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American Students and Global Issues

Peter Stearns

George Mason University

    We begin with a dual premise: first, that the American public, despite obvious variations and divisions, is dramatically under-informed about international places, trends and issues and that this is a severe constraint on responsible citizenship; and second, that while a number of factors contribute to the deficiencies, those of us who teach about global topics must develop new initiatives to deal with the problems involved. Many of us, observing public responses over the past several years, have to wonder about where our efforts as educators have led. 1
    Point one, of course, may be viewed as excessively partisan. I am not advocating that we band together to advocate particular foreign policies or preferable candidates in the classroom ­ nor am I seeking to pander to a teaching corps that, research suggests, is by national standards somewhat left of center on both domestic and international concerns. Despite the perils of partisanship, the gaps in knowledge and understanding are simply too great to be left unattended, as the public has shown a disproportionate willingness to support a number of policies that are neither humane nor in the true national interest. The public itself, of course, seems to be reviewing some of its decisions, given the ongoing problems in Iraq, which may generate a teachable moment, but we cannot assume that the result of revision will have long-term impact, or educational consequence, without explicit effort.
    The problems are threefold, and of course they interrelate. The first is simple ignorance, frequently compounded by lack of adequate interest in or attention to international issues. Perhaps overconfident in American power and beneficence, many elements of the public seem willing to support intervention in regions about which they know little or nothing. What is particularly galling is a national failure to have profited from the clear lessons of Vietnam (which is not to argue for the Vietnamese analogy too widely). It was pretty generally understood, as opposition to the war in Southeast Asia surged in the late 1960s, that one of the key failures had been a combination of undue ignorance and blithe assumptions where Vietnam was concerned. Yet arguably we have just repeated the same experience with Iraq (and this regardless of precise position on whether the war was justifiable or not).
    A sounder curriculum in global education might not have kept the nation out of Iraq ­ informed people can disagree about this ­ but, I would argue, it would at least have prevented acceptance of any glib arguments that the invasion would be easy, that American troops would be greeted with hugs and flowers. That key policymakers did not have better knowledge of the region, and of relevant features of contemporary anti-colonial responses more generally, was disturbing enough; equally disturbing was the lack of informed public response. This is what must be addressed, with the goal of elevating the soundness of inevitable continuing debates about appropriate policy. 4
    The second problem centers on an undue willingness to defy clear data. One of the most troubling aspects of the widening swamp in Iraq, to a history or social studies educator, has to have been the polling data, well into 2004, that suggested that as many of 30% of all Americans continued to believe that Saddam had possessed weapons of mass destruction prior to the 2003 invasion, long after it was obvious that he had not and after the Bush administration had grudgingly admitted as much. Imperviousness to evidence can be even more troubling in the social science area, where the results can generate policies directly affecting human wellbeing, than in the more heralded domain of the sciences ­ yet that's what we seemingly must deal with on a variety of social issues including global concerns.
    And finally, though this is of course more debatable, many elements of the public seem trapped in dubious interpretive models (which they share with segments of the policy community). They continue to accept (without necessarily knowing it by name) a modernization pattern, which argues that with just a little guidance people around the world will want to be like us. And, more troubling still, they operate on a good guys/bad guys dualism that dates back to World War II. They assume, in other words, that there's a straight line from Hitler to Stalin to Saddam and/or Islamic terrorists. They are encouraged in this, of course, by explicit administration statements: George Bush I repeatedly claimed a descent of evil from Hitler to Saddam, disregarding obvious disparities in power; and George Bush II has taken to explicit invocations of the scope of the Cold War in his defense of the war on terror. These models quite simply inhibit clear analysis, muddying distinctions among crises and therefore among appropriate responses. 6
    The trinity of deficiencies in a fair segment of the American public has a host of causes, of course. Leadership errors, whether admitted or not, including the astonishing assumption that an invasion of Iraq would be greeted with huzzahs and rose petals, play a great role, and to the extent that American leaders (not just recently) have compounded foreign policy mistakes by misleading rhetoric and repressive bombast they contribute directly to public ignorance. The media role is considerable. The rise of television as a news medium probably disserves global awareness, given a penchant for faddish changes in topic and short, crisis-focused briefings. More obvious still was the marked decline of international coverage, in all major media, during the 1990s, which reduced easy public access to vital international information. The list of responsible agents is considerable. 7
    But I do believe that teachers and educational programs must be given a role as well, in helping to explain problems and certainly in accepting an active role in remedying them. To be sure, government-sponsored priorities and testing programs, where the social studies and history are concerned, play their own role in constraining effective international teaching. Efforts to minimize the social studies in favor of other preferences, and a penchant for measuring the field through memorization tests rather than evidence of effective understanding, hamper efforts in global education. This said, it is also true that too many teaching programs remain bound to outdated paradigms. Too many teachers and curricular planners find it difficult, whatever their protestations to the contrary, to think in terms other than maximum (and often conventional) factual coverage. Too many history and social studies programs find it difficult to expose students to larger social processes, rather than more specific events and institutions, which complicates efforts to deal with certain kinds of global issues such as population trends. Too many components of social studies programs continue to stand alone, in isolated one-year segments, rather than providing some sense of sequence and common participation in a global context. 8
    The main points are clear. Social studies and history teachers can and should make the global preparation of students a high priority, taking the widespread current public deficiencies as an explicit challenge. This involves some serious reconsideration of several common curricular habits. The result should be a strong campaign to reinvigorate social studies teaching around the current global imperative, spiced by a willingness to put our own pedagogical house in better order. 9
    Within this framework, I suggest six concrete steps, the accumulation of which directly addresses the three public deficiencies sketched above: 10
    First, we need a renewed effort to make sure we're indeed teaching about the world, and not just some parts of it. The most obvious target here is the continued, disproportionate Western emphasis of the majority of so-called world history courses at the high school level, usually slotted in the 10th grade curriculum. Repeated studies both of texts and of syllabi show that the typical course remains 75% Western, often becoming particularly regionally slanted in dealing with the early modern and modern periods, that is, those periods that most obviously shape understandings of the historical background to the world today. The distortion ­ for it really is misleading to confuse Western initiative with the sum total of global forces ­ results from a combination of routine-mindedness and a sense that, in final analysis, introduction to the Western experience continues to have some unusual importance in orienting American students. 11
    In fact, however, the lack of proportion has two harmful consequences. First, in enmeshing students in considerable detail about Western history, it reduces the time available for consideration of other important societies and of global forces more generally. Second, it actively promotes a belief that the world remains a stage for Western action and “other” reaction, in which failures to measure up to Western standards somehow signals a concern or deficiency. Both problems deserve remediation. The rest of the world is not going to cease activity simply because of American ignorance. Nor is it best understood in terms of passivity or at most episodic initiatives. The remedy does not, it must be insisted, involve neglect of appropriate attention to the Western experience, with its combination of strengths and flaws; nor does it involve anti-Westernism or an attempt to ignore downsides in the historical unfolding of other major societies. Indeed, world history can improve a grasp of distinctive features of Western history. 12
    But the fact is that the world with which the United States now interacts is not primarily a Western world, and this creates an imperative for a broader perspective, not only of course in history, but also in geography (where it is already more common) and in other social science components of a social studies program. Students must be exposed to global contents knowledge ­ suitably highlighted so that memorization demands do not overwhelm ­ and, even more, to the experience of dealing with global issues. 13
    Step two follows closely on this first change: treatment of the United States must be systematically internationalized. Far too often, in current civics and U.S. history survey courses, the United States is handled as a largely self-contained unit, isolated from the rest of the world and implicitly distinctive ­ exceptional, often superior ­ as well. This approach simply leaves students unprepared for dealing with the real-world nation, acted upon and actor on a larger global stage. Of course students must be taught about national issues and institutions, but this is perfectly compatible with a more consistent global perspective. To be sure, some familiar details may be downplayed or recast in favor of the new approach, and without question, in American history surveys, a new, more globally based periodization will be required (particularly against the truly unfortunate habit of breaking the 20th century up into purely decadal or presidential chunks). But, without minimizing the effort which rethinking requires, the result will be immensely beneficial to an understanding of how the nation really operates and how others react to it. 14
    There are several stipulations for the more international approach. First, of course, the impact of international influences and contacts must be more consistently acknowledged in exploring how the United States has developed and currently functions. This involves not only attention to specific exchanges, but also the nation's participation in larger currents of trade, migration, or human rights campaigns. Second, the national experience must regularly be compared with developments in other relevant societies ­ with the West, with other settler and frontier societies, with other industrial economies. Only through this mechanism can students really think about what is, indeed, significantly exceptional about the United States (whether for good or ill), and what aspects need to be evaluated in larger contexts. Finally ­ and oddly this is the element most frequently missing from current approaches ­ the impact of the United States on the rest of the world needs systematic attention. As the United States joined and then increasingly replaced Britain and Western Europe as a world leader, what if anything did it contribute that was different, what policies did it broadly maintain, and how were its efforts viewed by others? Here is direct perspective on questions that students must be prepared to ask, and try to answer, as citizens through the rest of their lives. 15
    Step number three, an injunction to history teachers particularly: adequate attention must be paid to the contemporary period. Student understanding of the world around them is not effectively served by background materials alone; there must be active connections, active opportunities to discuss the relationship between world present and world past. It is not sufficient, for example, in the manner of the California state curriculum, to offer rich treatments of early cultural traditions ­ Confucianism, Buddhism, Islam ­ and then provide little or no time for discussion of how these traditions, or their heirs, operate in the world today. Too often, major developments over the past century are slighted, simply for want of time; or they are presented breathlessly, through factual surveys that fail to highlight major changes and continuities and so fail to help students really use the world history available to them to help grasp the world around them. Too often, talented and diligent leaders in the world history movement devote passionate intensity to the question of where to begin the course, but save little or no energy for the (even more important) question of how to end it effectively. 16
    There are, again, three challenges here. The first is simply time management, which we urge on students but too rarely accept as teachers. There must be enough time in social studies and history courses to grapple seriously with the contemporary world. This may involve, for some, starting with the present and working backward; or making periodic forays from past to present as well as reserving serious space at the end. But whatever the device, the goal must be reached. Second: we have to figure out how to handle the past century without bogging down on the first part. Heresy: decolonization is more important than the Great Depression in understanding the world around us. And in general, the second half of the past century, admittedly incomprehensible without what went before, is more significant than the first half. So we need a fix on the contemporary period as a whole, in order not to bog down in sometimes-dated particulars. And third, we need an analytical framework for the whole contemporary period, its relationship with what preceded it and its possible relationship to what will come next. And students need to be engaged in this vital analytical process. 17
    Step four: in all this, we must manage to emphasize habits of mind that will prepare students to deal with global issues we cannot fully anticipate. We are all familiar with the important mantra: don't enmesh students in so much memorization that we and they lose sight of vital social studies habits and skills. But quite apart from the fact that many of us fall back on memorization despite good intentions, encouraged further by ill-designed, memorization-based state testing requirements, we too often forget to let students deploy their skills on materials that go beyond standard classroom fare. Example: we work with students on using and evaluating historical documents, learning to build arguments, to assess point of view. But do we then turn them loose on contemporary data, to see how they can carry their classroom experiences into work as future citizens? Do we help them see the relationship between deciding on the accuracy of historical data and determining validity for contemporary evidence? 18
    We've widely agreed on essential habits of mind, suitable for operation in a global context. They include the capacity to deal with sources and data; experience in encountering diverse interpretations without losing the capacity to build arguments; active ability and experience in developing comparisons; and the capacity to deal with changes and continuities including those that occur on a global scale. What we need to do further, as social studies and history teachers, is to make sure that students build the relevant skills over time, that they see opportunities to exercise them through a sequence of social studies courses, and that they be opened to the challenge of applying these skills, quite consciously, in dealing with the contemporary world.  19
    Step number five in many ways captures elements of the first four recommendations, and applies them through some specific curricular exercises that could be deployed over several years in middle school and high school: make sure students work on several key global trends and issues that exist today and will almost surely extend to the future. We actually have some useful experience in this genre already, as the following examples will suggest, but we need to extend it. Without drifting into some of the excessive ventures of futurology that once dotted the social studies curriculum, we need to give students the chance to see how their work in the field applies to some of the global problems and opportunities that will surround them in decades to some.   20
    What follow here are examples only, good ones I think but certainly open to additions or replacements: 21
    An obvious issue that connects past to present to future is the global environment, and this has the added merit of having received considerable attention already. Here indeed is a model of the kind of trends and policy challenges that can be explored as part of understanding the wider world, and the United States connection to that world, despite political dispute. Like all major issues as well, environmental concerns call upon a variety of disciplines, including various aspects of history and the social sciences but in this case the physical sciences as well.  22
    A good follow-up to an environmental unit, this one far too frequently neglected in global affairs curricula particularly before the college level, involves population trends ­ continued growth, gender imbalances, differential ageing, migration results and environmental implications all fitting within this vital category.  23
    Number three on my list, again a category that is beginning to receive pedagogical attention, involves the varied phenomena that come under the heading of globalization. Like all the global issues topics, globalization requires an openness to debate, a willingness to process and explain diverse opinions. Differences between gainers and losers (and promoters and protesters) in the globalization process require careful attention ­ an obvious invitation to comparison within and among societies. The historical challenge is considerable as well: is globalization, as many contend, a dramatically new phenomenon or (as some world historians are tending to argue, sometimes without sufficient explicit analysis) is it the latest outcropping of a pattern familiar over at least the past millennium.  24
    Shading off from globalization, but I think interesting in its own right, would be a discussion of human rights and global cultural diversity, a key opportunity to utilize a sense of recent history but juxtaposed with an understanding of the variety of values developed in major societies over a much longer span of time.  25
    Issue 5, in my book, would be an assessment of global balance of power. The world has, after all, proceeded in less than a century from a seemingly Western-dominated framework, to the transient alternative of the Cold War, to the United States' sole superpower status but surrounded by the growing economic and diplomatic clout of societies such as China, India, and Brazil as well as the established industrial states. Future flux is inevitable, and without again pretending to precisely forecast its dimensions and its implications for constructive American policy, this easily warrants focused discussion now. There is opportunity as well to consider the relevance of past historical patterns, in terms of power interactions and resurgences and declines, to contemporary prospects.   26
    The reorientations being suggested here are not inconsiderable, though many of them extend initiatives individual teachers are already undertaking. There are active models for priority number one, the question of global balance, but disputes remain as well. Internationalizing United States coverage is fashionably discussed at present, but there is relatively little movement at the level of real curricula. A fuller contemporary orientation, not at the expense of serious history but as a means of utilizing it more relevantly, is within grasp, but it involves significant changes in teacher habits and orientations ­ again, no small matter. Allowing time for the inculcation and application of habits of mind relevant to global understanding builds on existing trends which, however, require much fuller encouragement. And the idea of global issues units, scattered through the curriculum at various levels, offers some challenges as well.   27
    Many social studies and history teachers, however, are open to a new sense of mission, and the need to prepare a more globally informed citizenry is truly urgent. It is vitally important for teachers at various levels to consider some new experiments and innovations ­ part of the process of global training indeed can easily begin in the primary grades, allowing consideration of a longer sequence to build skills and understandings. The challenge goes beyond teachers themselves, of course. We also need more teacher involvement in curricular discussions with school boards and state officials, to invite these authorities into the process of considering a more globally relevant approach than current standard fare. We need more challenges to the textbook publishers, and more willingness to work around their constraints in the classroom, as we seek to advance some version of the priorities suggested above.   28
    Finally, and this is step six, we need to build the opportunity of a more globally relevant curriculum into a larger argument for the centrality of the social studies in K-12 pedagogy. One of the key reasons that global awareness has lagged in the schools, despite some important efforts at change, involves the downgrading of the social studies and history more generally, seen as relevant neither to basic skills nor to the nation's economic future. Without downgrading the importance either of science or of basic skills (many of which can be honed with the social studies in any event), explorations of the human condition must be a fundamental part of any sound educational program. And the complexity of the global framework within which Americans now operate adds to the urgency.  29
    The nation can point to previous benefits from focused international education. William McNeill has plausibly argued that one of the reasons the United States was able to deal fairly well with European issues, during and after World War II, was the exposure both citizens and leaders had experienced through the traditional Western civilization course. McNeill urges that we need at least as much attention now devoted to the global ­ no longer Western alone ­ framework that currently defines the national horizons. A revitalized, reoriented social studies/history curriculum can and should respond to this challenge ­ the goal is clear, and there are exciting, if demanding, ways to meet it.   30
    Like it or not, the United States will bear disproportionate global responsibilities for the foreseeable future. A corresponding education is vital to assure that we meet the responsibilities with due regard to the interests of humanity and to the best interests of the nation itself.  31
Biographical Note: Peter Stearns is currently provost at George Mason University. He is editor of the Journal of Social History and is the distinguished author of numerous books on world history, including Consumerism in World History , Gender in World History and World History: Patterns of Change and Continuity.   




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