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Colonial Legacies in World History Courses

A legacy course haunts contemporary World History classes.

The Legacy Curriculum

A legacy course haunts contemporary World History classes. I see it in district curriculum meetings and Facebook groups. Recognizing and exorcising this specter may be more important for decolonizing the study of World History than adding content from previously marginalized regions. Eurocentrism is as much about framing as it is about content. Both must be global.

Middle-aged white man in a T shirt saying "Decolonize your syllabus"
Thanks to Bram Hubbell for introducing me to this shirt from Yvette Chavez

By “legacy course” I mean educators’ expectations of what World History should be and include. It’s an artifact of earlier “General History,” “Western Civilization,” and “World History” courses based on a rise of the West narrative. Most of today’s teachers  took these courses as students; and, they informed previous courses in our work sites, including formal curriculum, purchased resources, and established practices. Collective experiences with these classes generally construct a World History course built onto a frame of Western history. Additional content is articulated through connections to or comparisons with the European experience. I see this most clearly in state standards that use a scope and sequence for World History that is clearly drawn from Western Civilization curricula.

The legacy course perpetuates itself through these state standards. Educators on state curriculum committees bring their experiences with what is and has been taught to bear on the question of what should be taught. The legacy course influences what they deem important. The process recurs at the building and district levels, reinforced by the Eurocentric state standards  The legacy course colonizes updated World History curricula because it functions as the default narrative. Without conscious intervention this legacy course haunts all teacher collaborations in World History. We must exorcise it in order to decolonize the course.

Different understandings of historical knowledge

Epistemology and pedagogy also sustain the legacy curricula. Many teachers understand historical knowledge as a set of mostly settled facts that form clear narratives. In this view teacher expertise comes from amassing facts and helping students to do the same. Such an epistemic stance inhibits change, as teachers resists challenges to source authority. Viewing historical knowledge production itself as the important process leaves us flexible, on the other hand.

This conflict is visible in the ongoing conversations over the “scramble for Africa” simulation. Some defenders justify the activity as an effective way to communicate an important development. This presupposes that the “scramble” represents a discrete development that students should understand, instead of one deeply problematic term for a limited moment in the long history of African-European actions. Viewing history as a set of static and knowable facts about the past, with the “scramble” as one, limits reconsideration of the dynamics of imperialism in Africa. Additionally, the desire to use an activity that many kids seem to enjoy contributes to an attachment to this presumed history. Consider Bram Hubbell’s recommendation to reframe this history by abandoning the title “scramble” as inaccurate and inappropriate. Instead, Bram invites students to investigate a core event in European imperialism in Africa, the 1884 Berlin Conference. Students unpack and analyze representations of this event. Viewing historical knowledge as constructed, not only creates a more dynamic intellectual environment for students, it also opens space for teachers to reconsider received narratives.

When high school teachers who view the past as a settled set of knowable facts interact with professional historians tragicomedy can ensue.  This one time at an excellent AP European History summer institute several years ago, I witnessed a high school teacher attempting to argue about the Munich Conference with a historian who was reviewing their recent research on it with us. The teacher’s assumption that they shared a common factual basis with an academic specialist was deeply mistaken. Epistemological confusion created an embarrassing moment while demonstrating how confidence in the power of a memorized assortment of facts can be unshakable.

Interrupting institutionalized racism

In World History confidence in the legacy course institutionalizes racism through its claim to authority. Dr. Keith Mayes observes that whiteness in social studies courses functions as a discourse of certainty. Hearing this comment from Dr. Mayes brought to mind curricular conversations with World History teachers in my district convinced that particular elements of the legacy course, such as the Renaissance, cannot be omitted from World History without making subsequent events unintelligible. (Never mind that we’re more than four decades past Joan Kelly-Godoy’s “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” and we should be comfortable with interrogating the idea of a “Renaissance”) On another occasion, a veteran teacher claimed that the Arab Spring is best understood as a product of the European Enlightenment. (Never mind that many Egyptian protesters would have rejected the Enlightenment’s secularism). When such causal relationships are not plausible, teachers often attach historical developments outside of Europe to Eurocentric schema, by comparing ancient empires in Asia to Rome or by ascribing rebellions in the Atlantic World to the Enlightenment.

Nearly three decades of experience discussing World History curriculum working in and beyond two large school districts in two states inform the characterizations above. My current building team has added a lot of global content to our World History course over the past decade, but we still struggle to frame the course equitably. Adopting AP World History five years ago informs much of this work, and our on-level World History classes are much better because of the knowledge and skills gained from this wonderful class. But, the legacy course is no stranger to the course to discussion about AP World History. On the very helpful teachers’ Facebook page for the globally-framed course, participants requests for resources seem to be more often for topics drawn from Western Civ than not. And, in conversations many teachers argue for the instrumental worth of developments drawn from Western Civ. For instance, I’ve read arguments that studying the Reformation has explanatory power for World History that I’ve never seen attributed to schisms in Islam or Buddhism. World history teachers there and elsewhere certainly value covering non-European topics, but these topics seem much less likely to be defended as essential.

World history teachers must confront the often inflexible legacy of previous World History courses. This is what I mean when I say we need to decolonize this course.  This does not mean eliminating European content, of course. It does mean seeing European history as part of global developments, instead of the other way around.

UPDATE: I continued this train of thought in three subsequent posts:

  1. Moving from globalizing to decolonizing World History
  2. It’s Not AP Euro, on the difference between Eurocentrism and actual European History
  3. Decolonizing AP World History: Modern

By Eric Beckman

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

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