Some Limitations of AP World History

While reading through C Menger’s Principles of Economics (1871), I have been struck by his references to “higher” and “lower” civilizations and to his coordination of these cultural categories with economic and, therefore, in his view, mathematical axioms. Menger’s readers will bear in mind how terribly modern Menger was (or, in any case, wanted to be). Menger was a fierce critic of aristocratic and noble airs. Nor did he tolerate his fellow Austrian’s imbecilic fondness for nationalism—Hungarian, German, or otherwise. So modern was Menger, in fact, that, rather than concealing his life-long relationship with his Jewish housemaid (Menger was baptized a Catholic), he demanded that both be admitted as his true and legitimate heirs, for such boldness even resigning his plumb appointment at the University of Vienna. Menger was modern.

But what did this mean during the last quarter of the nineteenth century? Or, more specifically, what did this mean for a German-speaker at the end of the nineteenth century?

AP World History often couches “western” history in a cloud of obscurity punctuated only by the evils of its insatiable colonial, imperial, and capitalist quest for world domination. This is because those who design AP World History feel that they already know how the west became “the West” and therefore feel that it is a matter of course to advance on to the real story, the story of western domination of the rest of the world.

Menger certainly believed that he and his colleagues knew why the west became “the West.” Non-western, non-modern, primitive folk live—according to Menger—from hand-to-mouth: short, brutish, and so-on. In Menger’s conceptual universe, primitive communities are stuck with the lowest level of goods, goods that require no production. Yet, in order to enjoy more refined, more culturally advanced first level goods—goods that supply an immediate need—individuals, according to Menger, need to be a part of a complex community of producers most of whom will be occupied by producing goods—second, third, and fourth order goods—that may have no immediate consumer value, but which only contribute to the production of some lower level good. Think of it this way:

1) Highest level goods: fertilizer, soil, rain, seed, labor, sea, mines

2) Next lower order: wheat, corn, grain, leaven, salt, sugar, coal, steel, iron

3) Next lower level: flour, labor, ovens, fire, building, transporters, shops

4) Lowest level: bread

In a primitive society, according to Menger, if it cannot be plucked off a tree or hunted and eaten immediately, it is not a good. What makes a society more or less civilized are the proliferation of these levels of goods and their interconnection with one another so that at some point the good that I am consuming on the lowest level might be, e.g., a Mozart opera.

Now, quite aside from Menger’s almost comical mischaracterization of non-capitalist, face-to-face, wandering or semi-nomadic communities, we are faced with his presumption that the proliferation of lowest level goods of ever-greater complexity, fulfilling an ever greater variety of human “needs,” is an indication also of a “higher” civilization and, teleologically, is the goal or aim of human being.

So, why do these two presumptions cast the curricula of AP World History into doubt? For one, it is impossible to move from a critique of imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism to the events and processes that brought communities in western Europe to adopt these twin presumptions on faith. Imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism were rather the consequences of these twin presumptions, presumptions that gained hold and spread beginning in fifteenth century western Europe. For another, AP World History focuses its attention on the consequences of imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism for the victims of these formations, it walls off from consideration the events, processes, and institutional arrangements that led to these formations in the first place. Finally, however, insofar as it fails to critically assess the assumption of a transhistorical directional dynamic implicit in the emergence of the modern West, it surreptitiously adopts this assumption into its interpretation of western domination, suggesting, for example, that such domination violates transhistorical principles of human rights or freedom (which, arguably, are products of the very process at which AP World History aims its criticism).

But this means that students enter a course on the History of Economic Thought completely ill-equipped to critically assess the ideas of a person such as Carl Menger, except to conclude either “I like neoliberalism,” or “I do not like neoliberalism,” which, of course, does not amount to a critical assessment, but a statement of preference.

Do I fault AP World History for this lack? Yes I do.