Curriculum History

Decolonizing AP World History: Modern

We can decolonize AP World: Modern from within. To do so, we must reject the new Unit Guides which center the outdated Western Civ of the legacy curriculum.

Note: This post is the fourth in a series on world history curricula. The previous three posts broadly consider high school World History courses.

Here, I focus on the recently released Course and Exam Description (henceforth CED) for the new Advanced Placement World History: Modern. This class has yet to be taught, but already needs to be decolonized. I encourage AP World History teachers to start doing so upon opening their new CED binders this week. Fortunately, we can decolonize AP World: Modern from within, using the global and inclusive material that remains in the CED. But to do so, we must reject the new Unit Guides which center the outdated Western Civ of the legacy curriculum. We should reject this framing and maintain a global, inclusive course.

Worse than we feared

Last summer the College Board claimed that teachers’ felt overwhelmed by the content load of AP World History, and that this was the impetus for amputating the first half of the course. World Historians and many AP World History teachers feared that these changes would make the course more Eurocentric, because 1450 CE, the original start date for the redesigned class, was just prior to rising European influence around the world. This concern was a a driving factor in the #SaveAPWorld movement last summer. In the discourse around the announced redesign, many teachers and historians accurately argued that we can and should teach modern World History without centering “Western Civilization.” Unfortunately, the Eurocentric framing of AP World History: Modern seems designed to make the course more approachable for people only familiar with legacy curricula, but this separates it from World History as discipline and will make it less inviting for students who do not see themselves in European historical actors.

Suggested units for AP World History: Modern (CED p. 18). World History teachers should reject these.

Units Four through Eight from the new CED narrate the rise of the West from 1450 CE, the intended start date for AP World History: Modern. Thus, the rest of the World is depicted in relation to this development. Unit 3, Land-Based Empires c. 1450- c. 1750, sets the scene: central and eastern Eurasian land powers for this triumph. The next four units use European developments as keynotes. It’s a trip through the “European tunnel of time”1, narrating History like I’m back in Western Civ, c. 1983: Age of Discovery (4.1), Age of Enlightenment (5.1), Causes of Imperialism (6.1), World Powers (7.1), and World War I (7.2). Unit eight does begin in the Global South with anti-imperialist movements, but explicitly as context for the Cold War, the subject of the next four topics. The final unit, Globalization begins with technological developments produced in the Global North.

All or nearly all of the topics listed for these units could be addressed using the 6th edition of Palmer and Colton, A History of the Modern World, that I found in a storage room at school this year, excepting developments in unit nine that occured after its publication in 1984. Note: despite the title this is a classic European History textbook, not a history of the actual world.

All of these topics need to be decolonized. For instance, earlier this year I addressed the need to complicate the Enlightenment when proclaiming an “Age of Revolutions” as a World History topic. Similarly, #whapchat on Twitter discussed situating European ocean voyaging in the context of global sailing. Follow the exchange by clicking on the time stamp in George’s tweet for a useful resource page. Bram’s writing is on Liberating Narratives.

For me, the most curious element of the new Units is how they completely enfold modern imperialism into European history, first industrialization (Unit 6) and then the Cold War (Unit 8). These were key elements of colonialism, of course, but this framing elides important dynamics. It eliminates the choices made by colonized peoples, while also burying the horrific impacts of modern imperialism. As I’ve written attributing colonialism to clearly identifiable “causes” is problematic: erases the agency of colonized peoples, contributes to narratives of inevitability, and short-circuits possibilities for more complex thinking about the history of race.

Furthermore, using “causes” to explain imperialism does not hold up to historical scrutiny. Topic 6.1 “Rationales for Imperialism” starts with Social Darwinism, which didn’t exist until the late 1800s, well after the beginning of the time period used for the topic, c. 1750 – c. 1900 CE. Social Darwinism was at least as much of an effect of imperialism as a cause. This anachronistic framing discourages teachers and students from considering the history of racial ideas and occludes the imperialism of the first three quarters of the nineteenth century.

Privileging the Cold War as the key context for decolonization represents a different type of anachronism. This framing made much more sense when the Berlin Wall was still standing and I was a high school student (see image below). In 2019 with issues of post- and neo-colonialism still significant global dynamics history teachers should consider decolonization, especially the efforts of the colonized, as having their own dynamics. In addition, why do we not study the seeds of decline for the European maritime empires in the twentieth century, as we do for the Ottomans and the Qing in the nineteenth century? The successor states to all of latter—Turkey and the PRC—are as globally significant as France and Britain and much more than Portugal and Italy.

From the Table of Contents, Palmer and Colton, 1984.
I’m hoping to read Erased this summer.

The position of modern imperialism in the new AP World History: Modern interests me in another way. In a recent episode of Historias by the Southeastern Council of Latin American students (a great resource for World History teachers) Dr. Marixa Lasso, notes that “Western Civilization” as a discourse was constructed at the same time as the Panama Canal. The creaters of Western Civ’s narratives erased Latin American roles in creating elements of Western traditions such as republicanism. Lasso’s new book Erased looks at how Panamanian communities and their histories were erased by US colonization of the canal zone. Here we are more the 100 years later and the College Board, an organization which claims inclusion of students from historically marginalized groups as a priority, is minimizing the roles played historical actors from such groups.

The curricular cart is now leading the horse

So, how did we get to this absurd position? Though many teachers did find the volume of content in AP World History burdensome, I never sensed a groundswell of educators pushing to jettison the first two or three periods of the course in order to reboot Western Civ II. Page 6 (below) of the CED for AP World: Modern may provide an answer along with additional questions.

Highlight added.

The “Instructional Plan” for this new course uses “commonly taught units.” Given that these units depart from the curriculum frameworks from AP World History’s first 18 years, the question is where are these being commonly taught? College syllabi do not seem to be the source, either, despite the College Board’s argument that an AP World History: Modern would be more in line with current practice in higher education (academic readers: please correct me if I’m wrong). Of course, creating the class against the advice of most leading World Historians already belied this rationale. I presume that these units are commonly taught by high school teachers following the legacy curriculum for World History, and for some this is probably more because of Eurocentric state standards than to their own sense of history.

The use of “commonly taught” thus explains how outdated terms like “feudalism” and “manorial system” not only survived another revision, but also, in the case of the former, take pride of place as the answer to the first sample question in the new CED (p. 201). This question stretches a quotation from a Hungarian monarch to show evidence of feudalism. Kicker: the word “feudal” is not necessary to make the answer correct—”numerous states” would also be correct.

In fact all of the stimuli for the sample exam questions have at least one connection to the West. An Ottoman example includes the European city o Constantinople/Istanbul and a Japan example is about managing contact with the West. The others all from European or US sources. It is hard not to see these selections as encouragement for teachers uncomfortable with more global topics to teach the course.

We can decolonize this Curriculum and Exam Description

When I first noted the fascination with the West evident in the sample questions, Mrs. Byars responded sagely.

Eliminating most of World History before 1200 CE did create an opportunity, as any disruption does. I suspect that the College Board viewed this as an opportunity to make the course more popular, instead of to make it better. Whether or not this is the case, teachers who are committed to teaching a global, inclusive World History can use this opportunity to do so. While I am saddened that AP World History: Modern is framed to continue rather than to interrupt white supremacy in the social studies, I can and will encourage others to take the good and decolonize the bad from this new course.

Lean into Units 1 and 2

I am heartened that that the portion of the new course created in response to #SaveAPWorld—Units 1 and 2—is the most global and inclusive. Both units begin and focus outside of Europe. Combined with covering continuities from before 1200 CE the opening month of the course should be robustly global, if this approach is augmented with a little more material from the Americas and Oceania.

Reject the suggested units

The most important step toward decolonizing AP World History: Modern will be ignoring or at least problematizing the unit structure. The existing Key Concepts remain a superior system for organizing World History. Not only are they globally oriented, but they are more faithful to World History as an academic discipline, which emphasizes connections and comparisons. We should not center these connections on a legacy narrative that evolved, in part, to erase the achievements of people from the Global South. Teachers can use the Key Concepts from the former Periods 3-6 in combination with their existing textbooks to teach a global class. World History teacher Reuben Henriques put together a very useful resource that shows the additions and subtractions in the context of the existing Key Concepts. I encourage people to literally deconstruct the new units into individual topics and arrange those with the key concepts.

Teachers who cannot jettison the new unit structure should openly critique it with students. In fact we should do some of this with students with any geographic labels or periodization. Similar to how approach geographic regions at the beginning of the year.In an advanced course students shuold see how the subject is complicated and that summarizing it inevitably distorts it. For instance, students should be able to identify Africa , Asia, and Europe on a map, but I also what them to see how these labels are problematic and how other locations, like the Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean are more useful. I start my AP World History classes with these slides as a way of modeling how things are complicated and have histories.

Use uniform granularity for developments across the world

Focusing on European developments as the drivers of World History encourages teachers to treat European history in greater specificity, such as considering the Renaissance in detail while summarizing Neo-Confuncianism, The resulting smaller grain size for Western history makes it a bigger part of the courses. Teachers thus remain attached to familiar details from Western Civ while sharing plans for covering Africa, for example, in a day or two. History should focus on broad trends and interactions, otherwise the course comes out of balance. We can and should use similar granularity for developments around the world

Develop more content for previously marginalized areas and topics

Compressing the time frame, as Mrs. Byars notes, could allow for more breadth of examples or approaches. For me, this means that I am committed to adding more content related to the Global South and to women and gender. On the latter topic, I’m excited to use some articles curated by Jason Fernandes.

Despite the Eurasian focus of the official units, the shortened time frame can provide space for greater geographic coverage. For instance, the CED lists the Songhai Empire as an illustrative example twice in the Land-Based Empires unit (3.1 and 3.2). Adding it to Mali would create depth for West African history. The land-based Asante Kingdom gets a mention,too, ironically in the Maritime Empire unit, and allows extension of West African sovereignty into the late nineteenth century. For me, using the full breadth of illustrative examples will mean more from Latin America and Southeast Asia, along with deepening my coverage of Africa.

Teachers have the agency, as wise AP World veteran noted on Facebook, to teach a true World History course. The components of such a course remain, and some of the new illustrative examples can help this project. As I work on this with collaborators on- and off-line I will post updates and recommendations. Join me.

1 Term originally from geographer and anthropologist James Blaut quoted in the Introduction, p. 2, to The new world history: a field guide for teachers and researchers, Ross Dunn, Laura Mitchell, and Kerry Ward. I discuss this concept and its implications for World History in “World History Must Be Global History.”

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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