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Curriculum History

What is World History?

The idea of “World History” is relatively new.

Emigrants du Globe
“Emigrants du Globe” 1858 French map showing emigration from Europe around the world. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Digging into the discourse around World History curriculum the question, “What is World History?” recurs.  Interesting to me, since I’ve been teaching courses called World History, Modern Global Studies, or Global Studies for more than 20 years.  This question seems different from the “what should ____ History course include?” conversation that is part of any curricular discussion.   Using web resources curated by David C. Fisher for an upper division undergrad seminar that came to my attention in the World History Bulletin (Fall 2012), I’m learning that the idea of “World History” is relatively new, originating in the 1980s.  This fits with my personal experience of taking “Western Civilization” as a 10th grader in 1982 and then teaching “World History” to 9th graders in 1990.  The consensus that emerges seems to be that “World History” is not the same thing as the histories of parts of the world, which is roughly what the Global Studies course that I currently teach is designed to be, but instead is more thematic, analytic, and comparative.

Conceiving of “World History” as based on large, global themes is prompting me to rethink the new MN Social Studies standards.  Initially part of my reaction was distress that the new World History standards covered the time from 100,000 before present to present.  I’ve always been an advocate for shrinking the temporal and spatial area of study in history classes in order to go into greater depth.  Given the overwhelming breadth of “World History”, practitioners reach this same end by panning out for a much broader view of history.  Students are required to master themes, but not all of the possible underlying examples.  This allows for development of higher levels of thinking, especially comparisons and development of change over time (not coincidentally these are two of three  AP World History free-response question frames) and for the development of history labs that dig into particular examples of a broader theme, such as Toussaint L’Overture and the themes of revolution, rights, and freedom.   Deborah Smith-Johnson’s mind map of “Approaches to World History” includes the admonition that World History is neither thousands of specifics dates nor Western Civ plus area studies.  My aim is to avoid these shallow approaches and to create a World History curriculum that engages students in higher level thinking of global themes and routinely asks them to construct historical knowledge using primary sources.

This approach would be particularly appropriate for teaching online, where students should be encouraged to construct their own meaningful interpretations of history.  I am hoping to have the opportunity to design an online global studies course that guides students in constructing knowledge through comparisons across space and time and with history labs which engage students in uncovering history.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

Let me know what you think!

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