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Incorporating More of the World into World History Textbooks: A Review of High School World History Texts

Jane Bolgatz and Michael Marino


     In secondary schools in the United States, "world history" has been taught in many guises. During the 19th century students took a course called "general history" that focused mainly on classical studies and the histories of ancient Greece and Rome and medieval England. Later, in the 1920s, a course called "modern history" expanded the curriculum to include modern European history. In both these cases, teaching world history served wider educational goals. General history helped inculcate in students civic ideals and a love for democracy, while "modern" history was intended to help them understand contemporary crises such as the First World War.

     Since 1945, through a reform effort labeled the "world history movement," historians and educators have tried to integrate the history of the world, stressing the commonality of the human experience and the interconnectedness of various world regions.1 Beginning in the 1960s, educators introduced the idea of global education, promoting a curriculum that emphasized global citizenship and contemporary world issues and problems.2 While it is clear that today world history is meant to teach more than just Greece and Rome or Europe, it is not clear what the content of a high school world history course in the U. S. entails. 3

     In this article we investigate the content of high school world history textbooks to examine whether the textbooks do indeed do the whole world justice or if European history dominates the content of the texts. Although an analysis of a textbook does not indicate exactly what is being taught in world history classes, it does provide insight into the nature of world history content, and the extent to which this content reflects the research of historians working in the field. We hope that, although teachers may not have control over their choice of textbooks, they may be able to adapt some of the approaches from the more globally oriented texts we analyze.4

     To find out what kind of history is in textbooks, we analyzed the modern history (that is, since the year 1500) in four popular high school textbooks' and two college level texts that are commonly used in high school Advanced Placement (AP) world history classes.5 The high school level texts selected for this analysis were Roger B Beck and Linda Black, World History: Patterns of Interaction (2009); Elisabeth G Ellis and Anthony Esler, World History: Connections to Today (2005); Mounir Farah and Andre B Karls, World History: The Human Experience (2001); Jackson Spielvogel, World History: Modern Times (2009). The college-level texts studied were Richard W Bulliet et al., The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History (2010) and Peter N Stearns et al., World Civilizations: The Global Experience (2010). We found that high school level texts are typically weighted heavily towards European history, particularly before 1945. The rest of world history, when it does appear, is often relegated to sidebars, additions, and supplementary materials.

World History in Images and Introductions

When we look at the high school level textbooks we see evidence of tension between the older, Eurocentric model and the newer, more inclusive approaches to world history. On the cover of World History: Connections to Today, one of the most popular high school texts, the Eiffel Tower stands alongside the Egyptian Luxor Obelisk and the Strasbourg Statue, all located in Paris, France. They are ringed by images from a panoply of civilizations and cultures.6 Similarly, the cover of World History: Patterns of Interaction prominently features a photograph of the Taj Mahal, with pictures of Queen Neferteti, Caesar Augustus, Queen Elizabeth I, a Moche sculpture from Peru, and Nelson Mandela above it.7 In both cases, by placing the cultural legacies of various civilizations alongside one another, the covers suggest that every continent of the world is included and important.

     This diversity of images recurs continually; the texts are replete with photographs and information from different regions, eras of history, social classes and gender and age groups, especially in the various supplementary sections contained within the texts. Highlighted with bright colors, catchy titles and set apart from the general narrative, these sections call students' attention to world history themes such as interaction, globalization, interchange and migration. For example, World History: Patterns of Interaction contains supplementary sections called "Comparing and Contrasting" which illustrate how different civilizations have developed similar institutions and ideals across time. One comparative example discusses different trade networks (Indian Ocean, Trans-Sahara, Silk Road), while another compares different methods of government and uses examples such as the Incas, Renaissance Italy, and Tokugawa Japan to illustrate this theme. World History: The Human Experience contains sections called "The Spread of Ideas" that address how important ideas and concepts (such as mathematics) have spread across different cultures and regions. Similarly, World History: Connections to Today illustrates how diverse societies have reacted and responded to similar questions across history in the "Comparing Viewpoints" sections. Finally, World History: Modern Times includes sections called "Looking Back to See Ahead" which illustrate how historical changes and events spread from one region to another, such as how revolutionary ideals in the American colonies spread to France and then to Haiti.

     The introductions of the various texts also promote the comparison of cultures and regions. World History: Patterns of Interaction, for example, states in its introduction that, "While historical events are unique, they often are driven by similar, repeated forces."8 Moreover, all the texts list and explain various universal themes such as "cultural interaction," "cultural diffusion," "impact of science and technology," "interaction with the environment" and "global relations." Such themes work to show how disparate regions and cultures are integrated through various overarching concepts and ideas.

     The texts repeatedly emphasize the integrated nature of world history and the shared experiences of various peoples and regions. Narratives are interspersed with brief reminders of this fact through sidebars, instructional activities, chapter introductions and anecdotal stories. The texts also address the issue of globalization in some detail. In the course of these discussions they develop conclusions about the unified nature of the world's peoples in the present and about how many of the world's problems now require a coordinated global response. These examples show that high school world history texts incorporate the language, perspectives, and methodological and epistemological approaches of world historians.

Analyzing the Narrative Content in the High School Level Texts

A deeper examination of the texts shows, however, that the actual narrative content of the five high school level texts is heavily weighted towards European history. We found that on average between 57 and 62 percent of the regular (non-AP) textbooks' chapters, subheadings and pages are committed to the study of Europe. If a teacher used one of these texts to guide a world history course, there can be little doubt that the study of European history would occupy most of his or her students' time. East Asian history (China and Japan) constitutes the bulk of the texts' non-European content coverage, although some texts also give Latin America a fairly high profile. Nonetheless, these texts gives primacy to the key events associated with European history: the Renaissance and Reformation, the Era of Exploration, the French and Industrial Revolutions and the Age of Imperialism. World wars, totalitarianism and the Russian Revolution dominate the first half of the twentieth century. Non-European history is scattered across this timeline, but European events establish the scope and narrative of world history before 1945. Only after the Second World War does the dominance of the Western Civilization chronology wane, with the texts growing noticeably more diverse in the period after 1945. The histories of Sub-Saharan Africa, East and South Asia, and the Middle East are covered in much more detail during this period.

     The treatment of World War One illustrates how European events drive the rest of the world's history. In each of the textbooks, the European dimensions of World War One are discussed, followed by an analysis of the War's impact in the Middle East, India, Asia and elsewhere. The rest of the world's history is spun-off from European events, miring the texts in a chronological pattern from which it is hard to escape. European history is the tree and when needed, events from other parts of the world are added to the tree as leaves and branches.

Breaking Free from Eurocentrism

While the "regular" high school textbooks did little to free themselves from an essentially Eurocentric focus, the two AP textbooks present quite different versions of world history. In terms of pure coverage, the two texts—The Earth and its Peoples and World Civilizations: The Global Experience—give Europe less than 45 percent of the total pages, a dramatic departure from the approximately 60 percent found in the other high school texts. Topics such as the Reformation, French Revolution and Absolutism, are much more briefly summarized in the AP texts. Moreover, various regions are given much more attention than they typically receive in other texts.

     The two AP texts are also generally more globally integrated in their orientation. Chapters address issues such as Transoceanic Encounters and Global Connections; The Building of Global Empires; and International Contacts and Conflicts. The books devote far less discussion to political history and thus avoid getting mired in lengthy descriptions of complicated European events such as the French Revolution, the Unification of Germany and the July Crisis. Instead, much more space is given to social and economic history.

     World Civilizations: The Global Experience in particular presents a framework and organizational premise that most clearly breaks free of the chronology defined by events from European history. The text portrays different world regions as equally important and shows how all are impacted by a variety of factors. For example, the authors present the Age of Exploration as a global event, not merely as a story of European explorers and European discovery. The history of each region during this period is considered in turn, and the text emphasizes how indigenous factors—as well as European intervention—influenced regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia, and Central America. For example, in regard to China and Japan the text notes that

the central themes in the history of Asian civilizations in the 16th and 17th centuries often had little or nothing to do with European expansion. The development of Asian states and empires emerged from long-term processes rooted in the inner workings of these ancient civilizations and in their interactions with neighboring states and nomadic peoples.9

When European events do not drive the rest of the world's history, we see how each region responds to a burgeoning global trend in different ways. Moreover, the authors use the era of European expansion to develop a theme they call "proto-globalization" and they show how the growth of a new global economic system impacted different world civilizations. Similarly, in the section of the text called "Industrialization and Imperialism: The Making of a European Global Order" the authors compare the growth of Europe's power alongside a concomitant decline in strength in other regions of the world. This decline is discussed as the product of local factors and not exclusively because Europe acquired economic and technological strength that other regions did not possess. For example, both the Dutch and British were able to exploit longstanding political rivalries in areas that they colonized. A comparative discussion about the factors that precipitated the rise and decline of various civilizations is then worked into the narrative.

     What makes these AP texts so different? Eminent world historians themselves, the authors of these two AP texts disrupt the traditional Eurocentric chronology through two significant approaches: by effectively using overarching themes, and by reconceptualizing the definitions of key terms such as civilization.

Using Themes

The authors of The Earth and Its Peoples and World Civilizations: The Global Experience are able to broaden the scope of world history by carrying a series of overarching themes through their narratives. These recurring themes, such as humans' interactions with the environment, tie together the histories of disparate regions of the world. Moreover, the authors weave the themes throughout the texts' narrative as opposed to mentioning and then ignoring them. As the authors note in the introduction, "world history only makes sense if civilizations are compared, rather than treated separately."10 This narrative approach helps integrate the world's history; it illustrates how common historical events impacted and shaped disparate civilizations. For example, the chapter on the First World War notes how the conflict generated a new spirit of nationalism in places as far afield as India, Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa.

     One particularly useful theme found in both texts is that of contact between civilizations. World Civilizations: The Global Experience uses the idea of contact as something that occurs repeatedly in history, first from nomadic groups and later to larger organized societies. Further, various eras of history are defined by these contacts – be they institutional, religious, economic, or political. The text carries this idea of cross-civilization contact through different chapters and periods of history. As the authors explain, "contacts include trade…but also war, diplomacy, and international organizations from religious entities to the multinational companies of more modern times."11

     Similarly, in discussing the Columbian Exchange, The Earth and its Peoples gives considerable attention to the growth of the Atlantic trading system, emphasizing common themes about cultural interaction and the growth of a global trading network. They then devote two lengthy chapters to Middle Eastern and "Eurasian" (Russia and China) history at the same time period, intertwining discussions about trade, culture and environment into both chapters.

     Other common themes such as nationalism and migration also help connect the histories of disparate regions. The Earth and its Peoples treats nationalism as a global trend rather than a European event. Although the section of the text, "Revolutions Reshape the World" begins in Europe with discussions about the French and Industrial Revolutions, significant space is also devoted to events in Haiti, Mexico, Brazil, India and the Ottoman Empire.

     World Civilizations: The Global Experience also uses the theme of migration to develop the idea of nationalism. By focusing on the global phenomenon of migration rather than nationalism, which is usually considered a Western phenomenon, the authors are able to broaden their view. As they consider the question of how migration patterns alter conceptions of national identity, nationalism becomes an overarching conceptual theme rather than a European concept.

Reconceptualizing History

To make world history more global in scope, the AP texts help us rethink some of our basic assumptions and preconceptions about the world. We often interpret certain terms such as nationalism, civilization and culture from a biased perspective. Steven Feierman, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, describes how our interpretation of these terms colors our view of history. If we only judge a community to be civilized based on certain demographic, political and economic structures (such as developed town centers with high population density), Feierman argues, then we are measuring that community by a standard that would make many regions and lifestyles appear inferior. As he states:

the categories of historical analysis are normally drawn from Europe, and therefore the historian looks for a familiar constellation of king, nobles, church and merchants…if what is European is defined as normal, then the non-European appears to be disordered, abnormal and primitive.12

On the other hand, if we examine a community without such predetermined criteria, we might see their accomplishments more clearly. For example, as Feierman points out, if we think farmers need to use plows to be civilized, we ignore the fact that in some regions of the world farmers need to use hoes so that they do not ruin their soil.13

     World Civilizations: The Global Experience explicitly invites readers to challenge what we conceive of as normal. The authors explain how the term civilization is not merely a construct that emphasizes great artistic, literary or technological contributions. Rather, they broaden the criteria for determining what it takes to be a civilization:

Civilizations used economic surpluses, beyond basic survival needs, to generate relatively elaborate political institutions, cities, and trading networks. They also emphasized particular kinds of institutional arrangements and value systems that would provide a recognizable identity, differentiating the civilization from other societies.14

The authors note, for example, that if a definition of a great civilization is predicated on the ability to create grand structures and buildings such as the Pyramids, the Roman Coliseum and the Parthenon, then societies that have not produced such a legacy, are marginalized and rendered inferior and "uncivilized." Judging a society solely by this standard ignores the contributions civilizations have in fact made, such as the religions that originated in India.


As we see in this study of world history textbooks, while it is easy to pay heed to novel ideals about world history and historical chronology through maps, photographs, catchy titles and amusing anecdotes, it is considerably more difficult to carry these concepts through the actual narrative and scope of a textbook. The organization and historical content found in most world history texts is heavily European in focus. As historian Ross Dunn notes, the world history found in school—at least in the most popular general textbooks—is "behind the research curve" and not reflective of the academic work that has been done by historians working in the discipline.15

     The high school world history texts studied here have been in publication for a long time and although these editions are continually revised and re-edited, they do not lose the Eurocentric periodization and chronology. Once an organizational approach becomes accepted, it is often difficult to alter it. Indeed, high school world history texts reflect the historical evolution of the world history course on the secondary level. The texts follow a historical chronology that replicates the orientation of the "Western Civ" courses that became popular after the First World War. This chronology favors a Eurocentric approach in which major events from this region dominate textbook coverage and establish a chronology and structure that gives primacy to events from European history. In this history key selected topics determine a textbook's structure and organization.

     Publishers and authors of high school level textbooks face several constraints, among them the need to prepare students for state or local tests, and to limit levels of semantic and syntactic complexity in the text. Advanced Placement World History textbooks tend to contain more sophisticated language and lengthier descriptions than are found in the high school level texts. While they may be inappropriate for all high school students because of their reading levels, we can learn from their approaches. For one, these books have successfully abandoned the Western Civilization chronology that dominates the high school-level texts. They also use world history themes to organize and focus the narrative content, demonstrating that the major events of European history need not occupy the majority of attention in a world history course.

The AP texts we studied reflect a discernible shift in content coverage towards multiple regions of the world. By emphasizing themes and reorienting the content and by highlighting social and environmental history and geography rather than political and military history, these texts reflect a more global orientation toward world history. Also, by using themes, redefining terms, and describing events in history from indigenous perspectives, they have pioneered viewing the history of the world through a more global lens. Of course, it is not possible to describe any history without bias. But these books attempt to move students in the US further away from Eurocentric versions of world history than anything else we have seen.

Jane Bolgatz in an associate professor in the Division of Curriculum Teaching at Fordham University. She can be reached at

Michael Marino is an assistant professor in the Department of History at The College of New Jersey. He can be reached at


1 Gilbert Allardyce, "Toward World History: American Historians and the Coming of the World History Course," Journal of World History 1, no. 1 (1990). For the "history" of world history, also see Patrick Manning, Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past (New York: Palgrave, 2003); Cristobal Saldana, "The Challenge of World History," Social Education 76, no. 1 (2012); Jeffrey Sommers, "Historical Arabesques: Patterns of History," World History Connected 5, no. 3 (2008); ; Thomas P Weinland, "Planning the World History Course: A Reasoned Approach to Omission," Social Education 76, no. 1 (2012).

2 L.F. Anderson, "An Examination of the Structure and Objectives of International Education," Social Education 35, no. 7 (1968); Merry Merryfield and Masataka Kasai, "How Are Teachers Responding to Globalization," Social Education 68, no. 5 (2004); John P Myers, "The Curriculum of Globalization: Considerations for International and Global Education," in Critical Global Perspectives: Rethinking Knowledge About Global Societies, ed. Binaya Subedi (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishers, 2010);. Barbara Tye and Kenneth Tye, Global Education: A Study of School Change (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1992);

3 See Robert Bain and Tamara Shreiner, "The Dilemmas of a National Assessment in World History: World Historians and the 12th Grade NAEP," World History Connected 3, no. 3 (2006).

4 For several articles on choosing and utilizing world history textbooks, see World History Connected Volume 3 No. 2.(2006). Particularly interesting are articles by Wendy Eagan, "Visual Literacy: Letting Our Students See the Past for Themselves: The Power of the Image in High School Textbooks," and David Hertzel, "An Alternative to Commercial Textbooks."

5 The high school texts were selected based on Sewall's data about the most commonly used high school world history textbooks. These are Roger B Beck and Linda Black, World History: Patterns of Interaction (Evanston, IL: McDougal-Littell, 2009); Elisabeth G Ellis and Anthony Esler, World History: Connections to Today (New Jersey: Pearson, 2005); Mounir Farah and Andre B Karls, World History: The Human Experience (New York: Glencoe McGraw-Hill, 2001); Jackson Spielvogel, World History: Modern Times (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009). See Gilbert T Sewall, World History Textbooks: A Review (New York: American Textbook Council, 2004). The college level books were chosen from titles found on the AP world history website. The volumes analyzed for this study were Richard W Bulliet et al., The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History (Boston: Wadsworth Publising, 2010); Peter N Stearns et al., World Civilizations: The Global Experience (New York: Longman, 2010).

6 A 13th century Nigerian sculpture; Egyptian hieroglyphics; a Greek tablet; a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I; an Aztec calendar from the 15th century; Chinese terracotta warriors; Gandhi; and a gold etching from the time of Darius I of Persia.

7 It is interesting to note that previous editions of this text featured a Western monument, such as the Roman Coliseum and Arch of Triumph, as the prominent photograph on the cover.

8 Beck et al., World Civilizations: Patterns of Interaction, xxx

9 Stearns et al., World Civilizations: The Global Experience, 601.

10 Ibid, 457.

11 Ibid, xv.

12 Steven Feierman, "African Histories and the Dissolution of World History," in Africa and the Disciplines: The Contributions of Research in Africa to the Social Sciences and Humanities, ed. Robert H Bates, VY Mudimbe, and Jean O'Barr (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 179. Also see John Willinsky, Learning to Divide the World: Education and Empire's End (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998) for a detailed discussion of this phenomenon.

13 Ibid., 177.

14 Stearns et al., World Civilizations: The Global Experience, xiv.

15 Ross Dunn, "The Two World Histories," Social Education 72, no. 5 (2008), 257.

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