Dilemma of Teaching World History

By David D. Newsom. David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs, University of Virginia. | The Christian Science Monitor, November 27, 1991 | Go to article overview

Dilemma of Teaching World History


David D. Newsom. David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs, University of Virginia., The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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