Curriculum History

Decolonizing the Age of Revolutions in the World History Classroom

Bussa Emancipation statue in Bridgetown, Barbados. Thanks to Dig History Podcast and Bram Hubbell for bringing the Bussa Rebellion to my attention. Image from Wikipedia.

Like World War One and the “New” Imperialism of the late nineteenth-century, the Age of Revolution is a justifiably prominent topic in both World History and Western Civilization courses. The American, French, and Haitian Revolutions, and the Latin American Wars of Independence created major change across the Atlantic World. As a topic taught in the legacy curriculum, World History teachers need to work to decolonize our presentation of this era. Interrupting institutionalized racism requires us to question received narratives. Decolonizing the Age of Revolutions should include complicating the role of the Enlightenment as a “cause” of revolutions around the world during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and emphasis on a global cast of historical actors. The first requires many of us to interrogate our textbooks. For instance, Bentley and Ziegler’s Traditions and Encounters (4th ed.), the adopted textbook for AP World History in the school district in which I teach, foregrounds the Enlightenment:

Beginning of chapter 28 in Traditions and Encounters

This opening places the reader into a “European tunnel of time,”1 in which the Enlightenment is a key segment of the route from past to present. This frames the Revolutions as discreet events with clearly understood causes and effects. I find this emphasis on the European Enlightenment to be not not so much wrong as incomplete. Enlightenment writings clearly contributed to revolutionary rhetoric in the Americas and Europe. As with late nineteenth-century imperialism, however, neatly dividing a topic into causes and effects is problematic. “Enlightenment” is a broad label that includes many contradictory lines of political thought. Quintessential Enlightenment figures Immanuel Kant and Voltaire contributed to the absolutist projects of Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great, for instance; while, John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau contributed justifications for rebellion against monarchy. Enlightenment ideas about rational government were part of the context for the Bourbon reforms that triggered rebellions in the Spanish colonies starting in the 1780s, but also providing justifications used by some rebels. Even within the realm of pure ideas, the Enlightenment cut several different ways.

Moreover, revolutionaries responded to material realities in addition to ideas. Revolting slaves and maroon communities in Jamaica took action to maximize their personal liberty. They did not need to read any social contract theory to establish their freedom. Students who see themselves in Haitian revolutionaries, Andean rebels, or Pontiac’s warriors should be encouraged to see those figures acting of their own volition, not in imitation of European intellectuals. Decolonizing our teaching of the Age of Revolutions requires us to question framing the Age of Revolutions with the Enlightenment.

Additionally, given the origins of modern political ideologies in the Age of Revolution, understanding these ideologies as expressions of material interests is an important reckoning with our current political world. As I’ve written before I want my students to understand that ideas are not the sole drivers of social movements and conflicts. Political conflicts are not just collisions of opinion. To suggest that they are requires a position of privilege, or the assumption that privilege protects one from political violence.

The AP World History curriculum includes the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions and the Latin American Wars of Independence. Our aim should be for students to understand these Revolutions, without reifying Eurocentrism. I propose three key actions:

  • Complicate the Enlightenment, by explaining how European rationalism cut both for and against human equality in thought and politics
  • Center Haiti, since it brings together Enlightenment and non-Enlightenment elements
  • Globalize coverage, with at least one other set of revolutionary action from Africa, the African diaspora, and/or indigenous America

These actions should accompany an overview of revolutionary upheavals in the Americas, France, and Haiti. Students should read excerpts from the American Declaration of Independence and Bolivar’s “Jamaica Letter” and Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. But, they should read them critically and note how they advanced the material interests of only some. I am currently considering using an online discussion in which students put these documents and their contexts into dialogue with revolutionary actions in Africa, the Caribbean, and across indigenous America. I am very open to suggestions, comments, and questions.

Update: Resources and lesson ideas on this page, which I will occasionally update with new material




Centering Haiti

Indigenous North America

  • Colin Calloway’s chapter “Red Power and Homeland Security: Native Nations and the Limits of Empire in the Ohio Country” in the book Facing Empire contains a useful summary of Pontiac’s Rebellion starting on p. 145 (Google ebook preview does not include this chapter).
  • The editors of Facing Empire–Kate Fullager and Michael A. McDonnell–blogged about the book on the invaluable Age of Revolutions site, as part of a series on “Native American Revolutions.”

Indigenous South America

1 Phrase from James Blaut quoted in the Introduction to The new world history: a field guide for teachers and researchers by Dunn, Ross E., Laura J. Mitchell, and Kerry Ward.  Oakland, CA, University of California Press, 2016. p. 2

By Eric Beckman

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

5 replies on “Decolonizing the Age of Revolutions in the World History Classroom”

Thank you for this! Am hoping to work through some of these sources in the coming weeks. Love the idea of “complicating the Enlightenment.”

Thanks for reading, Cynthia! I would love to hear how the materials work. I’m starting this unit tomorrow and will be using some resources for the first time. The slides for complicating the Enlightenment are linked and embedded on the Resources and Lesson Ideas page. I will update that page with new resources. Please let me know if you have any suggestions.

Let me know what you think!

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