Learning, Online - Reflections on teaching history

Curriculum,History

September 20, 2017

World History Must Be Global History

After a summer of thinking about World History in a variety ways, school is underway. My interest in educational equity and disciplinary fidelity continue to motivate me to globalize the high school World History course. An excellent professional development session led by Dr. Keith Mayes refined my reasoning for continuing to globalize the course. In addition to the obvious importance of including the world in World History, globalizing the course is important for teaching historical thinking and for disrupting notions of history that are uninspiring at best and problematic at worst.

Many high school world history classes continue to be based around a narrative of Western Civilization, even as

World History Textbook cover showing the Greek Parthenon

The cover of this World History highlights Western Civ. This is what “Europe and Friends” looks like.

teachers have included more content from Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  The result is a course that a friend and colleague calls “Europe and Friends.”  Structuring World History around a Western Civilization narrative necessarily limits discussion of the “Friends” and often is done in way that inhibits the development of critical thinking.  Teaching Western Civilization or European History does not necessarily do either of these things, of course.  AHA President Tyler Stovall’s recent article for Perspectives describes how European Historians today often bring a global perspective to their work; and, World History teacher Bram Hubbell demonstrates how a topic from the Western Civ curriculum, The Renaissance, can be treated as a World History topic.

The issues are how Western Civ and European History have stood in for “General” or “World” History, and the understanding of history that this promotes.  In my experiences teaching HS history for more than 25 years in two large school districts, World History courses structured around Western Civ often present history as a set of important events tightly linked by causation.  Again, while this understanding of causation is not essential to Western Civ or European History as academic inquiries, these practices in high school classrooms perpetuate a view of history that geographer and anthropologist James Blaut termed the “European tunnel of time” (quoted in Dunn, et al, “Introduction” 2).  It is not just that the events are European, but that they are understood as pieces in an unbreakable chain.

In an essay in The New World History: A Field Guide for Teachers and Researchers, Gilbert Allardyce elaborates on this understanding of history in traditional Western Civilization courses:

“Many of us,” explained Eric R. Wolf “even grew up believing that this west has a genealogy, according to which ancient Greece begat Rome, Rome begat Christian Europe, Christian Europe begat the Renaissance, the Renaissance the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment political democracy and the industrial revolution.” This was not only the history that most westerners knew, it was their perception of the nature of history as well–it’s oneness, linear direction, and progressive movement.  Incapable of transcending European experience, they were also incapable of so-called global perspective (“Toward World History” in Dunn et al, 51).

History teachers who have been in a curriculum meeting where someone insists that some event, such as the Renaissance, must be covered in order for students understand something else, such as the World War I, has witnessed this type of thinking.  Such a view of history is at odds with with the practice of professional historians who stress the contingency of historical events and the agency of historical actors.  It also diminishes critical thinking by making student understanding of causation in history a matter of memorization.

Moreover, structuring a World History course around an imagined narrative of inevitable and universally consequential Western Civilization reinforces white supremacy in education.  Not only does such a narrative foreground European and Euroamerican experiences, but by promoting a deterministic construction of history the “Europe and Friends” approach also makes change and inclusion much more difficult.  From this perspective removing too much of the narrative jeopardizes students’ ability to understand all of History.  In the face of this fear, many World History teachers remain in the tunnel.  The epistemology of history inherent in the traditional use of Western Civilization may create the biggest barrier to further globalizing the World History course.

My understanding of the dangers of this conception of World History deepened as I listened to Dr. Keith Mayes, African American and African Studies U of MN, presentation to social studies teachers in my school district before this school year.  Dr Mayes explained that

“Social studies as a project in ‘neat’ citizenship has been a project in ‘whiteness’–how white Americans overcame their differences and emerged as Americans with a coherent culture and set of values.”

Treating European History as World History or simply requiring Western Civilization instead of World History clearly fed this program of whiteness as Americanness over the years. A deterministic model of history tidies the narrative. Teachers often limited their discussion of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania; and, they often confined these areas to the margins as area studies outside the main narrative.  This offers a partial explanation for Dr. Mayes’s argument that the social studies curriculum has not changed for 100 years.

This curriculum according to Dr. Mayes was meant to prepare students for citizenship through recitation. World History students recited data about historical events to prove mastery.  This style of history education even today exaggerates the certainty of our understandings about the past.  This is significant because social studies as a project of whiteness functions as a discourse of certainty.  Deterministic historical narratives reinforce this, especially when they declare that certain–white–events must be covered. Interrupting the racism institutionalized in social studies curricula requires presenting history as contingent. Reversing Gilbert Allardyce’s reasoning we can use a globalized World History to destabilize students’ views of history as settled fact. Teaching students to think critically about this means encouraging “informed skepticism” (Catherine Cornbleth, cited by Dr. Keith Mayes). Or, as a student of color remarked in class one day, “History is sketchy, Mr. Beckman.”  Indeed it is.

What world history can do is teach students how to work through the sketchiness to meaningful conclusions. Candice Goucher and Linda Walton in their answer to “What is World History?” note that

“Since world history, like all history, is subject to ever-changing interpretations, it is also an arena of disagreement and challenge. The task for world historians is to construct an integrated past that retains voices of difference. World history in the 21st century will be created by an on-going dialogue between the common and collective past and the many individual voices of memory that past contains.”

World History, properly done, thus has much to offer social studies education that prepares students for citizenship in a global, information rich age.

Resources:

Dunn, Ross E., et al. The new world history: a field guide for teachers and researchers. Oakland, CA, University of California Press, 2016.

Dr. Mayes gave an excellent TEDx talk that hits many of the key themes of his professional development work.

  1. Hi Eric, Nicely thought out and expressed explanation of the joys of the global vs. the Western Perspective in teaching World History. I spent many a curriculum committee meeting trying to get this across. I think it was behind our choosing to call our Anoka-Hennepin course Global Studies instead of World History to change the focus and make room for the other parts of the world. Teaching World War II from the Russian and Chinese perspective was always a valuable eye opener for my students. They wanted DDay and Heroic Americans again, but they did come away realizing the War was about more than Pearl Harbor (I hope?) Hope you are having a good beginning to the school year. Keep up the good work. Barbara

    Comment by Barbara Lindeke — September 21, 2017 @ 4:25 pm
  2. Thanks, Barbara. I really appreciate the work that you put into this project before I even got started! Our course is more global because of your efforts.

    Comment by Eric Beckman — September 21, 2017 @ 8:55 pm

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