Integrating American History before the 20th Century into the World History Curriculum

By Guarneri, Carl | Social Studies Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Integrating American History before the 20th Century into the World History Curriculum


Guarneri, Carl, Social Studies Review


"World History should treat United States History as one of its integral parts ."So proclaimed the National Standards for History, Grades 5-12, which were developed through UCLA's National Center for History in the Schools and published in 1994. Amid the public fracas over the standards' alleged demotion of the Founders and traditional history, their call for a closer relationship between world and U.S . history was ignored. Among the biggest casualties was pre-20th-century American history. "The history of colonial [North] America," the world history standards asserted, "makes sense only in relation to [the] wider scene" of the Spanish empire, European-Indian relations, the African slave trade, and transatlantic migration. In a later section the authors reminded world history teachers that "the history of the United States [in the era of 1750-1914] was not self-contained but fully embedded in the context of global change," and declared that to understand it well "students must be able to relate it to world history" (44, 175,186).

Missing Links

Despite these recommendations, and with the outstanding exception of the American Revolution, current world history frameworks and textbooks, and many teachers, too, speed through or skip over entirely the history of colonial North America and the early United States. I recently spent some time poring over several leading textbooks for AP and college world history courses. I found that coverage of U.S ./North America, while respectable in its total number of pages, was extremely unbalanced by period (see Figure 1). On average, these texts devote about 10 percent of their coverage of American history to the long colonial era (1560s-1750) and about 14 percent to the national period from 1787 to 1890. By contrast, their treatment of the 20th-century United States averages 68 percent and in some cases reaches 80 percent. Aside from the Revolution, detailed discussion of American history begins in the 1890s with industrial innovations and giant corporations; in 1898 with America's official leap into overseas colonization; or, most commonly, with U.S . entry into World War I in 1917, the consensus date for the emergence of the United States as a global power.

The California History-Social Science Framework tells a similar story. Grade 7 world history stops short of colonial America, while Grade 10 world history begins with the American Revolution and Constitution (which students have studied in Grade 8 U. S. History), then omits the United States until late 19th century industrialism and the "new imperialism." If world history teachers take their guidance from textbooks and the state framework and standards, colonial and early national American history may make cameo appearances in their classes but little more.

Why this neglect? No doubt there are the usual reasons for subordinating American history in world history coursesthe need to cover so many other societies, the assumption that students "get" the U.S. story in American history classes, the desire to widen American students' parochial horizons. Beyond these general concerns, there seem to be particular reasons for shortchanging pre- 1900 American history. For starters, it is clear that the Iberian conquest and colonization of Meso- and South America predated European colony-building in North America and became hugely influential for Europe, Africa, and global trade.

Another, less convincing, convention seems to be that after the Revolution Americans turned inward to build national institutions and to take over interior lands, processes that, it is assumed, removed them from global connections and significance. Finally, the notion that die United States did not join the European great powers as a global political and military force until the twentieth century seems to justify keeping it offstage until then.

The second reason assumes falsely that American nationbuilding and westward expansion took place in a global vacuum. …

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