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Taking the Next Step: World History and General Education on the American Campus

Anthony J. Steinhoff
University of Tennessee-Chattanooga

    In 2003, Patrick Manning, Director of Northeastern University's (now defunct) World History Center, published Navigating World History as an "overview and critique of world history as a field of scholarship and teaching." 1 The book brilliantly examines world history's emergence as a legitimate field of professional specialization in the United States. It surveys the main trends in world history research and points out areas that still need attention. Yet, this fine resource devotes little attention to one of the most significant developments in world history teaching: the growing popularity of world history courses as options for satisfying university general education requirements.2 This trend signifies more than world history's acceptance within the academy. It means that the most prevalent form of world history teaching occurs not in the seminar or research class, but in the general education course. Hence, one of the central issues we need to address when talking about teaching world history at the university is how to teach these "introductory" courses.
   Such attention is all the more due when we consider that students and faculty routinely have negative experiences with these courses, especially in their most common form: the world history survey. This dissatisfaction suggests that world history as general education is something like a troubled marriage. The two parties belong together, but additional work will be required if this coupling is to succeed. The reflections presented here, thus, function as a sort of marriage counseling. I begin by exploring some of the causes behind the current discontent, illuminating challenges that world history general education courses face both short and long term. Then I consider how we might build a better marriage between world history and general education, and in the process enhance the range of course offerings and attain higher levels of student interest and engagement.
General Education, History, and World History  
     At most American universities, the idea of general education is rooted in a tradition of liberal arts learning that stretches back to ancient Rome. The Romans defined an educated person as one who had completed a particular course of study, which during the Middle Ages was codified as the quadrivium (geometry, astronomy, arithmetic, music) and trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric). To this notion, Renaissance-era figures like Francesco Petrarca and Leon Battista Alberti added the goal of stimulating and training the intellect beyond the narrower confines of vocational study. A liberal arts education, thus, aspires to do more than just teach students specific content knowledge. It strives to develop patterns of independent thinking that will enable individuals to live their lives more fully and participate more meaningfully in their community, whether that of the sixteenth-century città or the twenty-first century global village.3
   Ever since Quintilian first penned his advice on the education of the orator, historical study has figured prominently in this process of molding active learners and effective citizens. By its very nature, the study of history -- thinking through cause-and-effect relationships, comparing human experiences across time and place, examining what is known about the past, understanding the limits of that knowledge, and reflecting on how past events influence the present and the future -- trains students to think critically, to analyze and apply knowledge, in short, to engage in active learning. In other words, thinking historically implies more than introducing temporal elements into the framework of analysis and study. It teaches the importance of context, prompting people to recognize their connectedness to the outside world and transcend the parochialism of their own mental outlook. 4
    The other main reason for history's inclusion in general education curricula concerns content. Admittedly, the distinction between "thinking historically" and "historical understanding" is artificial. We must do our thinking about something. Studying the past necessarily involves examining discrete pieces of information -- people, places, ideas, events. But in common parlance, "historical understanding" typically expresses an expectation that students be familiar with a specific set of historical facts. The debate is then opened as to what those facts are and, to a lesser degree, when students should acquire them (e.g., high school versus college). 5
    Although the controversies surrounding the definition of "historical understanding" have received considerable public attention,4 they are but part of a deeper and long-standing tension between the two basic goals of history as general education. Reacting to the dominance of the survey course with its temporal and factual breadth, during the 1970s and 1980s American history departments developed general education history courses with more limited geographic, thematic and chronological foci. The rationale: one can promote historical understanding more effectively by trying to do less and engaging students more, whether in classes on the "Family in History" or "Technology and Civilization."5 Even the University of Chicago diversified its offerings, permitting students to complete surveys in Southeast Asian, Latin American, or Russian history instead of the vaunted Western Civilization course.
    The changes at Chicago were also indicative of two trends that forced a reappraisal of western civilization as general education history. First, individuals inside and outside of the historical profession attacked the canon of knowledge represented by the western civilization survey, a story of "great, dead, (largely) White men." Second, the changed circumstances of the late twentieth century compelled many to argue that the very notion of Western civilization was too insular and parochial to serve the needs of an increasingly international and interconnected citizenry. One of the main beneficiaries of these developments was the world history movement, which by the late 1990s had succeeded in making world history a legitimate alternative to (and in some places even a replacement for) western civilization.6
    Nevertheless, while the switch to world history resolved one problem with western civilization as general education history, it ended up exacerbating another. For rather than develop a pedagogical model that reflected world history's particular definition of what thinking historically means and that took into account its dramatic extension of what historical understanding entails, professors modeled world history courses on what they knew: the western civilization survey. In many instances, this resulted in "world history" courses that were little more than "western civ" with a world component tacked on (the "West and the Rest" syndrome). In others, the survey's aspiration to provide meaningful coverage of a basic set of facts yielded courses that present world history either as a rough and ready romp through hundreds, even thousands of years of history, or as a hodgepodge of unconnected information about various world cultures. In none of these scenarios is the cause of general education well served. The wash of information makes it difficult not only to promote historical thinking and understanding but also to engage in the kinds of intra- and cross-cultural analysis that makes world history world history.7
    Sadly, the essential discussions about how to move beyond this "western civ" model are being short-circuited by the latest turns in the debates over American higher education. For our purposes, the most salient of these is the push towards accountability and, accordingly, assessment of general education programs. One by one, the regional accrediting bodies in the United States are requiring schools to identify and assess competencies for each area of general education, history included.8 From the standpoint of world history, this trend could be a good thing, for it promises to open up a discussion of how we are actually meeting our goals with respect to history as general education. There remains, however, the problem of assessment. Developing effective measures to assess students' ability to reason historically and process that information is a difficult and often costly task. 9Hence, schools will likely do what is easiest: employ tests that gauge students' command of a discrete set of facts. And since world history courses will have to teach students these facts, the assessment trend promises -- ironically enough -- to erect yet another obstacle in the path of making world history succeed as general education.
    A second issue confronting world history as general education is the definition of the object itself: are we teaching "world" or "global" history? This is not a case of semantic hairsplitting, but a distinction with major conceptual and pragmatic ramifications. Proponents of global history argue that students should study the origins and evolution of globalization, that is, the web of social, economic, political, and cultural independencies that arose from the breakdown of the boundaries between the world's regions over the long twentieth century.10 Moreover, this tack has two important practical benefits. It promotes a course that is both recognizably relevant to understanding contemporary society and that can be packaged within a single semester.
    Yet, the "world history as globalization" model also has significant shortcomings. For one, it is difficult to explain key dimensions of the lives and livelihoods of many of the world's peoples solely by looking at the recent past. Take, for example, the contemporary situation in the Middle East. Although some of the problems there are the legacy of Western colonization and imperialism, others reflect religious tensions that have simmered in the region for over one thousand years, during the founding centuries of Islam. Far from being a matter of archaeology, such a recourse to the past constitutes an essential part of developing historical understanding. Global history also runs the risk of compromising a central task of general education historical study: nurturing an awareness of change over time. A course in twentieth-century global history, for instance, has such a limited temporal scope that students will hardly be able to develop an awareness of temporal difference or of the significance of temporal ruptures, two major aspects of learning to think historically.11 Students may well view the early twentieth century as ancient history, but the distance between 1906 and 2006 is relatively minor compared to that between even 1806 and 2006, much less between 1006 and 2006.
    In concluding this section, we need to return to the matter of content, for this represents one of the most formidable difficulties in doing world history as general education. Here, I contend, the main issue is not really the amount of material -- the relatively high degree of "cultural literacy" needed for world history -- but rather what I call world history's "foreignness" vis-à-vis both student and teacher. This situation will likely change as world history becomes more firmly established in secondary school curricula, but for now the overwhelming majority of American college students encounters world history as if it were Martian history. They have no frame of reference to make sense of the names, concepts, and ideas that define non-western cultures. They struggle mightily to remember terms and place names they can barely pronounce and are deeply perplexed by cultures like that of India, whose sense of rationality is not that of the Western tradition.
   Of course, professors strive to help students contend with world history's steep leaning curve. But, the burden on instructors is also substantial. Lacking specific training in the field, most practicing world history teachers have to scramble on their own, familiarizing themselves with a large mass of material just to get some overall sense of what they have to teach. The newest generation of world history textbooks, most notably Jerry Bentley and Herbert Ziegler's Traditions & Encounters, have greatly facilitated the process of basic knowledge acquisition.12 Yet, there remains a dearth of materials on which faculty can rely to move beyond the textbook, without toiling extensively in the specialist literature. Where these resources do exist, they are often difficult for non-specialist world history teachers to find and exploit as they would wish. This too presents a barrier to effective teaching, both in the sense of helping students overcome "foreignness" and helping them make sense of world historical change. 13
Building a Better World History Course: Next Steps  
   In retrospect, it isn't all that surprising that the world history general education course is in its present predicament. To establish credibility in this key curricular sector, world history's proponents followed a fairly conservative game plan: teach a large-scale survey, just alter the content. The time has come, however, to alter the rules of engagement. World history has established itself within university general education programs throughout the country. So now we need to think seriously about how to make these courses succeed, both as general education and as world history. Historians will need to engage in a deeper dialogue about the essential conceptual elements of such a new paradigm. And they will have to discuss and experiment with its articulation in the classroom. Above all, once this new paradigm has been elaborated and introduced, the world history community will need to defend it against those who would keep world history shackled to an outmoded and unsatisfactory pedagogical model. 14

   It is encouraging to see that many strands of such a paradigm are already emerging. We just need to consolidate these gains and press on ahead. First, it seems, world historians are reaching consensus about the major conceptual themes that should undergird world history courses in general, thereby clarifying what makes world history world history. A useful presentation of these themes appears in the course description for the new Advanced Placement course in world history, to wit:

1.   Patterns and impacts of interaction among major societies; trade, war, diplomacy, and international organizations

2.   The relationship of change and continuity across different world historical eras

3.   Impact of technology and demography on people and the environment: population growth and decline, disease, manufacturing, migrations, agriculture, weaponry

4.   Systems of social structure and gender structure (comparing major features within and among societies and assessing change)

5.   Cultural and intellectual developments and interactions among and within societies

6.   Changes in functions and structures of states and in attitudes towards states and political identities (political culture);… types of political organization13

   Two aspects of this list (and not the actual AP course itself) deserve emphasis. First, it gives the world history course a specific analytical program, which can be applied within specific temporal and geographical settings as well as across time and space. Second, the list of themes does not prescribe content. It does not mandate what must be covered, in sharp contrast to the approach found in the National Standards for World History.14 With the passage of time and the accumulation of more experience teaching world history, we may well end up revising this conceptual program. But for now, it provides a solid foundation on which instructors can construct more specialized world history courses, according to their individual interests and take on the material at hand. 16
   A second step forward lies in the emergence of a usable chronological framework for world history, one that meaningfully guides the exploration of the major conceptual foci and calls attention to fundamental shifts in the course of the human experience over the longue durée. Assuming that two semesters are available for world history, the first half of the course would run from "the beginning" to somewhere between 1400-1500 ce and the second half from 1400-1500 to the "present." Within these temporal blocks, the greatest degree of consensus reigns as how to divide the second period into meaningful historical segments. The National Standards for World History, for instance, splits the period into three major eras: an age of global expansion and encounter (1450-1770); an age of revolutions (1750-1914), and the "twentieth" century. This is the same approach adopted, with only minor variations, in Traditions and Encounters; McNeill and McNeill, The Human Web: A Bird's Eye View of World History; and Adams et al., Experiencing World History.15 17
   With respect to the first half of the course, greater differences of opinion prevail. Based on my own experiences teaching this part of the course, the general direction charted by the World History Standards seems the most effective. It defines five eras: the beginnings of human society (to 4000 BCE); early civilizations and the rise of pastoral peoples (4000-1000 BCE); classical traditions and empires (1000 BCE- 300 CE); expanding zones of exchange and encounter (300-1000 CE); and intensified hemispheric interactions, 1000-1500 ce.16 This schema distinguishes itself from others primarily in its division of the period after 500 CE into two units, with the break occurring around 1000 CE. This approach has the great merit of breaking down a large and important bloc of time into more student-friendly pieces.17 Furthermore, in many parts of the world and not just in Europe events around 1000 did indeed launch a new era (e.g., Byzantium and the Battle of Manzikert, the beginning of the Song dynasty in China), so it makes analytical sense to give this period its due. 18
   Admittedly, this mapping of historical time will not work for all approaches to world history. "Big history," for instance, as championed by scholars like David Christian, operates within a vastly different set of temporal parameters.18 Nevertheless, it will serve admirably for the vast majority of world history teachers, providing -- especially in the short run -- a base from which further experimentation in course format and content can fruitfully take place. 19
   It is precisely at this level of course organization, I suggest, that the most work needs to be done to make the world history general education course succeed. How specifically do we want to promote world-historical thinking in our students? With what sort of world historical "facts" should a student be familiar? And most importantly, how do we combine these objectives? 20
   How we respond to these questions will, of course, depend on the given curricular conditions: e.g., level of student preparation, length of time devoted to general education history (courses and weeks). But it seems equally evident the general education world history course will need to operate primarily on the "macro" level. This is practical necessity, because it is effectively impossible within one or two semesters to examine the world's many cultures in great detail. But it is also pedagogically essential, because world history involves more than the investigation of individual cultures and civilizations. It requires exploring intercultural contact and interaction. It entails identifying major trends across civilizations and noting significant exceptions to them. Indeed, developments that are critical in the context of a specific national or regional history, may emerge as relatively minor events from a world historical perspective and, thus, would be passed over. For instance, whereas European history courses normally emphasize the Thirty Years' War and downplay the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1688-89, the world history course would do the opposite.19 21
   As a promising sign of things to come, Adams et al., Experiencing World History, deserves particular mention. Although this is a relatively brief text, the authors have not produced a typical "brief world history." It is, rather, an effort -- and a highly successful one -- to deliver stimulating insights into the flow of world history by focusing on a limited number of topics (namely, social life, gender, culture, leisure, and the state).20 Additional themes, like trade and technology, enter into the analysis, but only as supporting details in the overall narrative. 22
   The pedagogical vision expressed in Experiencing World History, its exploration of particular themes and subjects that can effectively illuminate major world historical developments, must inform more of our classroom activity. Indeed, we could profitably take it a step further, dispensing with the pretense of broad coverage altogether in favor of an explicitly thematic approach. We might offer courses like "Migration and Technology" or "Religion and Food." From the perspective of general education, the potential benefits of moving in this direction are several. It would allow for a more hands-on approach to history, giving students more opportunities to engage meaningfully with the evidence of the past. There is also a greater likelihood that, with a more restricted knowledge base, students would gain greater comfort and facility in using it. Finally, a more topically-oriented course could well promote higher levels of student interest and, thus, an improved learning environment. Science students, for example, might find a general education history course more relevant if it focused on science and technology rather than politics+economy+culture+society. 23
   Moreover, properly organized, a topical course is perfectly able to meet the larger objectives of world history education. Focusing on human migration, war, or the environment would require a course with an extended temporal scope. Fears that too many "major" world historical developments would be "missed" by such a tack are also ill-founded. The seminal developments in world history are multi-dimensional and permit investigation through multiple angles. Take, for instance, migration. A course organized around this topic would, expectedly, examine how, when, and why people moved around the globe, and compare these experiences and motivations across time and space. But it would also speak to changes in political organization, since the movement of foreign or "barbarian" peoples regularly spurred the construction, consolidation, and collapse of states across the globe. The history of migration is also intimately related to the story of technological change. And, as we all know, migration has long helped establish links between cultures. It has facilitated the exchange of ideas and goods and, more recently, promoted the emergence of the global community. 24
   Admittedly, adopting a more narrowly thematic approach in general education world history courses will entail a greater reduction of knowledge that we expect students to "master." While this will likely trouble those who approach general education primarily from the perspective of cultural literacy, the topically-oriented course remains a worthy endeavor. On the one hand, every course entails a restriction of "coverage." Good teaching is not about being comprehensive, but selecting the best examples to illustrate major concepts and themes. On the other hand, we need to remember that liberal arts education strives not only to teach facts, but also to promote intellectual inquiry in the long-term. There are and always will be many routes to this goal, even in the narrower context of world history. So if a professor manages to spark student interest and develop a world historical perspective in a course that concentrates on social or economic life, it makes little sense to quibble over insignificant differences in the number of facts learned. 25
   At the outset of this paper, I likened the current state of general education world history to a troubled marriage. The intent was not to be pessimistic, but rather to emphasize that important work must still be accomplished to make this union succeed. In fact, I believe that there are valid reasons for optimism. Over the past decade, the world history community has managed to articulate a clearer sense of what world history is all about, a necessary precondition for effective curricular development. But to produce courses that work better both as world history and as general education the therapy will need to continue. We must continue to discuss what world history's "main themes" indeed are. And we will need to use the classroom more explicitly as a laboratory, a place for curricular innovation, as we strive to translate world history theory into successful world history practice 26

1 Manning, Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), ix, but see also 79-105.

2 See, for example, the observations in Ane Lintvedt, "The Demography of World History in the United States," World History Connected, 1 (November 2003).

3 Association of American Colleges, Task Group on General Education, A New Vitality in General Education (Washington D.C., 1988), esp. 3-10. But see also, more generally, W. B. Carnochan, The Battleground of the Curriculum: Liberal Education and the American Experience (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993).

4 To mention just two prominent titles within a vast literature: Alan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York, 1988); and Lawrence Levine, The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History (Boston, 1996).

5 These courses, however, should be distinguished from those designed for majors that are, regrettably, allowed to count as general education in many universities with a distribution system of general education.

6 An excellent selection of key statements in this debate appears in Ross Dunn, ed., The New World History: A Teacher's Companion (New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2000), 29-58, 73-108.

7 This is what Patricia Lopes Don regards as a major consequence of attention to "low literacy" in survey courses. Don, "Establishing World History as a Teaching Field: Comments from the Field," The History Teacher 36 (2003), 35 para, here para 3-6.

8 As one example: Commission on Colleges, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Principles of Accreditation: Foundations for Quality Enhancement (June 2005), Section 3.5.1, "The institution identifies college-level competencies within the general education core and provides evidence that graduates have attained those competencies."

9 On recent developments in national assessment of world history teaching, at least at the high school level, see Robert Bain and Tamara Shreiner's essay in this volume, "The Dilemmas of a National Assessment in World History: World Historians and the 12th Grade NAEP."

10 See, for instance, the reflections in Michael Geyer and Charles Bright, "World History in a Global Age," American Historical Review 100 (1995): 1034-60.

11 On the importance of rupture, see especially Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York: Pantheon, 1972), 166-77.

12 Bentley and Ziegler, Traditions and Encounters:: A Global Perspective on the Past, 3d ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005).

13 The College Board, AP World History Course Description,, 5. I have altered the wording of items 2 and 6 slightly in order to present them as general, instead of AP-specific themes. These ideas also play important roles in structuring such textbooks as Bentley and Ziegler, Traditions & Encounters, and Peter N. Stearns et al., World Civilizations: The Global Experience, 3rd ed. (New York: Longman, 2001), to give just two examples.

14 AP World History Course Description, 9-20; National Standards for World History: Exploring Paths to the Present (Los Angeles: National Center for History in the Schools, 1994), 35-37 (overview).

15 National Standards, p. 35-37; J. R. McNeill and William H. McNeill, The Human Web (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), ix-xi; Paul V. Adams, Erick D. Langer, Lily Hwa, Peter N. Stearns, and Merry Wiesner-Hanks., Experiencing World History (New York: New York University Press, 2000). This listing is meant to be illustrative, not exhaustive.

16 This is also roughly speaking the same approach advocated by Jerry H. Bentley, "Cross-Cultural Interaction and Periodization in World History, American Historical Review 101 (1996): 749-70, esp. 756-69. Patrick Manning, "The Problem of Interactions in World History," AHR 101 (1996): 771-82, criticizes certain of the assumptions underlying Bentley's chronological framework, but says very little about the actual choice of temporal dividing points.

17 The AP World History periodization, for example, stretches from 600-1450; AP World History Course Description, 5. Adams et al, Experiencing World History gives this era even greater limits, running from 450-1450 (p. v).

18 Cf. David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004).

19 AP World History Course Description, 16.

20 Experiencing World History, esp. 1-19.


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