Curriculum Historical Thinking History

Moving from globalizing to decolonizing World History

Globalizing content, however is only one step in decolonizing world history. The next step is reframing the context for this global content.

For years I’ve worked to add material to my World History classes from beyond the confines of the Eurocentric legacy curriculum. Globalizing the topics in my World History classes is important and engaging work; like many World History teachers, my own learning is one of my favorite parts of the job. World History must be global history. I’m glad that the Haitian Revolution, West African trading empires, and the Swahili Coast, to name a few, now play large roles in my classroom. Teaching AP World History for the past five years accelerated this process; I’ve applied lessons from this global course to my on-level classes. Globalizing content, however is only one step in decolonizing world history. The next is reframing the context for more global content.

Adding topics beyond Europe is important, but not enough. If we frame the assertions of dignity of formerly enslaved or indigenous people as products of European ideas; or, if we discuss Qing China and the late Ottoman Empire only through a lens of decline; or, if we include Africans, but only as passive objects of imperialist desire and power, our classes remain colonial spaces. In an era when the President of the United States refers to the homelands of some of my students as “shithole countries”, World History teachers must ensure that all students see themselves reflected in the curriculum at some point, and that when they see historical actors with whom they identify those actors clearly possess agency and dignity.

Topics where the legacy course intersects substantially with topics of global importance are key sites for reframing World History, especially when one such topic follows another, such as modern imperialism and World War One (image below). Otherwise, more global content appears as appendages to the main (Eurocentric) narrative, like the content in brown or pink boxes off to one side in history textbooks. This summer I will be developing materials on Global 1919 to present at Minnesota History Fest on August 6th (registration now open for the 4th annual, always epic, conference) as part of this work. Students in World History courses should see interregional connections in all topics. Moreover, I want my students, especially those from historically marginalized groups, to see the agency of all historical actors. Including events like the Tupac Amaru Rebellion is important, and students should people like Micaela Bastidas Puyucahua and her husband, who took the name Tupac Amaru II, as individuals operating in their own contexts. This means actively disrupting Eurocentric colonization of narratives both inside and outside the legacy curriculum.

Annamese soldiers from French Indochina disembark from a train in France during World War One. The War was truly global. Source: The Atlantic.

Decolonizing vs. Globalizing, the Haitian Revolution

My experiences teaching the Haitian Revolution show this progression from globalizing to decolonizing. I began working on the Toussaint L’ouverture lesson seven years ago as part of a an online teaching class. The lesson combined my interests in student construction of historical knowledge and globalizing World History. I’m glad that the topic has become more common in World History classes, and the lesson is among the most visited pages on this site.

The lesson is ripe for decolonizing, though, and I approach the Haitian Revolution differently now. The lesson is still up with a link to decolonizing the Age of Revolutions at the top as an example of a history lab and as introduction to the topic for people globalizing their courses. Some students struggle to read the sources critically and thus accept the racism within them. Guiding students identifying and analyzing sourcing biases as an aspect of decolonizing world history. Teachers doing the lesson need to take the time to do this work with their students if necessary.

Since creating this lesson I have also worked to understand and share with students the complexities of the popular revolution in French St. Domingue that created the Republic of Haiti. I am lucky to have found many outstanding teachers on the #whaphat community on Twitter with whom to collaborate. This interest and collective inspiration led me to Christina Mobley’s dissertation on African cultural influences in the Haitian Revolution. Mobley’s dissertation begins with the idea that Africans in Haiti had strong cultural connections to their homeland, including the Kingdom of the Kongo. Mobley’s description of her research struck me:

“… in order to uncover the deep history of the Kongolese in Saint Domingue, I had to uncover the deep history of the Loango Coast and Mayombe rainforest. In short, I realized that in order to do Atlantic history, I had to do African history.” (7)

This quotation is a window into how institutionalized racism works in history education, and how and why we need to decolonize world history. Most history teachers in the US have “done” Western Civilization courses, and without purposeful intervention, we learn new content in that context. The legacy world history curriculum did not “do African history,” so the Haitian Revolution is “done” within the context of the French Revolution. Moreover, high school teachers present history as settled fact, rather than doing it with our students, which creates even less space for rethinking received narratives.

The Way Forward

We must decolonize the World History course now in order to produce better, more global state standards and curriculum frameworks in future. This is not just about the very important task of making the next generation more globally literate, but is also about changing the understandings of the current generation of World History educators. Doing so is only way to stop educators from feeding the western civ that they learned in high school back into our curricular systems.

Fortunately, world history teachers are curious by nature. Many embarked on this career path because we like learning. No one knows close to enough when they begin teaching this subject. The challenge is to keep learning and to reframe what we already know in terms of our new understandings. Otherwise our incremental globalization of the curriculum–adding Swahili and Toussaint and the March 1st Movement in Korea–is not enough. Because if we do not adjust our narratives the Swahili will be colonized by Arabic and Toussaint’s leadership will somehow originate in a Parisian salon and discussion of nationalist Koreans will quickly return to Versailles.

Making these adjustments also means increasing the grain size of information from the many specific events of the legacy curriculum to the more thematic approach of World History.The Western Front in World War is still important, for instance  but fewer details are essential. Without adjusting granularity teachers who globalize world history face a dual burden of conveying the details of legacy narrative and adding content from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Oceania. This is difficult, but stimulating work. It is best done together, which is why I remain grateful to work in many collaborative spaces online and off. Together we can decolonize World History and create a nourishing learning space for all of our students.

UPDATE: I continued this thinking in subsequent posts

  1. It’s Not AP Euro, on the difference between Eurocentrism and actual European History
  2. 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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