Voyages in world history with Ken Curtis

Andy Olson

Ken Curtis, professor of history at California State University Long Beach, visited the Lawrence campus Thursday, April 2, to give a talk titled “Voyages in World History: Framing Big Questions Through Travelers’ Tales.” The talk was based on Curtis’ experience teaching world history and on his recent book “Voyages in World History.” The presentation was sponsored by the history department.
Curtis was not new to the Lawrence campus, however. A 1980 Lawrence graduate, Curtis received his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison several years later with a specialization in African history. After receiving his doctorate, Curtis was invited to teach for a few years at Lawrence. It was during his time at his alma mater that he had his first exposure to what later became the focus of his career – world history. After Lawrence, Curtis took a job teaching at California State University Long Beach.
In his talk, Curtis spoke of his work as a professor of world history and the unique challenges that presents. The history of the world, it turns out, is big. Really big. One of the greatest challenges in teaching world history, then, becomes the sheer amount of material that needs to be presented. Because of this volume, teachers of world history often find themselves resorting to reductionist tactics. History becomes the interplay of vast “isms” – imperialism, communism and the like. Students and professors alike, Curtis says, find such an approach difficult to relate to.
In an effort to make the material more accessible and more human, Curtis has come to advocate an approach that uses the stories and memoirs of individuals throughout history as access point to the essential larger concepts. Often these personalized stories take the form of travel narratives, though not exclusively.
One such personage was Catalina de Erauso. Born in the Basque region of Spain, Catalina de Erauso masqueraded as a man in the Spanish army during the Spanish colonization of South and Central America. Towards the end of her life, de Erauso was exposed as a woman and relocated to a convent. Her autobiography is widely read to this day. As Curtis points out, de Erauso’s life can be used as a starting point to discuss several important concepts in world history, such as colonialism and women’s issues. De Erauso’s account of the relationship between the Spanish colonists and the indigenous peoples of America is especially useful for discussing European expansionism. Curtis uses these personages throughout time, such as the Russian thinker Aleksandr Herzen and Nelson Mandela, to make his larger points.
Curtis’ points are especially relevant in an academic world where the teaching of world history is delegated to junior professors and rarely considered a serious academic discipline.