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World History: Curriculum and Controversy

Peter N. Stearns
George Mason University

    In the fall of 1994, a commission of historians designated to define secondary school standards in history issued a thick book on goals in world history. This, and its companion volume on U.S. history, quickly drew a storm of protest. Conservative commentators argued that the world history approach detracted from the special emphasis that was essential to highlight Western achievements and landmarks. The World Standards were additionally seen—with some justification—as tending to describe non-Western civilization traditions positively while recurrently noting flaws in the Western approach, such as racism or slave trading. In a daunting 99-1 vote, the U.S. Senate denounced the Standards. While the greatest ire was directed toward the U.S. history product, the Senate ventured its larger world view in stipulating that any recipients of federal money "should have a decent respect for the contributions of Western civilization." The resolution had no legal force, but one observer claimed that the effect on history education was potentially "chilling."
   As world history has developed as a teaching program, mainly through survey courses at both high school and first-year college level, a number of objections have been raised. Many area studies specialists have worried about the feasibility of such a vast subject, and particularly about the distortions and simplifications a world history program might entail in their specialty. Here was one source of the resistance to world history in Ivy League and comparable institutions. Sheer routine posed another set of barriers, long compounded by the lack of specific training possibilities for world history teachers. Many high school teachers were and are intimidated by world history and also remain attached to subject matter they have long taught and have come to love. The agonies, for example, about what to do with the beloved Italian Renaissance, when prodded to convert from European history to world history, form a case in point.
     But it is the cultural resistance to world history that has been most interesting and probably, in the long run, most telling in its curricular impact, sometimes compounded of course by sheer routine-mindedness. A number of educators, and even more patrons and observers of education, are convinced that world history threatens the values and knowledge they find central to a well-conceived history program. For them, the two central pillars of such a program involve, first, a special emphasis on American history, usually conceived (at least implicitly) along lines of American exceptionalism, and second, an appropriate dose of Western civilization. An educated person, according to this argument, must know a daunting number of facts about both fields—1,200 or so in U.S. history, and over 1,000 for Western civ, according to conservative education guru Chester Finn. More broadly, American citizens generally should have a unifying exposure to some common stories about the West and about American history, and a fairly explicit sense of the superiority of these traditions over (usually unnamed) alternatives.
    These attitudes reflect, first, a national establishment that has had no reason—in obvious contrast to current counterparts in the European Union—to rethink the importance of specifically nationalist frameworks for history curricula. Recent federal legislation promoting the teaching of strictly American history and proposing mandatory training on topics such as the U.S. constitution show the continued vitality of state-serving national history. And while increasing numbers of professional historians are eager to "internationalize" the American history survey to make it more compatible with companion world history courses, there is little official sponsorship for these efforts. 4
    The widespread attachment to Western civ, the more direct competitor to world history, is less self-evident, for obviously the program here is not strictly national. Western civ courses became curricular staples, first at prestigious universities headed by Columbia, then by reflection as European history survey courses in many high schools, from the 1920s onward. They reflected a successful campaign by many historians of Europe, headed by James Harvey Robinson, to urge Western civ as an essential backdrop and legitimizer to what was, after all, a rather brief, strictly national, experience. The United States was also seen in terms of maintaining the European cultural and political tradition at a time, between the world wars, when Europe itself seemed unable to do the job. Here again was a reassuring assignment for an upstart transatlantic republic. Western values—and the emphasis in the Western civ tradition rested on intellectual and very general political heritage, not messy details—were fundamental to American development, and the United States had its additional role as preserver as well as heir. 5
    Curricular history itself, then, explains much of the conservative attachment to Western Civ and resentment of world history as interloper. Because world history necessarily reduces the space available to the West and treats the Western tradition as one among several major and valid civilizational experiences, it is inherently suspect. Add the not-inconsiderable dose of West-bashing associated with some world history efforts, designed to trim the West down to size, and the conflict escalates. Indeed, something of a vicious circle is often established, with world historians all the more eager to point out flaws in the West given their opponents' adamant insistence that West is best. History curricula, then, become one of the battlegrounds in the notorious American culture wars, between defenders of a clear tradition, eager to maintain established landmarks for assessing the knowledge of an educated student, and the advocates of the greater breadth and considerable relativism of world history.
    Conflict is all the more acute given the relationship between history curricula and two of the major forces impinging on the contemporary United States. First, there is the unprecedented flow and diversity in the immigrant population. For many world historians, an increasingly diverse student body has been a vital asset, providing voices insisting on historical treatment of traditions besides that of the West. But for their opponents, this same mixture makes it all the more imperative that students be exposed to standard single stories about the national and the Western traditions—history is designed to Americanize, and world history distracts from and possibly subverts this task. The same divergence applies to growing complexities in the United States' world role in a post-Cold War environment. To world historians, national involvement in global rather than predominantly European interactions dictates world history as essential perspective. But for their opponents, this same complexity requires an even fiercer emphasis on the certainties and superiorities of Western values. This clash gained additional illustration immediately after 9/11: while most people saw the attacks as a reason for new curricular attention to Islam and to central Asia, conservatives like Lynn Cheney explicitly argued that America besieged required ever-stricter emphasis on the Western verities, without the dilution involved in dealing with the larger world. The wars continue.
    Several features of world history, as a teaching program, have complicated the disputes. Despite some previous research pedigree, world history long developed in the United States primarily as a teaching field, not buttressed by major research claims. Even the achievements of the field, in significantly revising our understanding of historical developments particularly between about 600 C.E. and the 19th century, have not always been highlighted. This may generate unfavorable contrast with the more familiar research pedigree of Western civ—beginning with scholars like Robinson himself. Again in contrast to Western civ., world history programs took earliest and widest root in state colleges and public high schools, rather than the most prestigious universities that clung to well-established Western civ offerings. Again, some potential clout was lost as a result. These features are transitory, already being amended; the recent move in the Ivy League toward formal world history programs, though a belated response rather than a leadership gesture, is a striking case in point. And research credentials advance steadily as well, along with, more haltingly, available training programs.
    The central question, of course, is how much the ongoing culture wars over world history have mattered. On the surface, despite the rhetorical storms, surprisingly little. Worries that official condemnation in 1994 would dampen the world history surge proved largely groundless. The Standards document itself continued to be widely referenced by secondary school teachers, at least for several years. Two other developments were particularly noteworthy. First, in the wake of the partial collapse of the national standards movement, a variety of states issued standards statements of their own, sometimes with assessment mechanisms attached. Distressingly (though perhaps understandably given the Standards controversy) professional historians were relatively rarely involved in developing these materials. Nevertheless, most state standards referenced world history, not European history. The state of Texas, perhaps surprisingly, so emphasized world history that the opportunity to teach strictly European history in high school programs withered; a somewhat similar situation prevailed in California. And many individual school districts, for example in Maryland, Virginia, and Massachusetts, opted strongly for world history goals under the umbrella of a slightly vaguer state mandate. The second development, still more recent, involves the installation and rapid success, numerically at least, of the Advanced Placement World History course. (I was and am involved in this, so a personal disclaimer here.) The course was launched four years ago, to the largest student audience of any AP program at roughly 20,000; it has grown massively, with roughly triple the original number of students involved in the program this year. This growth has challenged many teachers, some of whom have doubtless been hastily chosen—in some cases, the least experienced teachers were dragooned—or incompletely trained. But teacher response to training opportunities has been impressive as well. Finally, though numerical data are less firm here, college programs have continued to spread as well.
    Despite the culture wars, in other words, world history curricula have advanced. Programs like the AP effort and many college courses have been progressively refined, so that there are many illustrations of careful periodization, calibrated balance among comparative approaches, emphasis on contacts, and focus on global forces—moving well away from the parade of one society after another that remained common just a decade ago. Diligent efforts by world historians themselves, at both college and secondary levels; awareness of exciting issues in research and teaching in the field; the need to respond to the increasing diversity of the student body; and above all the overwhelming imperative to provide historical perspective on the complex network of global relationships with which American students will be engaged, as citizens certainly and often as workers—all these factors have promoted the world history program even as the culture wars continue to distract.
    This is not to say, however, that cultural dispute and other retardant factors have lost their force. Several distortions remain significant.
    --First, obviously, world history surveys have not spread as widely as would have occurred with less opposition, particularly at the introductory college level. While European surveys had never been ubiquitous, and while they varied far more than Western civ proponents sometimes acknowledged, it remains true that world history has yet to achieve the standard place that European surveys could boast two decades ago.
   --More importantly, and here particularly at the secondary school level, the combination of routine mindedness and the vigorous promotion of Western values has produced many world history titles that are hollow, misleading or even intellectually dangerous. The average high school world history course and textbook—aside from Advanced Placement—is still 67% Western, which means that other societies and larger, global forces receive both inadequate and inconsistent treatment. The world is still seen in terms of Western preponderance and initiative, and occasionally significant response elsewhere. Distortions are particularly great in the modern era. The state of California, for example, offers an imaginative world history program in the early grades, running up to 1500, at which point it abruptly turns on its heels and becomes elaborately and rather conventionally Western. And there is always Texas: a state with world history requirements on paper, but where conservative assessments of textbooks, among other things eager to slam religions other than Christianity, can constrain presentations for the whole country because of the power of this particular state adoption process for texts. Or another example: Virginia's standards of learning in history have a world label, but the facts they require are almost entirely Western; school districts that seek a world history experience face a difficult juggling act, and a two-year window, in order to give students both some real world history and a decent chance to pass the SOLs. One can debate, of course, whether a bit of world is better than nothing, but there is reason to fear that many students are being encouraged to think they know the world when they do not; honest labeling, of what are still largely Western courses with a smattering of the West and the rest, might be preferable. 13
   --Given the conflicts, there has been little intelligent discussion of how to relate Western and world history. Proponents on both sides, eager to overwhelm the other, talk in terms of either-or. Sequential possibilities have been little explored. Both sides seek to capture both high school and college entry survey courses, risking among other things some redundancy for able students. Compromise, other than the unacceptable West-and-rest approach, may be impossible, but it has not even been seriously advanced. In my own judgment, a sensible world history approach, genuinely global but not West-bashing, allows important insights into Western history not available in turgid European history surveys by themselves; but amid conflict there is little opportunity to probe the comparative advantages of newer approaches, particularly at the high school level--Given the conflicts, there has been little intelligent discussion of how to relate Western and world history. Proponents on both sides, eager to overwhelm the other, talk in terms of either-or. Sequential possibilities have been little explored. Both sides seek to capture both high school and college entry survey courses, risking among other things some redundancy for able students. Compromise, other than the unacceptable West-and-rest approach, may be impossible, but it has not even been seriously advanced. In my own judgment, a sensible world history approach, genuinely global but not West-bashing, allows important insights into Western history not available in turgid European history surveys by themselves; but amid conflict there is little opportunity to probe the comparative advantages of newer approaches, particularly at the high school level. 14
   --Conflict has also retarded appropriate teacher training. Too many prospective teachers, who will be called upon to do something in world history in their high school post, attend colleges where world history is not offered at all, or is poorly developed. The disjuncture between teacher needs and many major programs can be shockingly great, and those college instructors who stubbornly oppose even world history options are doing their charges, and ultimately their charges' charges, a serious disservice. 15
   --Though some hopeful signs have emerged, conflict has also limited discussion of linking American and world history at the curricular level. So much energy is taken up merely defending world history in the first place, against cultural opposition, that the inevitable challenges of adapting the teaching traditions in American history have been largely sidestepped. Here too, there is repair work to be done. 16
   --Finally, while conflict has not prevented the growth of world history and—as the best college texts now attest—some serious thinking about curricular options, it has tended to unduly confine most discussion of world history in teaching to the survey course level. As teachers, most world historians are so busy trying to install and defend their course in the schools or in colleges, that they have paid surprisingly little attention to a larger world history curriculum beyond the entry stage. Exception is noted for a growing number of graduate programs or graduate tracks, but at the level of undergraduate majors the judgment stands. Usually, the student, interested in world history, who inquires about what to do after the survey courses is simply shunted to a series of non-Western civilization surveys. Not a dreadful recourse, but frankly inadequate. Here is where, aside from continued growth, an ability to escape the snares of cultural conflict will have the greatest payoff in extending world history curricula and the perspectives they provide on past and present alike. 17


Lynn Cheney, Telling the Truth: why our culture and our country have stopped making sense and what we can do about it (New York, 1995); Ralph Hancock, America, the West, and Liberal Education (Lanham, MD, 1999); Gary Nash and Ross Dunn, History on Trial: Cultural Wars and the Teaching of the Past (New York, 1997); Craig Lockard, "World History and the Public: the national standards debates,"; Peter N. Stearns, Western Civilization in World History (London, 2003); Daniel Segal, "'Western civ' and the Staging of History in American Higher Education," American Historical Review 106 (2000): 770-805; Gilbert Allardyce, "The Rise and Fall of the Western Civilization Course," American Historical Review 87 (1982): 695-725; Alan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York, 1988); Lawrence Levine, The Opening of the American Mind: canons, culture and history (Boston, 1996); W.B. Carnochan, The Battleground of the Curriculum: liberal education and the American experience (Stanford, 1993).


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