This week many AP World and AP European History teachers are gathering in Kansas City to score exams. In the past I’ve joined them, but this year I’m in Minnesota finishing the school year and grading short-answer questions remotely. Like Eurocentric World History this experience combines the disadvantages of its constituent parts. With reading from home that means lots of very repetitive reading combined with a lost opportunity to chat with amazing history teachers from around the country. Serious FOMO, as the kids say, with regard to the latter.
Teaching and Learning in AP Euro
I taught AP European History for eleven years before taking on AP World in 2014; and, despite what some might guess based on my ranting against Eurocentrism in World History, I think the class has a lot to offer students and teachers. I am glad that my district switched to AP World as the course meeting the state requirement for World History, but I think AP Euro is an excellent elective or side project for advanced students.
The four summer institutes for AP European History that I attended all rank among the best professional development that I have had in three decades as social studies teacher. The teachers and professors at these institutes demonstrated the complexities and contingencies of European History. Teaching AP Euro taught me a lot about historical thinking, including how high school students can analyze race, class, and gender. The study of any topic can be decolonized, even, or perhaps especially, colonialism itself.
Recent changes to the official AP World Course and Exam have prompted some teachers and students to compare the new AP World History: Modern course to AP Euro, because the periodization and unit guides reflect the legacy curriculum. But it’s far from the same; it’s much worse. For me, Eurocentric World History is like scoring SAQs at home: the worst of both worlds. It combines the main disadvantages of European history—only covering part of the World—and of World History—limited time to dig into specific developments. The result is outdated version of European history narrating the history of the entire World.
Fossilized Western Civ isn’t European History
More on AP World: Modern later. Here, I want to note aspects of the legacy curriculum in World History and Western Civilization that sharply diverge from the actual practice of European History.
The narrative of the rise of Western Civilization included in the legacy curriculum seems to my amateur eyes to be nearly a half century old. Eurocentric state standards, including the influential Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for High School present topics such as feudalism, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment, as if they were crystallized in amber c. 1970 CE.
Take feudalism. The TEKS require students to “describe the major characteristics of and the factors contributing to the development of the political/social system of feudalism and the economic system of manorialism” (emphasis added). In a seminal essay published early in the Ford administration, Elizabeth A. R. Brown noted that “Historians have for years harbored doubts about the term ‘feudalism’ and the phrase ‘feudal system’ which has often been used as a synonym for it.” Next, Brown quoted a nineteenth-century historian criticizing “feudalism” as an outdated construct popularized by eighteenth-century antiquarians. Brown’s dismissal of simplistic notions of “fedual systems” has become standard in the field. Paul Halsall, internet hero to millions, observes that this criticism of feudalism remains the consensus of historians. Dr. Philip Adamo, historian of medieval Europe, expertly explained this during an APSI in 2008. Ironically, understandings of feudal or manorial “systems” propagated in American secondary schools are more in line simplified Marxist schema than the practices of European historians.
While the legacy curriculum’s construction of a European “Renaissance” is quite dated in other ways. Dr. Joan Kelly’s influential “Did women have a Renaissance?” challenged simplistic conceptions that elided women’s lives during this period. Kelly began working on these ideas before the average American teacher teacher was born, yet many history teachers impart vast explanatory power to an uncomplicated idea of “the Renaissance.” The TEKS, for instance, require students to “explain the political, intellectual, artistic, economic, and religious impact of the Renaissance.” That is A LOT of explanatory power for a construct that debuted in the nineteenth century. I don’t think that “entrenching the patriarchy” is an answer being sought.
A World History course might engage with European Renaissances by situating it globally. Bram Hubbell has excellent suggestions and great images for this work. We can do the same with key European texts. Like many AP Euro teachers I assigned Pico della Mirandola’s, “Oration on the Dignity of Man.” In discussion students often noted the diversity of Mirandola’s citations. The opening to an excerpt from the Oration posted by Dr. Paul Brians, a retired Literature, Humanities, and World Civilizations professor professor. provides an excellent example. Mirandola writes:
I once read that Abdala the Muslim, when asked what was most worthy of awe and wonder in this theater of the world, answered, “There is nothing to see more wonderful than man!” Hermes Trismegistus [early first millenium Egyptian] concurs with this opinion: “A great miracle, Asclepius, is man!”
Renaissance humanists themselves contextualized their own work within a broader Afro-Eurasian intellectual world.
Oversimplification and overconfidence typify Eurocentric World History’s use of artifacts from Western Civ. I’ve previously written about complicating notions of a European Enlightenment. The basis for this critique, and its limits, came to my attention at my first APSI for European history. In 2004, Dr. Sussanah Ottaway, scholar of Early Modern European social, cultural & intellectual history, explained the multivalence of “the Enlightenment,” in way that I am encouraging others to bring to bear on the Age of Revolutions in World History.
The Task Before Us
Of course, just because AP European History classes can and should problematize ideas such as “feudalism,” “Renaissance,” and “Enlightenment,” does not mean that they do. But, if they do not it is not because they study Europe. It’s because they do not do so critically. All teachers have an obligation to stay up to date in the field. As the references above demonstrate this includes bearing in mind that #WomenAlsoKnowHistory (an excellent hashtag for this work).
In World and European Histories, not only do we need to include much more than old chestnuts from Western Civ, but we also must recognize how the study of these developments has evolved over the past five decades. This scholarship deepens and broadens the field, simultaneously making it more accurate and more inclusive.
The stakes are high. Colonized curriculum oppresses students of color. I shared an early version of this post on the problems with racist imagery in textbook chapters on colonialism with a very bright AP World History student was preparing for the AP Euro exam on the side. They commented that the consideration of colonialism in Africa was much more nuanced and humane in the Euro text (McKay, 9e) than in our World History text (Bentley, 5e). I agreed, and I share this observation with students each year before beginning the imperialism chapter.
The answer is not to replace World History with European History. Instead, World History courses should incorporate the best of European History. Remotely grading SAQs, but in hammock at dusk, may be a model for the way forward.
NOTE: This post was third in a series of four on decolonizing World History. The fourth is “Decolonizing AP World History: Modern”