Nov 28, 2006

On Academic Specialization and the Concept of an Atlantic World

Map of the Atlantic OceanOver the past few years I have become interested in broader, more global views of history, and one particular trend that I believe holds great potential is that of Atlantic history. This subfield is based on the supposition that the Atlantic Ocean served as a sort of liquid highway to connect people on four continents, and that these connections make the study of national history artificially narrow.

Some historians view the trend toward examining history in terms of a wider Atlantic perspective as a means of strengthening the bonds between Europeans and neo-Europeans in North America, or as a sort of continuation of the spread of European culture across the Atlantic (see for example Bernard Bailyn's Atlantic History, 2005). I posit that the impetus behind the conceptualization of an Atlantic world has more to do with a desire to describe the interconnectedness of peoples, and the symbiotic relationships that formed between people in transatlantic cultures. Nineteenth-century naturalist, philosopher, and explorer Alexander von Humboldt eloquently expressed this belief in the universality of knowledge:
I have the extravagant idea of describing in one and the same work the whole material world – all that we know today of celestial bodies and of life upon the earth – from the nebular stars to the mosses on the granite rocks – and to make this work instructive to the mind, and at the same time attractive, by its vivid language.
Like most disciplines, the field of history has become dominated by specialists; modern universities herd scholars into narrowly-channeled lines of inquiry that are not conducive to holistic thinking. Many mainstream historians view the metanarrative and the wide historical perspective as the archaic forms of antiquarians, and the prescient admonition of nineteenth-century geologist Clarence King to “ironize and ridicule specialism” reminds us that this conflict between generalists and specialists has a long history. In light of this disciplinary drive toward narrow specialization, the Atlantic world can also be seen as a form of resistance by historians who reject these notions of how history ought to be told.


Anonymous said...

Being a history (and religious studies) major myself, I've always found it discouraging that the department here at JCU has wanted me to "specialize" in an area. I find alot of different areas of history interesting and have tried to fight against being labeled a certain way. I'd probably be labeled an Europeanist, if only because I've taken a number of courses with a professor that focuses on 20th century Europe in particular. I think he is the best in the department, he pushes me to do my best work, and that’s why I continue to take his courses, not because of the subject material. I've had a fascination with American History, specifically the Presidents since childhood, and this fueled my love for all types of historical places and time periods. I've also found it somewhat challenging to double major, which is disappointing because I'm all about being interdisciplinary. I'd take some more Political Science and Sociology classes if I could. Some days, I really think I should have made up my own major. Apparently they let you do that, although I imagine it would be a giant pain to get it approved.


historymike said...

Hi Jason:

I took a lot of extra classes as an undergrad (I had 160 credits for the 128 I needed) as well as for my Master's (55 when I needed 36).

I am well-rounded for the extra effort, but I might have finished my PhD by now if I played the game the way universities want you to specialize.

I have the same problem as you - I like studying a wide variety of periods, peoples, and topics.

Hooda Thunkit said...


The same thing was noticed in the Silicon Valley, just about the time of the dot com bubble burst.

The predominantly "techie" male culture, although highly skilled at what they do, couldn't interact with others, most notably those of the opposite sex.

Male "Charm Schools," for lack of a more definitive term, quickly sprang up to teach the generally misfit "techie" masses how to behave around other humans and, in general, how to meet, date and marry women.

SO much for overspecialization. . .