A World Apart: Educators Hope To Change History

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The history of the world can be taught by examining a McDonald's Happy Meal.

The sugar in the soft drinks can be traced from New Guinea to Persia to the Mediterranean to Africa, and finally to the Caribbean. The french fries illustrate the technological and agricultural achievements of the Incas, who grew more than 3,000 species of potatoes. The beef patty helps show how European settlers introduced cattle to American Indians, as well as the horses they needed to round up the herds.

"It allows a food commodity to be a history topic, linking people throughout the world," Kirk A. Hoppe, an assistant professor of history at the University of Illinois, Chicago, said in explaining the fast-food lesson to 20 high school teachers attending a two-week seminar here this summer.

Mr. Hoppe and the teachers are in the middle of a movement to transform the typical high school course in world history into an analytical exercise comparing societies in ways that help students understand today's world.

In the seminar here and in eight others like it held across the country throughout the summer, the teachers created a full-year curriculum and a package of lesson plans that reflect the scholarship Mr. Hoppe and his colleagues in the field of world history advocate.

Instead of simply teaching topics about the slave trade in Colonial America, for example, world history experts say teachers should explain how Europeans' taste for sugar started with their explorations of the East, and how their hunger for the sweetener led to the building of plantations in Haiti, Cuba, and southern Florida. From there, the discussion can move to how slavery differed in those settlements and what it means for race relations today.

World history "has to span over and beyond national boundaries or regional boundaries," said Heide S. Roupp, the immediate past president of the World History Association and a former teacher in Aspen, Colo. "It's a macrohistory. The problem with [most existing courses] is they never get to large-scale analysis of global themes."

Global Growth

World history is getting increasing attention in American schools. California's new history standards, for example, require students to study the subject in the 6th, 7th, and 10th grades. Just about all states include world history in their standards.

The growth has been spurred mostly by the growing racial and ethnic diversity of school enrollments and the globalization of the world economy.

"There's a pressure to teach from a global perspective," said Gerald A. Danzer, a history professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, who organized the seminar here. "You can't teach the old Eurocentric stuff in an African-American school and make it compelling."

But melding the global and the more familiar can take a balancing act.

In 1995, Lynn V. Cheney, the former chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under Presidents Reagan and Bush, mounted a campaign against proposed voluntary national standards for history, charging that they downplayed basic tenets of U.S. and world history in favor of teaching multicultural issues. The group that wrote the standards eventually revised them to address some of those criticisms. ("Playing Games With History," Nov. 15, 1995.)

The potential for conflict still exists. If world history courses become "cheerleading" for particular ethnic groups or non-Western civilizations, they will mislead students about the importance of the culture they now live in, says Barry S. Strauss, a professor of history at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

"On one hand, you don't want to dilute students' awareness of the West," Mr. Strauss said. "On the other hand, you want students to know something about other cultures and their contributions."

Thesis, Synthesis

Advocates for world history say teachers can achieve that balance by careful planning and use of analytical exercises.

Too often, Ms. Roupp said, world history courses are a "parade of civilizations," quickly covering Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and China before launching into the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

"World history is based on close, analytical, comparative study," Ms. Roupp said. "It's not these sweeping generalizations."

Many question, however, whether high school courses will be the comparative and analytical courses that professors such as Mr. Hoppe are encouraging teachers to design.

"Tenth graders, lest we forget, are not graduate students at Harvard," said Gilbert T. Sewall, the director of the American Textbook Council, a New York City-based group that reviews the quality of textbooks, principally in history and social studies. In addition, few high school teachers have the expertise in world civilizations to do much more than follow the textbooks and their individual treatments of cultures, he said.

"What [world history advocates] may be seeking, many teachers might be uncomfortable or puzzled by," Mr. Sewall said.

Using a prop, such as a bag of groceries or a Happy Meal, helps students understand how the historical concepts apply to their daily lives, history educators say. The key is to design exercises that challenge students but don't overwhelm them.

"You need to be sure that what you're asking them to do is developmentally appropriate," said Susan A. Adler, an associate professor of education at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and the president of the National Council for the Social Studies. "The focus on big ideas and trends is an attempt to help kids make sense of history rather than covering everything."

That approach probably has not filtered down to many classrooms, if typical textbooks now being published are any indication.

Most world history texts focus on Western civilization and don't call for the comparative and analytical work that the discipline's promoters favor, according to William J. Bennetta, the president of the Textbook League, a Sausalito, Calif., nonprofit organization that reviews textbooks in many disciplines.

"There is a terrific built-in inertia in the schoolbook industry, and it is abundantly clear if you look at world history books," Mr. Bennetta said.

Moving Forward

But many schools are preparing to teach the type of macrohistory that Ms. Roupp and other world history scholars advocate—spurred on by the Advanced Placement program.

In the 2001-02 school year, the College Board plans to offer an Advanced Placement program in world history for the first time. The course outline and the test guidelines require students to do more than learn salient facts about a series of civilizations.

For example, the AP course description says that students taking the test might be asked to compare slavery in the New World and serfdom in Russia from 1450 to 1750 and then explain the factors accounting for why each system developed where it did.

The answer would need to explain, in part, that slavery in the Americas grew because its settlements raised labor- intensive crops, such as sugar, and the native and settling populations were too small to manage the plantations, according to the course description. A slave trade grew up to supply the labor.

Russia, by contrast, held its lowest class of native populations in servitude to provide the labor needed to raise livestock and cultivate grains. Unlike most slaves, the Russian serfs worked in family units and had some legal rights, the AP guidelines note.

Teachers who use examples like the Happy Meal to illustrate their lessons can help students succeed on such an exam, supporters of a more analytical approach to world history say. That's the type of comparative exercise that requires students to possess a series of skills that aren't taught in the typical history course, according to the University of Illinois' Mr. Danzer and others.

"The AP course is going to influence the other courses and pull them more toward a global perspective," Mr. Danzer said.

Others, though, doubt that the AP's program influence will be felt beyond the high-achieving students who take the courses.

"It's certainly an impacting factor," said Maureen DiMarco, the vice president of educational and governmental affairs for Houghton Mifflin Co., a leading textbook publisher. "I think it's a significant one, but I don't think it's a driving one."

But advocates of the new approach say that schools ought to adopt the global perspective of the AP program. "Large-scale change that happens across the globe begins to change people's lives," said Ms. Roupp. "When a world event happens, people have to have an adequate framework to connect that event to history."

Vol. 20, Issue 2, Pages 1, 22

Published in Print: September 13, 2000, as A World Apart: Educators Hope To Change History
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