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Teaching The World Since 1945


Forum on Teaching The World Since 1945: An Alternative to the Standard World History Survey?

Heather Streets-Salter


     At Northeastern University, a school known for its commitment to World History, we no longer teach the standard World History survey. It's not that we never taught it—the course is still on the books, and it was taught as recently as two years ago. But in spring 2012 we made the decision to discontinue teaching the survey (which in our case was Neolithic to the present in one semester) because of consistently low enrollments. The problem? The vast majority of our students enter the university with AP credits in World History, and thus do not need to take it again in college. In any case, the one-semester survey was never a bread-and-butter course at Northeastern: it is one of eleven introductory courses majors can choose, and it is not required of non-majors in any discipline. Instead, the course we rely on to maintain steady enrollments is a one-semester class called The World Since 1945. While the course is an elective for History majors, it is required of all students in the International Affairs (IAF) program—one of the largest majors in the College of Social Sciences and the Humanities. Each semester we teach one large class of 125 students, and three or four smaller classes of between twenty-five and forty-nine students. It is the closest thing we have to a 'service course.'

     When I moved to Northeastern from Washington State University in 2012, I had been teaching the modern half of the standard World History survey (1500 to the present) since 1998. I had grown to like the course over the fourteen years I taught it at Washington State, and even became deeply involved in textbook writing based on my experience. But once at Northeastern, in the spirit of giving my fair share to our department's service responsibilities and because I love teaching World History, in fall 2013 I decided to try my hand at teaching The World Since 1945.

     I had my doubts. For starters, I specialize in the period between 1850 and 1940, and thus the chronological parameters of the class were outside my comfort zone. Not only that, after years of teaching 1500 to the present, I had prepared only a few lectures on the post-1945 period. As a result, I needed to compose an entirely new set of lectures for the course. More fundamentally, I had grown so used to teaching five centuries of history in one semester that I was skeptical students would really be getting enough out of a course that covers less than a century. I wondered if they would simply be missing too much if they had only a vague sense of global history before the modern period, or if a post-1945 course would reinforce rather than complicate ideas about the hegemony of 'the West.'

     But after having taught the course two years in a row, this is now my favorite undergraduate class, and arguably the most satisfying class I have ever taught. More controversially, I now believe that The World Since 1945 deserves consideration as an attractive alternative to either a two-semester standard World History sequence or a one-semester grand sweep of the history of humanity. Don't get me wrong: I still support teaching the standard World History courses, and I am convinced of their value in secondary and university education. But if our goal is to turn students on to how and why history matters, and to the reasons studying world history is important, The World Since 1945 might work even better than the standard surveys.

     In this forum, I will briefly introduce both the advantages and the disadvantages, as I see them, to teaching The World Since 1945 instead of the standard surveys as 'the' World History service course. I will write as though this is a zero-sum game, assuming that most schools would not require both a post-1945 and a more chronologically inclusive survey. In practice, however, it is perfectly possible for History departments to offer both types of courses (as indeed Northeastern used to do), in which case there would be no need for a tough decision about which to favor over the other. But for those schools in the process of considering a required World History course in the university curriculum, I would like to outline the merits of The World Since 1945 as a viable alternative to the standard one- or two-semester survey.

     Following my introduction, I have asked three of Northeastern's experienced World History Since 1945 teachers to write short essays providing practical advice about specific aspects of the course. Malcolm Purinton, an advanced graduate student and four-time teacher of the course, begins by exploring the issue of how to organize the course material. He wrestles with whether or not the class should be organized chronologically, regionally, or thematically, and offers food for thought about the advantages and disadvantages of each. Samantha Christiansen, a recent Northeastern Ph.D. and current Assistant Professor and Director of Women's Studies at Marywood University, follows with an essay focused on how to incorporate women and gender into the course in a meaningful and holistic way. She argues that, too often, women appear in World History courses as either add-ons to the main story, or else as marginalized and oppressed victims. To counter this problem, she offers specific advice for incorporating gender analysis and the study of women into course assignments, lectures, and discussions. The final contribution is by James Bradford, also a recent Northeastern Ph.D. and now Assistant Professor at Berklee College of Music, who outlines a specific classroom activity that is at once interactive and also informative about political and social organization in Afghanistan. As a specialist on modern Afghanistan, Bradford has found a way not only to convey how Afghan society is organized, but also to encourage students to experience it themselves through organizing their own loya jurga. Bradford provides all of the elements for readers wishing to try the activity for themselves, but his essay should also prompt specialists to think about ways they might be able to incorporate an interactive activity of their own making into the class.

To Cover Only the Last 69 Years Or Not: That is a Question

When considering the chronological range of a required World History course, the most important issue to think about is what we want students to walk away with at the end of the semester or year. Are we adamant that a liberal arts education should include a working knowledge of the broad sweep of human history since its beginnings? Is it vital that students understand the increasing interconnections of human communities over the last 500 years, and the diverse histories of most world regions in that timeframe? If we answer yes to either of these questions, then we will want to require some version of the standard survey. But if we are more interested in producing students who understand the concrete ways the past influences the present, or in appreciating the value of historical understanding in their own lives, or simply in becoming interested in history, the chronological range of our courses is less important.

     In my opinion, the single greatest advantage The World Since 1945 has over the standard surveys is that students are genuinely interested in it. Most students come to college having taken a full year survey of World History in high school, and in my experience they are often deeply unhappy at the prospect of being required to take a similar course in college. At Washington State University, where students were required to take two semesters of the World History survey (from ancient times to the present), this was the complaint I heard most frequently. And even though I can think of many reasons why an engineering or chemistry major should know about the Tang dynasty or the Mongol invasions, in many cases students could not. For these students—despite my own and my colleagues' efforts to teach the course well—the course was something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

     In contrast to the 500-year survey, what I have noticed about The World Since 1945 is that students rarely complain about the requirement or demand justification for it. This period encompasses the lifetimes of their parents and grandparents, and frequently offers illumination into the beliefs and behavior of their own family members. For example, one student of Chinese descent came into class after we finished reading the novel Spider Eaters, and explained that she had never understood until then why her father refused to talk about his experiences growing up in China during the 1960s and 70s. All she knew is that her father had been sent to be 're-educated' in the countryside after the Cultural Revolution, and that he became visibly upset whenever he was asked about it. Now she had insight into why the period had been so traumatic for him, and it led her to a new understanding of her father and his behavior as a parent. The point, of course, is that this student was able to clearly see the relevance of understanding the history of China after 1945 not only for its impact on the present shape of the world but in her own family history. Over the course of a typical semester teaching this course, there are countless opportunities for students to make connections between the general and the personal, the global and the local.

     I am not advocating that we confine ourselves to teaching only courses that students are interested in as though we were paid entertainers. What I am suggesting is that if our goal is to teach students to appreciate the value of history, perhaps we should require a course that they can immediately identify as important and even relevant to their own lives. Perhaps such a course would encourage more students to love history, and to want—of their own accord—to explore particular topics more deeply. Perhaps it would encourage more students to consider a History major or minor. Viewed this way, we might want to think of the required World History course not as a vessel into which we pour everything students need to know about the global past, but as a positive starting point in a relationship that has the potential to grow and expand.

     Students are not the only ones who can immediately understand the relevance of a course on the post-1945 period. Although it is sometimes inconceivable to us as historians, academics from other disciplines sometimes share our students' skepticism about the value of the standard World History surveys as required classes. But it is very difficult to argue against the relevance of a course like The World Since 1945, which has clear application for a variety of disciplines, including especially Political Science, International Affairs, Languages, Public Policy, Religion, and Anthropology. For those History departments seeking a required course in the university curriculum, The World Since 1945 may be an easier sell than a course (or courses) with a long chronological range. Furthermore, in institutions where a large number of students matriculate with AP credit in World History already, it might be more strategic in terms of maintaining enrollments to think about requiring a course distinct from the long-term survey.

     The World Since 1945 also has advantages for teachers. For one thing, faculty are less likely to dread teaching it. Many of us are familiar with colleagues who simply hate to teach the standard World History surveys. They may rightly feel under-prepared to teach so far outside their areas or periods of specialty, or they may dislike the necessarily superficial coverage of so many important events. Although the majority no doubt conquer their negative feelings and teach the course well, in some cases lack of enthusiasm for teaching the course translates into unenthusiastic teaching. Given its much-abbreviated timeframe, however, The World Since 1945 is a far easier class to teach than the standard World History surveys. While the course still requires every historian to teach outside her or his own area of expertise, it is less daunting to gain mastery over sixty-nine years as opposed to 500 or several millennia. Nearly all historians of the modern period will have some content expertise around which to build the course, ideally allowing for greater confidence and enthusiasm for the course material. As a bonus, United States historians—who are sometimes exempted from teaching the World History surveys—could easily be expected to teach such a course as part of their normal rotations. In sum, a required World Since 1945 course could potentially be taught better, and by more qualified faculty, than the standard surveys.

     Finally, teaching The World Since 1945 liberates teachers from the kind of merciless forward momentum across time and place required by courses with a longer chronological range. We are always aware of the multiple omissions we must make whenever we teach any history course. But the World History surveys require a level of brutal slashing that is sometimes quite disheartening. As researchers, we are careful to explore as much evidence as we can, and to qualify our conclusions by contextualizing them and exploring alternative explanations. But in the World History classroom we often find ourselves making generalizations we would never make in our own research. Teaching a more limited chronology mitigates this problem by allowing us to explore each area, each event, and each period in greater depth. Thus what students do not get in terms of chronological sweep in this course, they make up for in depth.

     There are, of course, disadvantages to teaching The World Since 1945. In such a course, students will not come to know a past in which 'the West' was only of marginal importance in the world. They will miss completely the pre-modern period, and they are less likely to understand the various regions of the world in their own terms rather than in terms of responses to the massive interference of colonial expansion or Cold War rivalries. As a result, it is possible that The World Since 1945 could reinforce the common perception that 'western' dominance in the 20th century was both natural and inevitable.

     Real as these problems are, I believe that it is possible to complicate perceptions of inevitability through consistent attention to non-western voices and perspectives over the course of the semester. And while students will admittedly only be getting a small slice of the chronological 'cake' that is World History, if we can demonstrate through this course the relevance of global history to the present and to their own lives, and if we can teach them in the process to test interpretations, weigh sources, and engage in lively debate, we can create the foundation for a love of World History that could potentially go much deeper.

Heather Streets-Salter is Associate Professor and Director of World History Programs at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. She received her Ph.D. in History from Duke University in 1998. She is the author Martial Races: The Military, Martial Races, and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture, 1857-1914 (Manchester University Press, 2004), Traditions and Encounters: A Brief Global History (McGraw-Hill, 2006) with Jerry Bentley and Herb Ziegler (now in its third edition), and Modern Imperialism and Colonialism: A Global Perspective (Pearson Longman, 2010, now with Oxford University Press) with Trevor Getz. She is currently writing a monograph entitled Beyond Empire: Southeast Asia and the World During the Great War.


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