Curriculum Opinion

The Classroom Conquest of World History

By Gilbert T. Sewall — June 13, 2001 8 min read
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Because of its unique role in civic education, U.S. history receives more curricular attention than any other area of the social studies. But World History is the fastest-growing course title in the field. In content and viewpoint, this new World History should not be confused with European History or Western Civilization, courses of study that it seeks not to embellish but to replace.

World History should not be confused with European History or Western Civilization, courses of study that it seeks not to embellish but to replace.

World history can be original and stimulating, providing insights and perspectives that inform far better or are more illuminating than the much- caricatured old history of European dynasties and wars. Spurred by historians of the caliber of Henri Pirenne, Fernand Braudel, and William H. McNeill, cross- cultural and global perspectives have enriched the thinking and writing of all historians for nearly half a century, long before some academic historians in the 1990s claimed a paradigm shift as their own.

The new world history is a different animal. For more than a decade, social studies educators and curriculum specialists have pushed multiculturalism, non-Western history, and globalism in countless conferences, workshops, and in-service teacher-training sessions. To make all cultures equally significant and consequential, new topics, heretofore unknown golden ages, unnoticed epochal events, and pressing identity themes have not only become dominant in world history. They are becoming the only world history.

Textbook publishers and curriculum developers often adhere to a doctrine of cultural equivalency. Thus, for example, the achievements of Classical Greece, the Abbasid caliphate, and Kush receive equal weight and consideration. As a result, some world- history lessons are barely recognizable, and in some cases, not even credible.

Adding content to an already overstuffed course of study requires some heavy pruning. So what goes? The political, constitutional, intellectual, military, and diplomatic history of the West—that is, the origins of the American nation and the modern world.

Some world-history lessons
are barely recognizable, and in some cases, not even credible.

Why is this not the benign corrective and overdue change in emphasis that the new world history’s votaries claim it is? Because without the lives, institutions, and ideas that constitute Western civilization, “American history and ideas, and the vision and fate of democracy on earth, are not intelligible,” as the Boston University historian Paul Gagnon has said.

National standards commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities and published in 1994 signaled the hegemony of academic historians committed to “demythologizing” and “deprivileging” Western ideas and achievements. During the last seven years, these world-history standards have had a powerful effect on state requirements and textbook development.

Today’s world-history advocates have a focused viewpoint. World history’s exponents are eager to “correct” history’s content and overhaul its basic themes from the bottom up. “The time has come to redistribute the nation’s historical capital,” declared Gary B. Nash, the University of California, Los Angeles, history professor and the chief architect of the 1994 national history standards, shortly before their publication.

Academic revisionists, whose careers have moved forward, pulled by the intellectual troika of race, class, and gender, entertain radical ambitions for the world-history curriculum. Mr. Nash and other historians want to correct what they believe to be a “triumphal,” “monocultural,” and “ethnocentric” view of the West that is incomplete or false.

World history’s exponents are eager to “correct” history’s content and overhaul its basic themes from the bottom up.

Their buzzwords are inclusion, diversity, globalism, and empathy, concepts that classroom teachers embrace as much out of naiveté and workshop hectoring as conviction.

Not surprisingly, new personalities are appearing. Master narratives are shifting.

In order to make room for new people and subjects, erstwhile heroes such as Hannibal and the Duke of Wellington have disappeared from classrooms. So have their epic stories. Julius Caesar and Marcus Aurelius, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Calvin, Copernicus and Magellan, Charles V and Louis XIV, the Romanovs and the Hapsburgs, Napoleon, Gladstone and Disraeli, Charles Darwin, Woodrow Wilson, and many other figures are also being written out of the narrative, no longer considered commanding figures of their ages.

As Western history has shrunk, its content has also undergone a transformation. Non-Western topics compete for space with women’s history, which runs like a thread through entire textbook and standards narratives. In the world-history textbook that is probably the single most widely used in junior high schools across the nation, Houghton Mifflin’s To See a World, written by UCLA’s Mr. Nash, Galileo is absent. Instead, students encounter Isabella D’Este and Christine de Pizan as exemplars of the Renaissance.

In the new world-history narratives, arcane, exotic, and trivial topics abound. In the new curriculum, much is made of Great Zimbabwe. Medieval Bantu migrations and the glories of 12th-century Timbuktu assume major significance. Not much is made of the Magna Carta or the Enlightenment, or, for that matter, any political or constitutional history that helps students understand liberty and democracy.

The College Board’s recently unveiled World History Advanced Placement course tells students explicitly that they are expected to know about Mamluks but not Almohads, Indian Ocean traders but not Gujarati merchants, Muhammad Ali but not Isma’il, European exploration but not the explorers, the World Wars but not the battles.

Two aspects of the AP World History course outline indicate where the subject is headed. First, it ordains that European history will make up no more than 30 percent of the test. Astonishingly, its “foundations” section does not include Greek antiquity at all, while it does include Mayan civilization and Bantu migrations.

In order to serve diversity, the new world history ignores the cause, effect, significance, and meaning of seminal events and ideas that matter to Americans of all ages.

Secondly, the new world-history curriculum officially commences in the year 1000 C.E. (that stands for “common era,” as A.D. is now considered to be an obsolete and politically incorrect designation).

Why start with 1000? The AP World History course-description booklet declares, as though its logic were indisputable and crystal-pure, that this is because it “is generally recognized in the field as a chronological break point centering on the intensification of international contacts.”

This trendy new baseline elides the origins of several civilizations, including Western civilization, and this elision is not accidental. It is trying to level the cross-cultural playing field.

World History’s interests and angles are manifest in the three sample essay questions in the College Board’s course description, published as models for all teachers and students who are considering the course of study. Of an infinite number of thematic possibilities, a document-based essay question chooses the impact of nationalism and the nation-state on women’s rights.

A second essay on “change over time” asks students to describe world trading systems since 1000 (“explain how alterations in the framework of international trade interacted with regional factors to produce the changes and continuities throughout the period”). Students can choose one of four regions: China, Latin America, sub- Saharan Africa, or the Middle East. They cannot choose Europe or North America.

The third sample essay question is a better one than the first two, even though it provides additional evidence of the test-makers’ fixation on race and social class. It asks students to compare and contrast the rise of slavery in the New World with Russian serfdom from 1450 to 1750.

If the new world history’s classroom conquest is complete, the losers will be civic education and genuine global understanding.

Powered by the multicultural imperative that has swept through schools and the social studies curriculum during the past decade, this World History AP program dooms the long-established European History AP curriculum to extinction. The program and outlook that have brought it into being are sure to influence the way world history is taught in all high school courses, especially honors courses.

The new world history’s advocates court public opinion, declaring multiculturalism to be the American way. Historians who reject the curriculum overhaul are labeled “defensive” or “fearful.” Psychologizing traditional history, multiculturalists claim that resistance “projects a lack of faith in the very institutions and ideas that are being championed.” This is a neat, modern ploy that avoids the counter- view, one presented by such discerning historians as the University of Pennsylvania’s Walter A. McDougall.

In order to serve diversity, the new world history ignores the cause, effect, significance, and meaning of seminal events and ideas that matter to Americans of all ages. It warps the most valuable lessons that history can offer.

Assisted by such powerful agencies as the Department of Education, the NEH, and the College Board—public and private agencies that should know better— a world history that slights the achievements of the West and concocts a pseudohistory calculated to please contemporary multiculturalists seems destined to become the rule in U.S. classrooms.

If the new world history’s classroom conquest is complete, the losers will be civic education and genuine global understanding. Sooner or later, the new narrative will affect how voters think about themselves, their country, and its relationship to the world. In this respect, the new world history could have painful and lasting consequences for the nation’s foreign policy and international relations.

Gilbert T. Sewall, a former Advanced Placement history teacher, is the director of the New York City-based American Textbook Council and the president of the Center for Education Studies. His books on education and history include, most recently, The Eighties: A Reader. He is currently conducting a review of history textbooks for the United Nations Association.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2001 edition of Education Week as The Classroom Conquest of World History


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