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Why Teach World History in School: Curriculum Reform in German Secondary Education

Eckhardt Fuchs
University of Mannheim

    This short essay provides an introduction into the present debate on history curriculum reform in Germany. After a sketch of the background of the history curriculum in Germany, which includes a short analysis of the newly introduced history curriculum in Baden-Wuerttemberg (one of the sixteen German states), I will examine the relationship between history teaching and identity formation in a global world, based on recent empirical studies. This will be followed by some observations about the position of history compared to other subjects at high schools, and the definite problems in curriculum revision posed by history as a subject.
History curriculum in Germany  
    Despite the recent “cultural wars” over the introduction of National Standards in the U.S. and the fact that neither standards nor textbooks show much reflection of the transcultural, global, and comparative approaches of world history research, from the German perspective the U.S. world history curriculum development since its beginnings in the early nineteenth century looks like the story of an easy success. The impressiveness of world history teaching in the American classroom, especially after the introduction of AP courses, makes the neglect of this subject in German secondary education all the more obvious. Although Germany can look back on a long tradition of world history writing, it never really reached the school curriculum except in two cases. First, during the nineteenth century, textbooks on world history had been written and used in schools, but this practice ceased once the imperial age arrived. Second, in East Germany world history in the shape of Western Civ – albeit based on Marxist theory and with different ideological aims – was part of the school curriculum. But in general, a nation-centered view has dominated the German history curriculum. Although the biased nationalistic and chauvinistic curriculum changed after World War II, neither the abandonment of all Nazi ideology in textbooks nor the overall reform of the history curriculum led to a replacement of the nation-orientated history instruction in Germany. Only as a result of the European unification process and the numerous attempts to revise history textbooks by the Council of Europe did a thematic broadening of the curriculum since the 1970s occur. The conferences of the German ministers of education in 1978 and 1997 decided to set up guiding principles aiming at the creation of a “European consciousness as pedagogical task of the school.” But world history has still not found its way into school curricula.
     Before elaborating further on this phenomenon, a few words on the structure of the German school system are necessary. To begin with, this system is very heterogeneous due to the fact that the federal government has no regulatory authority over the schools; each of the sixteen German states develops its own system. Primary school generally starts at the age of six and goes to grade 4. Based on merit, the students are then sent to one of four secondary schools that end either at ninth or tenth grade (secondary level I), or the twelfth or thirteenth grade (depending on the state and encompassing secondary levels I and II), with the best students continuing the longest. History is obligatory from the sixth through tenth grades and two classes a week are taught. Depending on the school type, it can be combined with other subjects. Traditionally, curricula are issued by the state government and are input-oriented, and there is a free market of state-approved textbooks. Beyond grade 10 (i.e., secondary level II), history is no longer mandatory.
    As a reaction to PISA and to a general school reform debate reflecting the international discourse on general education, school quality, autonomy, and assessment, among other topics, various German states are reforming their curricula. One example is the new history curriculum of Baden-Wuerttemberg, which was introduced as part of the so-called Bildungsplan in 2004. With respect to the Gymnasium (which is the secondary school type for the best students to grade 12 in this state) this new curriculum reveals at first glance a change in the traditional approach. As an output-oriented curriculum focusing on standards and school autonomy it means a shift away from the traditional curriculum. The introduction of specific school- and subject-related standards, the definition of a core curriculum, a specific school curriculum autonomy, which can be set up by each school individually, and the merging of different subjects into one seem to offer new ways of teaching history. The basic goal of history instruction is now stated as such: “The acquisition of basic knowledge about important events, persons, developments, structures, terms, and epochs of regional, national, and European history, as well as world history, is indispensable for history instruction.” 4
    If one has a closer look at the history standards, however, it becomes obvious that world history is hardly treated and that a transformation from a nation-centered perspective to a global approach has not taken place. From grades 6 to 9 the curriculum is characterized by a chronological, Western culture-based survey; grade 10 deals with contemporary history of the twentieth century. After national history, European history has a second narrative line. The advanced courses in grades 11 to 12 – so-called Leistungskurse that are comparable to the American AP courses – focus on Modern Europe and neglect non-European history, decolonization, and other global topics with the exception of the Chinese Revolution. Problems of globalization, migration, environment, economy, and trade are treated in the Fächerverbund (the merging of subjects into one curriculum) of geography, economics, and social studies. Altogether, the new curriculum turns out to be only a trimmed version of the old curriculum and formulates standards on a very abstract level. In contrast to the general goal of history teaching cited above, world history is only treated peripherally, and problems of globalization are assigned to subjects other than history. By no means does the new history curriculum incorporate a change of the basic narrative. Recent studies on the history, geography, and civic instruction textbooks and curricula carried out by the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research in Braunschweig confirm that the national approach still prevails and that non-European perspectives are only integrated selectively. Europe, however, does tend to play a more visible role in teaching. 5
World History Teaching and Historical Consciousness  
    Thus, the U.S. debate on the history curriculum revision has not yet arrived at the German schools. Only in the past two years have educators started debating the revision of the history curriculum. Whereas the introduction of the U.S. National Standards could be justified by major changes within American society and was promoted by various pressure groups, the impulse of a history curriculum reform in Germany is based on the idea of the general mission of history instruction: to produce knowledge about the past and to develop a historical consciousness and identity that provides a basis for orientation in society. History, in short, plays a major part in the historical-political socialisation of adolescents. Since the globalization process has changed life and world perspectives dramatically, the nation-centered history is no longer sufficient to guarantee the identity and orientation function of history instruction and, therefore, does not correspond to the needs of youth in a global world, according to the advocates of world history in Germany.
    These normative assumptions are not yet proved empirically, however. The international comparative study “Youth and History” of 1995 investigated the historical consciousness of some 32,000 ninth-grade students in 27 European countries. Without going into the details of this study, one of the results identified was that “connections between conceptions of the past, perceptions and evaluations of the present, and expectations for the future are visible but not strongly developed.” It is evident that the impact of daily experiences on the historical consciousness is much stronger than vice versa. This means that the supposed orientation and identity function of history has to be seen rather as a confirmation of experiences than a cognitive processing of the past. Other studies reached similar results, for example the sociological studies on the effects of the European unification process on a “European” consciousness and identity.
    Recent empirical investigations in the field of youth and adolescence research show, however, that youth cultures are influenced to a large extent by global developments and that they react to them in various ways. Furthermore, the twelfth Shell Study (“Youth 2002”) confirms that adolescents reflect globalization and its challenges in a very realistic and pragmatic way. It seems to be evident that life experiences and future expectations shape the social actions of young people more than historical consciousness does. It is therefore an empirically open question as to what degree history instruction in general and world history instruction in particular contribute to the socialization process of youth in comparison to family, tradition, culture, and peer group. It is not really known what the needs of students for orientation and identity in a global world are and how they reflect globalization, or whether a world history-centered curriculum can serve these needs better than a traditional one. Further research needs to be done on what exactly constitutes a “global-oriented historical consciousness” and what kinds of skills – cognitive, social, methodical, or subject-related – have to be developed to transform historical consciousness. These are important questions for a prospective curriculum reform.
   What models should Germany look to for reforming this nation-centered curriculum? Simply adding non-Western civilization courses into the curriculum does not seem to be very successful, as the history of Western Civ courses at U.S. colleges indicate. The method of implementing a separate world history course besides the traditional national history course – as in the case of the AP courses – carries with it the danger that there is no link between the two narratives. The alternative path of teaching national history within the context of world history has not yet been attempted. Regardless of how one tries to implement world history into the curriculum, it poses the additional question of how to define world history.
History as a Subject in the Schools  
    Such a justification seems to have become a crucial point considering the competition with other subjects that history has to face, and in the U.S. this competition is also present. The discussion about core curricula and knowledge standards will have effects on how much space subjects will be allotted in the curriculum. The position of history is by no means secure. A glance at the specifics of the German school system and the fact that history at the highest secondary level (grades 11 to 13) is voluntary confirms that the impact of history instruction on identity should not be overestimated. In addition, studies on the preferences of students reveal that 25 percent of all students dislike history courses and that it is ranked third after mathematics and physics in the scale of unpopular subjects. There is also a significant difference between teachers and students regarding the goals of instruction. Whereas teachers assume that the “explanation of the present through history” and the teaching of “democratic values” are most important, students put “knowledge of important historical events and care of traditions” first.
    The low rank of history among school subjects coincides with the lack of appropriate teacher training. This problem is more pronounced in the U.S., as Diane Ravitch has recently shown. In Germany the education of high school history teachers at the university is not undisputed in the context of a general discussion on teacher training but it does follow a certain curriculum and is, as teacher training is in general, divided into two parts: academic (within the university) and pedagogical-practical (at teacher seminars). However, since world history has not been institutionalized at German universities, there is no special training in world history.
    Finally, if history can defend its position within the school curriculum and if world history is able to justify its implementation into the history curriculum, the question remains how such a curriculum change might look and what kind of curriculum definition one refers to. Setting aside the German debates on what constitutes a curriculum, it can be stated that most experts agree that learning goals and teaching strategies are content-directed elements of the state’s control of instruction and that the curriculum therefore serves political strategies of legitimization. The term curriculum itself can be interpreted in several ways: as the totality of learning experiences of all actors participating in instruction; as material for instruction; as instruction unit; and as administration rule; but also as “realized” curriculum in the way of the output of the learning-teaching process. Another approach emphasizes five dimensions of the curriculum that make up the totality of the learning-teaching process: a normative dimension, which covers values and ethical norms; a functional dimension, which aims at developing certain abilities according to the school type; a contents dimension, which states what parts of history will be taught; the organizational dimension, which deals with didactics; and the control dimension, which measures the outcome. Given these various meanings, the problem that has to be discussed is: At which of them does the introduction of world history aim? Should world history lead to normative goals and social skills, such as the idea of world citizenship, human rights, and solidarity, or to the extension of historical knowledge in order to broaden the student’s world view? Studies on civic education in the U.S. show that a link between history instruction, the teaching of political and cultural norms, and the life experience of adolescents leads to greater success in the development of a historical consciousness and identity than traditional curricula and textbooks.
   It is, therefore, crucial for world history teaching that life experiences of the students in a global world correspond to the knowledge they receive in school in order to act responsibly in society. But what place can world history take in this context? Do students need a global-oriented historical consciousness, as Susanne Popp argues, or rather a global-oriented general consciousness that is constituted by a blending of abilities in the economic, geographic, cultural, and historical realms? If so, one has to get rid of the traditional understanding of history teaching and curriculum and reconstruct the subject by – for example – contextualizing (world) history within (global) geography, politics, and economics? As to the problem of the cognitive and psychological dimension of (world) history for adolescents, it must be stated that there are hardly any empirical studies yet on the individual, real, and realized curriculum – that means on the application of curricula and their effects in the classroom. This is not just a German issue, as the problem of world history assessment in the U.S. indicates. 13
   First, learning goals are more and more defined through output-oriented standards and not curricula anymore, although there is an international tendency towards integrative, “didactical,” and “curriculum-orientated” approaches, which means teacher- and result-orientated approaches. The reform debate about the introduction of new educational standards has not yet reached the field of history didactics, despite the fact that the existence of history as a subject in school might become questioned in the aftermath of PISA. In this context educators are challenged by the problem of how the dichotomy of the assessment of instruction quality and the pedagogical-normative goal of the development of a (global-oriented) historical consciousness can be resolved. This means that the debate on standards in history has to lead to a self-reflection about the choice and canonization of the kind of historical knowledge that is necessary for the cultural memory of society. Such a choice is only possible by selection. And this selection is the link between a standard-oriented assessment on the one hand and the specific logic of the development of a historical consciousness on the other. 14
   Second, any curriculum change therefore has to go beyond a traditional curriculum or textbook revision. Standards are defined within a knowledge- and social-related context and aim at the development of certain competencies. A world history curriculum has to define what specific abilities ought to be developed. The general normative foundation of orientation and identity formation is not sufficient and must be complemented by arguments based on cognitive and psychological research, which means that curriculum research has to be connected with research on the learning-teaching process. Just the question of from what grade on world history makes sense is not even raised yet. 15
   Third, there is also the problem of whether a consensus about a standardized curriculum and unified learning goals and teaching strategies in a postmodern society with its permanent change of values and steadily expanding knowledge is possible at all. How can a consensus on world history be reached? The U.S. case shows how politicized such a debate is and that the idea of a national curriculum is not realistic. But if one considers that 900 curriculum commissions with almost 4,000 members worked in Germany between 1980 and 1984 and that in 1995 a total of 2,000 school curricula existed ; that every ten years curricula are revised and that between 30 and 120 employees work in the respective institutes, then just from the pure economic perspective a centralization of curriculum revision seems to be justified. Regional cooperation is possible, as experiences have shown, and the governments of the German states have already set up nationwide agreements for educational standards at the secondary level I. With regard to history instruction, however, performance standards, content standards, and opportunity-to-learn standards still have to be negotiated, implemented, and assessed. Those professional standards have to be worked out by the respective institutions. 16
   Fourth, according to the new Bildungsplan teachers have the possibility to create their own curriculum for one-third of the instruction. Here is the chance to implement world history perspectives and to integrate regional, national, European, and world history. This, however, requires an adjustment in teacher training at the universities. World history therefore has to become a research subject within academic scholarship. It also has to be discussed which part of teacher training – the academic, the didactical, or the educational – ought to play the major role in the readjustment towards world history. So far only a few countries, such as the U.S. and Japan, have tried out the incorporation of a world history curriculum at high schools. German educators should be cautious in abandoning the American model of a separate world history course, as has been recently suggested. There is no empirical data yet that indicate that the integrative concepts, which are favoured by German experts, are more successful with respect to the development of identity and a global historical consciousness. 17
   Fifth, as the new Bildungsplan in Baden-Wuerttemberg shows, problems of globalization are treated mainly in geography and social studies and intend to develop a close link with history, including the establishment of Fächerverbünde. Interdisciplinary longitudinal sections and thematic approaches can be innovative ways to overcome traditional boundaries between subjects and to connect everyday-life experience with historical learning. 18
   It is necessary to incorporate these kinds of questions into the discourse on curriculum reform and to consider empirical research in pedagogical psychology and sociology, as well as in general curriculum studies, in order to justify the implementation of world history into the curriculum. Curriculum and textbook revision have to include a reform of teacher training and presuppose a self-refection at the professional academic level on what constitutes world history and what the goals of studying and teaching it are. This must not lead to “cultural wars” but requires a certain political sensibility and a transformation of the public mind. Even though there are various differences in the structure of history teaching between Germany and the U.S., an international exchange might help give new impulses for discussion on both sides of the Atlantic – be it for Germans on the curriculum level by the introduction of advanced world history courses or for the Americans on the concept level by considering approaches such as transnationalism. 19

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