New AP exam gives world history some cachet
United States history usually attracts its share of the limelight as a school subject. Politically charged debates erupt over whose story is told; and how much patriotism should filter into class discussions is a perennial concern. Congress even weighs in, most recently by allocating some $150 million to boost the teaching of US history in schools.
But what about its cousin, world history? Still in the shadows, in many cases.
When it comes to studying the world, "people just don't get so riled up if we, say, skip right over 14th-century west Africa," says Ross Dunn, a history professor at San Diego State University in California.
That's changing, however. During the past decade, schools have started to peer beyond the parochial perspective. Sept. 11, of course, accelerated the shift. And yesterday, the world-history movement achieved a milestone: Some 20,000 high-schoolers filled in bubbles and scribbled out essays for the debut of the world-history advanced-placement test.
The AP exams, administered by the New York-based College Board, have become an important ingredient in college admissions. For decades, they've been offered in US history and European history not to mention more-esoteric subjects like French literature and Latin.
But now students have a chance to show off their knowledge of, say, Africa or Asia. It's an opportunity that has resulted from new directions in higher education, says Despina Danos, a representative for Educational Testing Service, which creates the tests.
"Just in the past decade or so, colleges started offering introductory courses in world history," she says.
"Before that they offered Western civilization ... and then started supplementing it with survey courses on Asia or Africa or Latin America."
During that time, a handful of PhD programs in world history also started up and high schools started taking their cue. "People are finally realizing the importance of knowledge of world history in America's schools," says Dr. Dunn.
At the grade-school level, a 1994 movement for national standards in most subjects, though hotly debated at the time, resulted in many states designating more hours for the teaching of world history, Dunn says.
Beyond a more standardized curriculum, changes in the US population have paved the way for the new focus. "European history no longer reflects students' ancestry as much," says Patrick Manning, director of the World History Center at Northeastern University in Boston.
It hasn't been easy, however, to decide what to include in the subject's daunting span between Plato and NATO.
In Massachusetts, for instance, a group of educators and elected officials recently protested the removal of portions of African and Latin American history from the state's proposed curriculum standards for seventh-graders.
Barbara Brown, who works with teachers in a Boston University program that focuses on Africa's importance in world history, says the state's effort to streamline the subject makes it Eurocentric. "Now, students will first encounter Africans as slaves and Latin Americans as conquered," she says. "They're being taught that nothing of historical value happened in Africa or Latin America."
Many conservatives counter that students should first have a strong understanding of the Western civilization on which the US was founded.
A recent study by two Columbia University professors, for example, criticizes New York City's smaller schools for focusing on the history of the Bronx and the Harlem Renaissance stealing time from topics such as the American Revolution and World War I.
Beyond content, debates also simmer over whether it's best to teach world history chronologically or based upon themes.
The AP test opts for themes from the years 1000 to 2000. "Students won't need to know who the emperor of China was in 1033, but they'll need to know how the role of the emperor wove into the structure of society," Ms. Danos says.
Essay questions, she says, might ask students to compare feudalism in Europe and Japan, or to contrast the American, French, and Chinese revolutions.
But despite attempts at a more global outlook, most current teachers grew up with a Eurocentric curriculum, and few college-level education programs are helping them fill in the blanks (see story, below).
"Now, the problem is not so much with teaching materials as it is with the teachers themselves most of whom have never even had a course in world history and now have to quickly educate themselves to teach it," says Northeastern's Dr. Manning.
For the past two summers, the College Board has offered training courses to help teachers better prepare students. Deborah Johnston, who taught the course at Northeastern last summer, says it can be a challenge: "For many teachers, it's been like having to learn a whole new language."
During a sunny Saturday last month, 60 teachers from Massachusetts middle schools and high schools filed into a classroom for an unusual course: a day-long session on civil wars in Africa.
The eager learners gathered at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass., which holds one of many teacher-training programs aimed at building global perspectives into American school curriculums.
One lecture detailed how the ethnic divide between Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi had roots in colonialization by Western countries such as Belgium.
"The information about Burundi was new and fascinating to me," says world- history teacher Zachary Simmons, from Haverhill (Mass.) High School. "Having the chance to attend programs like these is what keeps me intellectually stimulated." The Tufts course, held on three Saturdays during the year, started in 1998. This year's topic was civil wars, not only in Africa, but in Europe and in the US as well.
John Craven, a first-year history teacher at the same school, says the opportunity to gain fresh teaching material is invaluable. "So far, I have felt confined to the textbooks, which have a narrow span of world history, so I'm glad I now have something to supplement them with."