Teaching World History to Tenth Graders: Toward a Recovery Plan for the Eurocentrically-Educated Modern World History Teacher
Foreman, Bill, Social Studies Review
In a practical sense, recent developments in world history scholarship have enormous, positive implications for the California's 10th grade course in the subject. Seeing the last five hundred years from, in me words of Braudel's tide, "the perspective of the world," allows a teacher, at last, I would argue, to frame a course coherently, and teach it inclusively. Coherence, in history, provides real meaning, so our goal as teachers must be to reveal it. Other structural models for a course, be they national, civilizational, or multicultural, or a history of events, consist of parts rather than a whole, global history. That is to say, they are incomplete, and therefore ultimately incoherent. Taking the entire world as the fundamental unit of analysis, on the other hand, we can provide a course in which no region, and therefore student, is left out by design.
In the first few years of my career, I would generally begin a course with either a "why history?" statement or an overview of forthcoming units in the form of a list. Both serve a purpose, but neither create coherence. Now, I start my course with a simple, broad overview of the substance of our course's substance. Concretely, I present my students with the following sentence: "Between 1500 and today, human interactions in the world have become more intense and more unequal." I wrote that sentence a few years ago as a teaching tool. The statement, short and clear, is also obviously incomplete. As the course progresses, I refer back to the statement, and it deepens in meaning as we add, as a class, detail. I have not thrown out the babies of all my old curriculum units with the bathwater of a civUizational model of world history. Rather, I've revised and, more to the point, refrained them. The topics of my course remain the same, aligned to standards, but I emphasize developments that most clearly reflect the material of the course at the broadest level of generalization. The task is not to repeat, but to deepen.
The nineteenth century illustrates this perfectly. State standards instruct us to focus on the Industrial Revolution and Imperialism, which is well and good. When I began teaching, I approached the two topics more or less as separate matters, and my units on the material, while effective at some level, were such not because of any particular conceptual coherence, but because I would use a variety of modalities to communicate content. This is fine as far as it goes, but varying the modality of learning does not by itself create the coherence that students , or anyone else , needs to structure meaning in history. I now frame the nineteenth century in terms of intensification and inequality. We still examine all the different inventions of the time, but I emphasize how things like the power loom and railroad allowed for the speed and number of human interactions to increase in the period. Students examine imperialism in relational terms, specifically as die creation of inequality on a global scale. The two topics are not separate but rather aspects of the same process. The ability to intensify production and distribution of goods by a few, rather than all human societies allowed for the division of the world into unequal spheres, developed and developing, the split between which still characterizes our world today.
The change goes down, in the most significant way, to my choice of words as a teacher. I no longer used the word "oppressed" in my teaching. Now, I use the word, "unequal." Though I'm now aware of this, the change in vocabulary was not conscious, but rather it flowed logically and more or less inevitably from the understandings I garnered from the new world history. "Oppressed," critically, is a passive construction, and as such renders the noun so-modified a recipient of action rather than an actor. My students, who literally all personally face real oppression, in varying forms, do not need to be told that people like them are passive, and just as surely are poorly served by a course that, by merely representing a variety of peoples, masks the fundamental inequality of the modem world. …