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The Demography of World History in the United States[1]

Ane Lintvedt,
McDonough School

    At the 117th annual meeting of the American Historical Association in January 2003, a presidential panel entitled "Writing the History of Western 'Civ' in the Global Age: A Roundtable" was presented. Five professors, all authors of European History textbooks, gave presentations about the appropriateness of teaching Western Civ as the foundational survey in college and university history departments.[2] A related theme of several of the presentations was why it was not appropriate, and even impossible, to teach World History as the foundation survey course. It seemed to me that there was a distinct tone of defensiveness in many of the presentations as well as in the comments from members of the audience. I have been reflecting on this panel ever since, especially as I happily teach both AP European History and AP World History. In particular, I wondered what lay behind the defensiveness I detected. After some research, I believe part of the answer lies in the shifting demographics of World History instruction. Simply put, it seems likely that the number of World History courses will soon supersede Western Civilizations courses offered in U.S. high schools, colleges, and universities. Already World History is becoming the required history course (along with U.S. History) in U.S. public high schools. At the college and university levels, World History has already eclipsed Western Civilization at the university levels, especially at public universities. Those of us in the profession know this is an enormous sea change. Thus, even if we put aside the contentious debate about which type of course is 'better' in an intellectual or academic sense, it nevertheless seems clear that those on both sides need to gain a better understanding of the demand for World History at the national level.
    Let's begin with secondary education. A majority of states (28) require some type of World History course for graduation from the public high schools.[3] Among these are New York, California, and Texas--which combined contain almost half the school-aged population of the U.S.[4] Moreover, according to a National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) transcript, a significant majority of recently graduated high school students studied World History.[5] According to NAEP figures, 59.59% of high school students took a World History course in 1990, 66.72% of students took a World History course in 1994, and 66.41% took a World History course in 1998--figures that represent a 10% growth in only eight years.[6]
    That's not all. In response to the growing numbers of high-school students receiving instruction in World History, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) began offering an Advanced Placement test in World History in 2002. In that first year alone, 20,800 students took the test. In the second year, 34,286 students from 1,474 schools took the test--representing a 65% increase from the first year. For the 2004 test, the ETS is "guesstimating" another 30% increase in student test-takers.[7] According to the ETS, the AP World History test claimed the largest first-year enrollment of any test in the history of the College Board's AP program.[8]
    Clearly, these figures indicate that World History courses are already being taught in large numbers around the country. What's more, the trend in state requirements and demand for the AP World History courses points to a likely increase in demand for such courses in the future. As a result, it seems that teachers are going to be required to teach World History in ever-increasing numbers especially at the college-preparatory levels.
    The implications of this trend have important ramifications for our colleges and universities. Quite simply, World History courses for undergraduates are in demand, and we can only expect this demand to rise. Already in 2000-2001, 59% of all U.S. colleges and universities offered World History, while only 46% offered Western Civilization courses. At public universities, the figure for World History weighs in even higher at 69%.[9] Yet even while the number of universities and colleges offering World History is on the rise, few of the PhD's who are expected to teach these courses have ever received formal training in World History. Most professional, university-level historians are trained in area or regional specialties rather than in global and thematic, cross-cultural, trans-national studies.[10] More seriously perhaps is that "[m]ore than half of the history graduate programs do not offer graduate-level courses in fields outside the United States and Europe."[11] Only three American universities offer PhDs in World History, while only about a dozen offer fields of examination in world history-related themes and topics.[12] More and better graduate training needs to be offered to meet the demands of our undergraduates for quality instruction in World History.
    It seems clear that no matter how one feels about the virtues of Western Civilizations versus World History, we cannot ignore the changing demographics of World History in this country. But how do we cope with it? Do we hope that World History will just go away, that states will stop requiring it, or that our bright undergraduates and graduates will simply learn it "on the fly" when they are forced to teach it? Do we continue to foist the teaching of World History on new teachers and professors as a trial-by-fire until they can foist it on the next generation of rookie teachers and professors? I think not. Instead, I think the professional implications of recent World History demographics are clear; we must train more of our undergraduates and graduate students to teach World History and to teach it well. It is already a required course at the majority of academic institutions in this country. Based on statistical trends at the high school level, it may soon be the most important required history course beyond U.S. history. That said, the history profession needs to remain open to debate about the virtues of teaching World History as opposed to Western Civilization as the foundation history course in this country. I am looking forward to the continuing discussions and debates.

Biographical Note: Ane Lintvedt teaches world history and the history of Western civlizations at the McDonough School in Owings Mills, Maryland.


[1] I owe thanks to primarily to Despina Danos from ETS, for conversations and many references found in this article.  I would also like to thank respondents to my queries on H-net World and the AP World History listservs, as well as friends and colleagues in the WHA,  Noralee Frankel at the AHA for information and references, Stuart McConnell of Pitzer College, and Heidi Roupp.  I have made preliminary inquiries to find out where World History is being taught outside of the US.  I have some information, but not enough to make any grand statements.  That will have to wait for another essay.

[2] This session, #89, took place on Jan. 4, 2003.  The roundtable participants were Lloyd Kramer, Thomas Martin, Thomas Noble, Patricia O’Brien, and Merry Wiesner-Hanks.

[3] According to August 2002 figures from the Educational Commission of the States, eleven states specifically require a course (1 credit) in World History to graduate from high school; five states require a World History and Geography course; three states require World History for a higher-level diploma but not a lower one; one state requires ½ credit in World History. Two states offer World History as one of the options for completing a Social Studies graduation requirement, and eight states require global or world "issues" to be embedded in required social studies courses, but do not specify that this must be a World History course. Twenty-two states do not have specific guidelines for World History, in many cases because curriculum decisions are left to local districts. See  Accessed 7/17/03.

[4] I have this information anecdotally from a textbook-publishing company executive.

[5] These figures pertain to public high schools, and thus do not convey the significant numbers of students who receive World History instruction at independent secondary high schools.

[6] Figures from NCES (National Center for Educational Statistics): NAEP is in the process of considering when to create a national World History test, which is another indication of this course becoming embedded in the K-12 curriculum across the country.

[7] ETS will have a better sense of the 2004 WHAP test takers when they receive orders from the AP administrators in the high schools.  This takes place in late fall. 

[8] Compare these numbers with the 73,807 students in 3,643 schools who took the AP European History test in 2003--a test that has been offered for more than 20 years.  Figures from Despina Danos at ETS, 8/04/03.

[9] Robert Townsend, "History Majors and Enrollments Rose Sharply between 1998 and 2001," in Perspectives, vol. 41, no. 2, Feb. 2003.  Figure 2, p. 8.

[10] The question of the balance between area-studies training and global training is ongoing among world historians.  See Patrick Manning, Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), ch. 9 passim., 330-333.

[11] Townsend, Perspectives, 9.

[12] The universities that offer PhD programs in World History are: Northeastern University, Columbia University, and Washington State University.  Universities that offer PhD examination or teaching field in World History are: Georgia State University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Binghamton University, University of Hawaii, Ohio State University, Rutgers University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of California at Irvine, the University of California at Santa Cruz, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the University of Minnesota.  Doctoral programs in Atlantic History are offered at Florida International University and University of Texas –Austin.  See Manning, 80. This list, however, may not be complete as the number of programs offering some type of global history does seem to be growing in the very recent past.



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