Becoming sensitive to the complexity of the world by examining history and society from multiple angles

In the modern age, with the progression of globalization and constantly changing world, what does it mean to study history and society? We asked three faculty members in the College of Global Liberal Arts (GLA) to discuss the objectives of Civilization Studies in terms of understanding the pluralism and universality of the world through the lenses of history, sociology, and international relations.

*Writing as of the academic year 2019.

Photo of Professor Yamashita, Hirono, and Maekawa

What does the GLA’s “Civilization Studies” aim to achieve?

The GLA states it helps students break through “what is taken for granted” and obtain new perspectives.

YAMASHITA: Today, I would like us to think about what constitutes Civilization Studies, which is one of the three pillars of GLA.

The three pillars of GLA are Cosmopolitan Studies, Civilization Studies, and Innovation Studies, and the curriculum has been consciously designed to ensure an intertwining of these three areas. Today, I am joined by Professor Maekawa, who teaches Civilization Studies subjects, and Associate Professor Hirono, who teaches subjects that are closely related to the field of Cosmopolitan Studies.

As for me, my primary research field is historical sociology. This discipline uses social theory and other sociological elements to look at history and to analyze the long-term structural transformation of history on society from a macro perspective by “connecting the dots” among individual historical phenomena. By looking at history over the long span, the aim of historical sociology is to be able to assess what kind of era the modern age is in terms of history.

MAEKAWA: I am a historian in a conventional manner. I read histories of British imperialism, colonialism and decolonization. I like historical studies to let the facts speak for themselves on what happened in the past. This is something that I really enjoy. I guess it’s like an excitement that Sherlock Holmes must feel to see the solution of many outstanding cases.

HIRONO: My specialization is China’s international relations. The world order, which has revolved around the superpower of the United States, may be gradually shifting to a China-centric one. Amid this backdrop, I look at the roles China should assume as a great power from the standpoint of weaker countries, that is, countries that receive aid from stronger ones. I seek to shed light on the big picture of the potential shift in world orders by traveling to various developing countries and interviewing members of civil society groups, the media, commercial organizations, government officials, and researchers.

YAMASHITA: Thank you. What kind of material do you cover in the classes you teach at GLA?

MAEKAWA: “Civilizations in Global History.” This is a compulsory course for first-year students with high school-level knowledge of Japanese and world history. I introduce students to the world of historical studies by throwing such basic questions as “what is history” and “what approach should we take to history.” I put an emphasis on the term “historical perspectives.” I want students to know that there are things that cannot be understood just by analyzing them from a single perspective.

For example, one topic I take in the course is Western-centric perspective of the world. This is a somewhat permeating perspective on the “world history” taught in high schools (especially in Japan). Western-centric perspective of history, however, is problematic. It doesn’t reflect the fact of the world. It does lose a grasp of historical dynamism of the globe such as the historical significance of “pre-modern” times, roles of non-state actors and historical uniqueness of non-Western world.

To make matters troublesome, Western-centric cognitive framework would also prevent us from understanding an ongoing “paradigm shift” in many aspects of our time. Thus, Western-centric perspective must be reconsidered. In my classes, I discuss some problematic features of Western-centric perspective, or to put it simply, “Eurocentrism,” by introducing the fruits of recent studies on “Global History” and explore new perspectives to see the world history.

HIRONO: The approach I take in my “Critical Area Studies” class is very similar to Professor Maekawa’s approach. Before students enter university, they learn about Asian and European history from a regional perspective. However, a region does not emerge naturally. It derives from historical, political, and cultural contexts, and is based on a certain concept. In my class, therefore, we think about how the concept of “region” has come into being, and why a certain place is regarded as a single region. I hope this class help my students obtain the skills to reconsider critically the concepts they previously took for granted.

YAMASHITA: Our classes share the same approach in that I provide my students with new perspectives by posing questions on the ways of thinking they have been taught thus far. My “Macrohistory and Metahistory” class is based on a similar approach (and I think GLA is the only place in the world that offers a subject with this title). In the section on Macrohistory, we do not analyze individual historical phenomena, but rather we take a bird’s-eye view of history and deal with “patterns of how to see things”, such as what types and viewpoints are available as perspectives for analysis. In the section on Metahistory, we conduct historical analysis with a focus on descriptive accounts, rather than historical content itself.

History can be expressed as one big story. So, there is more meaning in how, or in what style, the story has been organized instead of the details of events that have occurred. For example, how you understand an event can change by 180° depending on whether it was depicted in the form of a tragedy or a comedy. By learning history with a focus on how the story has been told, students can uncover points they need to be aware of when evaluating the modern age from history.

What does it mean to study histories and societies at GLA?

MAEKAWA: Do not see things uncritically, you need to develop the “circuits” for critical thinking. In my history classes, this is the most important message I want to deliver to the students. We should not allow ourselves to be bound only by the Western-centric view of history, but that being said, we must not merely change our view to an Asia-centric or an Islam-centric one, for example. We must learn how to look at one thing with multiple approaches and from different angles. I want my students to be able to draw their own conclusions on the state of things after synthesizing the commonalities and differences among various viewpoints.

YAMASHITA: Indeed. Critical thinking is not only important for university-level learning, it is important for living our lives in society. It’s also important to learn civility for discussion. You can’t just throw your opinions into the fray because you’re in an academic setting or say whatever you want because you’re in a place where people from different perspectives and cultural backgrounds come together. It’s very important to maintain a minimum level of politeness so that you can engage in discussions without forgetting that everyone has their own personality based on the community where they were born and raised.

HIRONO: When we talk about diversity, the focus tends to be on accepting differences. But I think finding what we have in common is equally important. No matter how different people may look, the recognition of commonality between people would promote mutual respect. In this type of relationship built on respect, I think they can have a more in-depth discussion about diversity, without simply rejecting others’ views by saying, for example, “this is an imposition of western idea” – imposision may not be good, but that does not negate the value of the idea itself. Only such an in-depth discussion of diversity can help us reflect a variety of ways of thinking and arrive at our own independent thought.

What does the word “global” mean in terms of Civilization Studies?

MAEKAWA: We cannot remain blind to biases, such as Western-centric and Asia-centric ways of thinking. The meaning of the word “global” in GLA is the ability to learn and discuss the relationships and complicated historical contexts that underlie how these biases were formed.

HIRONO: I agree. Even looking at China, which is the focus of my research, people often talk about a “New Cold War” as if it were true. I believe this stems from looking at the world in the bipolar terms of the “United States vs. China,” which in itself does not help us see the fact we should identify. In GLA, I want to provide our students with the tools they need to take a critical approach to things like this that are considered common knowledge and develop the ability to think from multiple angles.

YAMASHITA: As Professor Maekawa and Associate Professor Hirono have said, the “global” in GLA does not mean “in English” or “overseas.” It contains the nuance of shifting away from the perspective of looking at the world from a particular center and being sensitive to the fact that the world is complex and plural.

MAEKAWA: In GLA, where we focus on the complexities of the world, the learning is completely different from the learning up through high school, in which every question had an answer. Neither the students nor the faculty have the answers, so everyone has to feel their way around. This means the only thing the faculty can provide students with is multiple perspectives, not answers. We provide them with the ways of looking at things that we have developed over our careers, so together we can puzzle things out and enjoy the act of thinking. Amid this backdrop, students are learning how enjoyable it can be to make their own discoveries.

HIRONO: When students take different persepctives and realise an intellectual connection between matters that they have always considered entirely unconnected, their eyes sparkle with excitement. It is a striking moment. To be honest, we ourselves often learn new perspectives from the students. So, I would say that GLA is a learning community in which teachers and students learn from each other, rather than one in which teachers merely teach students.

YAMASHITA: I agree. Rather than just one-way teaching, it feels much more like we are sharing a diverse array of viewpoints. I feel that this kind of peer learning is successful when the students experience the excitement of finding words to explain the thoughts emerging through them within the communication. Using the various perspectives that we share with them, I hope our students will carve out a new world.

In this session: