Dilemma of Teaching World History

HOW to integrate into the history curriculum the many cultural traditions in the US is a burning issue in schools and colleges. The complications of the issue were seen at a conference of educators on "Rethinking World History: Globalizing the Curriculum" held in Washington this month. First come practical problems of finding time, especially in the secondary schools, to give adequate scope to the subject. It must compete with mandated subjects and extracurricular activities. Even more serious questions involve content. How, for example, to portray the impact on the American continent of Columbus's voyages? Or how to recognize the role of native Americans in the first Thanksgiving Day?

Historians attending the conference urged a departure from a concept of history based on the development of a single race or region to one that is truly global. They stressed that the story of humankind is one of the interlinking and interaction of peoples who moved across a single globe; even the "nativesdiscovered" by Columbus in the New World had originally migrated from Asia. Despite this, as one speaker pointed out, peoples whose descendants are alive today and who made great contributions are virtually ignored, except as part of an ancient world.

Some participants felt change was slowly coming. William McNeill, professor emeritus of history at the University of Chicago, writes that "Nearly 50 years after Pearl Harbor brought the importance of the non-European world forcibly to our attention, and almost 500 years after Copernicus, the American educational system is beginning to take cognizance of the fact that the world is round, and that diverse peoples on the face of the earth interact and have always done so."

But the implementation of a global curriculum is not easy. Textbooks are influenced by those who hold a more traditional view of the nation's history. The scholarly research that might provide the basis for new approaches in the textbooks tends to be, as Professor McNeill wrote in the same article, "confined to a very narrow chronological, geographical, and thematic compass."

These issues of a revamped approach to world history are further affected by the perspectives of those who represent individual cultural studies. Those of non-European heritage in the US can justifiably complain that the treatment of their roles in American society and of the history of their cultures has been unbalanced. African-American speakers, pointing out that "history is a source of pride" urged that African history be respected and taught "on its own terms," with emphasis on the community over the individual. A specialist on the Middle East criticized studies that confined Islam to one area and ignored its historic links to Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Yet one is concerned at implied implications. Advocates of a renewed emphasis on other cultures clearly wish the more positive aspects of those societies to be stressed. Textbooks that recount the enslavement of Africans by Africans or the more violent aspects of Asian or Latin American autocracy would almost certainly bring protests. This suggests a demand for positive selectivity. At a time when American history in general is moving to examine the negative as well as the positive, can the negative in other traditions be ignored?

Beyond that, it is not always clear where those who advocate an increased emphasis on the incorporation of non-Western cultures into the curriculum place the principles of democracy and human rights embodied in the US constitution. Are they inextricably linked to the Western tradition and thus given mere equal status to the principles of community and leadership in other societies - or are they universal?

For immigrants who have come to the US in the 200 years of its history, excepting Africans who were brought as slaves, the principle of individual freedom, however imperfectly exercised, has been the lure. If globalizing world history means to identify and teach that principle only as one strand among many in the story of humankind, the US and the world will be the losers.

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