotland. If you visit Scotland and find yourself at the William Wallace Monument outside Stirling (because you haven’t yet taken Dr. Beemon’s course and learned that Scotland is about more than Braveheart, kilts, and whiskey), you’ll find Scotland’s Hall of Heroes within the monument. Poet Robert Burns is there, Robert the Bruce, economist Adam Smith, and Sir Walter Scott, but no John Boyd Orr. Why? Perhaps he’s not important to the history of Scotland. But in which Hall of Heroes should a man like Orr, who devoted his life to trying to feed people and eradicate hunger, be?
That was basically the question of the conference. When people have lived their lives in the world, when they’ve been important to the world, who keeps that historical memory? One commentator talked about the tyranny of national histories to describe the ways in which nations have become the keepers of historical memory. The danger in this is that we lose important histories and stories.
One of the papers that I commented on was the biography of Zhang Pengchun. He was the product of a new, modern education offered in the Nankai Middle School before studying at Clarke and Columbia universities in the United States (where he studied with John Dewey). He then served as Dean of the Tsinghua School in Peking and helped launch Peking opera in the United States. But by far his most significant contribution came from his work with the U.N. Human Rights Commission, where he worked tirelessly and largely as an individual with few instructions from his government (which was in the process of losing the Chinese civil war). In this role, he managed to hammer out a set of human rights (in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights) that exceeded Western ideas and that offered the promise of protection for people beyond the bounds of the nation-state. Where is his history commemorated and remembered? Certainly not in the country in which he was born, which is one of the chief human rights violators in the world. So if nations generate and keep histories, whose histories are lost and forgotten? How are we made poorer for forgetting these stories?
So take a moment to think about someone in your own research or reading who is important beyond the borders of a nation and why it’s important that we study and know about her or him. Feel free to share as a comment and join in the conversation!

One Response to “From the Chair: The Tyranny of National Histories”

  1. Mony March 21, 2010 at 6:39 am #

    Your advice when we first met when, in advising me about my choice of research topic: "Research a topic about which you are passionate." The conference sounds fascinating. I doubt you were the least cosmopolitan person in attendance.

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