What Should We Teach Our Kids About World History?





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In February the Department of History at Georgia State University approved a series of resolutions objecting to the Georgia Performance Standards (GPS) proposed for public schools. Below is the Department's critique of world history standards.

World History, 1500 to the Present—10th grade

The defining sentence of the 10th-grade World History standards makes conflict the central thread of world history. This assumes a narrow and grim view of humanity, both ourselves and others, and displays a woeful ignorance of the field. Professional world historians do not define their field in this manner. Instead, they focus on cross-cultural encounters and exchanges, and, more broadly, transnational and transregional connections of all varieties. Conflict is an important example, but so is cooperative interaction for mutual economic, cultural, social, and political benefit. Overemphasizing conflict reinforces an ethnocentric “us” vs. “them” mentality. In today’s “globalizing” world, our students deserve a debalanced investigation, not just one brimming with negativity, tension, fear, and violence.

The Issue of Expertise

The expertise of classroom teachers, curriculum planners, and professional scholars of World History must be brought together in designing the best curriculum for our children. Fortunately, there is a professional organization that brings together all three kinds of expertise in World History and has spent the last twenty years developing this exciting new field of scholarship and teaching. Unlike many scholarly professional societies, the World History Association (WHA) is an inclusive organization in which college-level professors and pre-collegiate teachers collaborate in producing new knowledge about world history and how best to teach it. Information about the WHA is readily available at www.thewha.org. The WHA also has a regional affiliate, the Southeast World History Association—”SEWHA,” based at Kennesaw State University: www.sewha.org. Finally, several universities in Georgia have special expertise in world history, including Georgia State University (which hosts a Program in World History and Cultures), Kennesaw State University, and North Georgia College and State University. Patrick Manning, director of the prestigious World History Center at Northeastern University and author of the handbook Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past (New York, 2003), provides an excellent overview of the issues involved. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the drafters of the proposed GPS World History curriculum consulted leading world historians, their publications, or leading members of the WHA and SEWHA.

The Distortion of “Presentism”: “The student will explore world events from 1500 to the present.”

This GPS 10th grade World History stipulation leaves out 7/8 of the time span of history since the beginning of written records. And many world historians no longer limit their subject only to societies with writing.

Students will encounter pre-modern world history in the 6th and 7th grade, at the ages of 12 and 13. This is to be commended. But it is no insult to the intelligence of students in the middle grades to say that they lack the more mature understanding of 10th graders, who are getting driver’s licenses and approaching an age at which they can vote, join the military, or enter college. In the four years of their high school education, students will be left with a rudimentary understanding of the world before 1500 AD/CE. They will not be adequately prepared for basic freshman courses of pre-modern world history required as part of the core curriculum at Georgia State University and many universities throughout the country.

It would be far better to introduce the pre-modern and modern world history in grades 6 and 7, then return to both in the 10th grade with emphasis on cross-cultural, transregional, transnational, and global themes—i.e., themes which bind and transcend discrete peoples, cultures, civilizations, and other social groups. Strictly dividing premodern and modern world history between the middle grades and high school reinforces the unfounded notion that pre-modern world history is of far less importance, relevance, and scholarly legitimacy than that of the modern era.

The Issue of Scale

The question is often asked, “How could one possibly cram all of human history into one year-long World History course? It’s way too much for students to learn.” The answer lies in what you leave out (masses of detail inappropriate to your framework) and what carefully selected themes, ranging over both the pre-modern and modern periods, you choose to put in. It’s all a question of scale. Map-makers do not say “How could we possibly make a world map? We’d never be able to cram everything in.” Instead, they carefully select the themes they want to convey to a particular audience with a particular world map, then ruthlessly omit every detail (however interesting in itself) that would overload the map with information at the expense of clarity of communication. So too with historians.

AP and non-AP World History Classes

If AP students were to follow the GPS curriculum, they would be severely handicapped in taking the College Board’s 36-week preparation course for the Advanced Placement Exam in World History. The exam devotes 36% of its coverage to the period before 1450, with another 22% dedicated to the period 1450-1750 (College Board AP Program Course Description: World History [2002-2003], p. 5). If AP students are to be exempted from the GPS curriculum, a disturbing question arises. Are we going to relegate the large majority who are non-AP students to a badlyflawed curriculum that does not meet national standards?

Civilizations, Comparisons, Interactions, and Thematic Approaches

A major organizing principle of the pre-modern GPS standards is “civilization,” a controversial concept starkly defined in standard SS6.6. World History scholars are currently debating whether or not civilizations are the best analytical unit for large-scale history and, if they are, whether civilizations have as rigid a definition as suggested in the proposal. Notwithstanding, the GPS model reflects little, if any, of the critical scholarship on civilizations and their alternatives produced since World War II. In particular, the premodern and modern standards present civilizations as rather isolated, independent, distinctive, and essentialized entities. This neglects features common to all civilizations, which world historians have emphasized since the publication of William McNeill’s The Rise of the West back in 1963: their multicultural and cosmopolitan nature, their fluidity and constantly changing character over time, their transformations (few scholars today would deploy strictly cyclical, “rise and fall” model), and above all the many points of contact among civilizations.

In fact, cross-cultural interactions and exchanges and other varieties of connections have become the primary way of investigating pre-modern world history, an approach scarcely visible in the proposed curriculum. For pre-modern Eurasia and northern Africa, see, for example, the accessible model presented in Jerry Bentley’s Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (Oxford, 1993). GPS should incorporate world-historical themes such as those advocated by the College Board (AP Program Course Description: World History, p. 6): the impact of interaction among major societies (trade, systems of international exchange, war, and diplomacy); the relationship of change and continuity; the impact of technology and demography on people and the environment (population growth and decline, disease, manufacturing, migrations, agriculture, weaponry); systems of social structure and gender structure (comparing major features within and among societies and assessing change); cultural and intellectual developments and interactions among and within societies; and, finally, changes in functions and structures of states and in attitudes towards states and political identities (political culture), including the emergence of the nation-state (types of political organization).

In the proposal, 6th grade students will explore “the development and origins of civilizations” followed by case studies of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, “Mediterranean Civilizations” (Israel, Phoenicia, and Persia), India, China, and Greece. The structure of these units might well imply that civilization began in Mesopotamia and radiated outward, through diffusion, which is certainly not the case. The polycentric origins of civilizations ought to be made more boldly in the proposal. Moreover, it should be pointed out that ancient Greek civilization appeared well after the other featured ancient civilizations. If nothing else, were ancient Greece and ancient Egypt not also Mediterranean civilizations?

And wasn’t Egypt African as well?

The rigid application of the civilizational model for the pre-modern units leaves much of the world unrepresented or cast in an implied backwards, unsophisticated, and inferior light. Nomads, hunter-gatherers, and other non-sedentary groups are not given their due, yet no serious scholar could talk about pre-modern (and much of modern) world history without them. If they are to be added to the new curriculum, as they must be, it should not be from some biased perspective, e.g., “barbarians who threatened civilized states.” The nomadic Mongols built a complex and sophisticated society well adapted for their particular environment on the Eurasian steppe; in fact, in the thirteenth century the Mongols assembled the largest continuous land empire in all of world history and their transcontinental network of roads, the yam, made possible the first regular face-to-face contact between peoples from Western Europe and East Asia. Simply put, the dynamic between sedentary, nomadic, and semi-nomadic societies is a central theme of world history, but not in the GPS standards.

Multiple Perspectives

The proposed standards emphasize how ancient and medieval civilizations “made contributions” to the world and to the legacy of the present-day United States. There is a danger in viewing all past history as teleological, moving “onward and upward” toward culmination in a glorious peak in the present-day United States. Indeed, few professional world historians would today accept the notion, largely discredited some 40 or 50 years ago, that civilization began in one particular region of the globe (i.e., Mesopotamia) and subsequently moved in a westward linear pattern to some present-day culmination in a particular state or group of states (i.e., Western Europe and the United States). “Master” narratives such as that in the GPS are less designed to encourage critical thinking than to impart one-sided, often ideologically-driven, images of the past. The academic study of history is not about destiny, determinism, or natural essences; instead, it is about human agency, choices, and dynamics on various scales. In today’s “globalizing” environment, it is important that our students see the strengths in diversity, how the world has been a diverse place from the beginning, to see other cultures on their own terms, and understand our common heritage as human beings.

Since World War II, world historians have articulated several approaches and theories which lend themselves particularly well to the recognition and study of multiple perspectives. These include: globalization, Columbian exchange, “world system” (economic) theory, global imperialism and colonialism, the Atlantic World, the Black Death (not just in Europe but as an Afro-Eurasian phenomenon), and the Silk Roads. While it is true that many of these are found in the GPS proposal, they have been subordinated to particular nation-states, cultures, or civilizations (especially “the West”), thus stripping the themes of their inherent cross-cultural, transregional, and transnational qualities.

The proposed GPS, then, lack the focus on connections and multiple perspectives that are at the heart of the study of world history today. Furthermore, the proposal privileges the historical experience of Western Europe and the United States at the expense of the rest of the world. As presently constituted, the proposed world history standards are not world history at all: they are, rather, a one-sided, triumphant story of how “the West” became dominant on the global stage.

History without Women

One of the tasks proposed for 6th graders studying Ancient India is “Write a short story about the daily life of a young boy or girl in Maurya India [late fourth century BC/BCE-second century BC/BCE].” An interesting project, but what will the teacher and student have to work with? Childhood and the varied status and roles of women have not been mentioned in the units on ancient India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel, Phoenicia, Persia, India, China, or Greece. In the seventh grade students travel from ancient Rome through China; Japan; Africa; the pre-Columbian Americas; and medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation Europe—all without any mention of women. But the GPS curriculum does find it necessary to “Examine the role of women in the Islamic society.” Is the reason for this singular attention all too obvious?

Sixth graders will encounter the name of one woman (Helen of Troy), and there is one for seventh graders (Queen Elizabeth I). Tenth graders, it appears, will go from 1500 to the present around the world without encountering the name of a single woman. Imaginative students may wonder about biological, economic, social, cultural, and political production and reproduction in worlds without women.

Middle Eastern History

The standards emphasize how ancient and medieval civilizations “made contributions” to the world and to the legacy of the present-day United States. There is a danger in viewing all past history as teleological, moving “onward and upward” toward culmination in a glorious peak in the present-day United States. However, the continued effort of the standards to link the past to the present does have the virtue of avoiding an antiquarian approach which might litter the past with discontented fragments of no apparent relevance to the present.

Emphasizing the contributions of ancient and medieval civilizations “to the world” and to the American present can also be misleading if does not examine possible connections between the early past and the present-day cultures inhabiting the same territories. Nineteenth-century collectors and archaeologists from the major Western powers filled their home museums with treasures from around the world. They justified this in the name of “science,” “art,” and “civilization,” but often they were also collecting trophies as celebrations of imperial conquest or control. An improved set of standards would note not only the varied “contributions to the world” and to American culture today by past civilizations; it would also inquire systematically about the national identities of modern-day Iraqis, Egyptians, and Greeks with regard to the ancient “contributions” and surviving antiquities which originated on their own soil.

6th and 7th Grade Social Studies in the GPS Standards

Slavery is mentioned in the 6tth / 7th grade curriculum for ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and “the Islamic Empire.” A promising cross-cultural comparison is suggested by the “Discuss the status of slaves in Athens and compare and contrast the status of slaves in Athens with the status of slaves studied in other civilizations” (Tasks, SS6.14b.E). But the insights from the comparison will be severely limited by the curriculum’s failure to examine slavery in the unit on Ancient Israel, to note the acceptance of slavery in both the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and the Christian New Testament, and to note that slavery in ancient Greece, Rome, and the Islamic worlds never developed the close correlation between slavery and race which most Americans, based our historical experience in the United States, take for granted.

Religions

The 6th grade standards call for teaching the “origins and significance of Judaism as the first monotheistic religion based on the concept of one God who sets down moral laws for humanity to include the belief that there is one God, the Ten Commandments, the emphasis on individual worth, and personal responsibility. The student will compare and contrast monotheism and polytheism” (Tasks, SS6.9b.A). This correctly speaks to religious ideals, but the Bible itself testifies to the long persistence of polytheism among the Hebrews and explains that God had to send one prophet after another to recall the wayward to strict monotheism.

Were the Hebrews the first monotheists? The monotheistic experiment in pharaonic Egypt under Akhenaten in the 18th dynasty deserves consideration, as do the monotheisticlike qualities of Zoroastrianism and the wider religious context of the whole Middle East in which the Hebrew religion emerged.

The standards fail to mention explicitly Greek or Roman polytheism, or their individual gods and goddesses, emphasizing instead how “Ancient Greek literature continues to permeate our language and literature today, drawing from Greek mythology and epics such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Aesop’s Fables.” Do we need to suppress the truth that these masterpieces we revere were steeped in polytheism? “Discuss the persecutions and survival of the early Christian Church” and the “importance of Constantine’s conversion and the Edict of Milan” (SS7.8.v & vi.) Not having been explicitly informed that most Romans were polytheistic before the official conversion of the Empire to Christianity in the fourth century, students may be hard pressed to understand why the Romans severely persecuted the early Christians. The depth of Constantine’s “conversion” is a matter of fierce controversy. Why not point out that over the course of the fourth century, Christians went from being persecuted to being the persecutors? Having gained control of the Roman/Byzantine state, Christians began persecuting everyone else—including many fellow Christians who differed on fine points of Christian theology. Mainstream ancient, medieval, and early modern Christians considered religious toleration a vice, not a virtue.

“Describe the ancient Israelites or Hebrews, and trace their migration from Mesopotamia to the land called Canaan. Explain the role of Abraham and Moses in their history” (Tasks, SS6.9a).

Students will learn the centrality of Abraham and Moses to Jews and perhaps their importance to Christians as inheritors of the Hebrew scriptures. But to make Abraham and Moses only Jewish or Judeo-Christian heroes misses an essential connection. When Islam appears on the scene (in the 7th grade standards), there is no mention that Muhammad and the Quran (and Muslims to the present day) also revered Abraham as a critical founder of their monotheism. Muslims revere Moses as a holy prophet. Jesus too is a revered prophet for Muslims. Muslims believe that Abraham and his son Ishmael built their Holy Shrine the Kaaba in Mecca. Some scholars now emphasize the common stock of the three Middle Eastern monotheistic religions by speaking of the “Abrahamic religions.” Islam, like other religions and cultures, needs to be understood on its own terms as well as through others’ perception of it. The critical points of belief which separate Christianity from Judaism, Judaism from Islam, and Islam from Christianity should be mentioned, but not at the expense of emphasizing their close kinship.

History without Women (or with Muslim Women Only)?

One of the tasks proposed for sixth graders studying Ancient India is “Write a short story about the daily life of a young boy or girl in Maurya India [late fourth century BC/BCE-second century BC/BCE]” (Tasks, SS6.12a.C). An interesting project, but what will the teacher and student have to work with? Childhood and the varied status and roles of women have not been mentioned in the units on ancient India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel, Phoenicia, Persia, India, China, or Greece. In the seventh grade students travel from ancient Rome through China; Japan; Africa; the pre-Columbian Americas; and medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation Europe—all without any mention of women. But the GPS curriculum does find it necessary to “Examine the role of women in the Islamic society” (SS7.10.a.v). Is the reason for this singular attention all too obvious? Will the students be informed that four Muslim countries have been governed by women presidents or prime ministers in recent years? The first woman president of the U.S. still seems a distant prospect. Will they be told that women obtained the vote in Turkey a decade before they did in France, the home of the Enlightenment and the democratic traditions of the French Revolution and Italy, the center of the Renaissance?

“The Islamic Empire”

The title of Unit 3 rolls all the diverse experience of the medieval Islamic world into what it calls “the Islamic Empire.” The term can be legitimately applied to the era from the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE/AD until perhaps the early 9th century, when a single central government (successively under the Rashidun or “Orthodox” caliphs, the Umayyad caliphs, and the early Abbasid caliphs) controlled an empire which soon sprawled from Spain and the Atlantic Ocean to the frontiers of India and China. After that, the Islamic world was never again united in an “Islamic Empire,” despite the spiritual claims of the later Abbasid caliphs to Sunni Muslim allegiance everywhere. Seventh graders in a world history survey would of course have no time for the many notable Muslim empires between the early 9th century and 1500 (among them the Fatimids, Seljuks, Umayyads of Spain, the Buyids, the Ayyubids, the Mongol Il-khans, and the Mamluks of Egypt and Syria). But to lump this whole complex world together as “the Islamic Empire” is equivalent to lumping all of European history from the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century to 1500 together as “the Christian Empire.” “Use, in small groups, brief descriptions of Islamic law and analyze various legal cases and determine what type crime has been committed and an appropriate punishment under Islamic law. Then compare the way a similar crime would be handled and punished under US law”(Tasks: SS7.9.D).

The consequences of this exercise in the current political atmosphere in the United States, with its vast ignorance of the many different schools and interpretations and applications of Islamic law, are too appalling to consider. The results of playing “gotcha” by selective hostile quotations from other people’s scriptures in a classroom context would be deplorable. Will students be informed that the death penalty, which many Americans enthusiastically embrace, is considered so barbaric by most developed countries today that they refuse to extradite accused criminals to the U.S. without a guarantee that the death penalty will not be applied?

10th Grade World History

Tenth-grade World History in the new standards begins in 1500 AD/CE. For Middle Eastern history, as for the rest of world history, our students will find it difficult to try to build upon what they remember of ancient and medieval history back in the 6th and 7th grades, when they were twelve or thirteen years old.

The year 1500 is a dubious beginning point from a Middle Eastern perspective. It chops off the first two centuries of Ottoman history from the four centuries of it that followed.

After a standard on “the impact of the European Age of Discovery and Expansion “ (WH.2), the new curriculum mentions in passing the Ottoman and Mughal empires (along with China, Japan, and Africa), but only in connection with the “impact of global trade on regional civilizations of the world after 1500 AD/CE” (WH.3). The expansion of 16th century western Europe—with its sea-going exploration, Christian missionaries, and overseas trade and colonization--was indeed remarkable. However, exclusive focus on European dynamism makes it impossible to understand why during that same century the highly sophisticated Ottoman, Mughal, and Ming empires were the strongest land powers on the face of the earth.

Students will study “Africa’s increasing involvement in global trade, the forced migration of Africans across the Middle Passage and the forced migration of Africans in the Arab slave market” WH.3.d). Treating the African slavery globally has merit, but mention of the “Arab slave market” surely calls not merely for a pairing with the “Middle Passage” (unexplained in the standards -- the transportation of enslaved Africans to the Americas). It calls instead for a parallel explicitly naming of the perpetrators who ran the Middle Passage—the white Christian European slave market” of the Atlantic Ocean. Standards WH.4 through WH.9 relentlessly pursue Europeans (mainly west Europeans) from the 16th into the 19th century. The rest of the world recedes into outer darkness until pulled back in to react to 19th-century European imperialism in China, India, Congo, Egypt, and South Africa (WH.10).

No one would suspect that the Ottoman Empire was one of the major participants in World War I were it not for WH11.h—”human rights violations and genocide, including the Ottoman government’s actions against Armenian citizens,” a point driven home with a related task: “constructing a world focus column with accounts of Ottoman actions against Armenian citizens and colonial peoples’ involvement in the conflict” (WH 11.A.ix). The Armenian catastrophe during the larger catastrophe of World War I is appalling, but is this the only memorable feature of one of the great empires of world history, last mentioned in passing back in the 16th century many weeks earlier?

Between the two world wars, students learn of the “the end of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of a secular Turkish state, and the mandate system and British administration of Palestine” (WH.12.a). Is that the only Middle East mandate worth mentioning? To Americans fighting and dying in Iraq today—and to the policy makers who sent them there-- the imperial legacy of the British mandate in Iraq should be of more than mere “academic” interest.

During the Cold War era, the curriculum includes “nationalist movements in Asia and the Middle East, including the ideas and importance of nationalist leaders” Nehru and Gandhi, Ho Chi Minh, and Nasser (WH.24). The next standard covers “the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent military and political conflicts between Israel and the Arab world” (WH.25.e).

This raises several questions. Students might conclude that Israel is not in the Middle East since it is not treated in the standard on that subject but in a separate standard. If both standards are assumed to have equal weight, should the establishment of Israel and the subsequent Israeli-Arab conflict loom as important as the history of all the rest of Asia and the Middle East—over 60% of the world’s population—during the Cold War era? If both the standards have equal weight, why is the one on Israel and the Israeli-Arab conflict sketched out in careful detail (32 lines of standard and related tasks on my print-out) while the one on the rest of Asia and the Middle East is barely sketched in (12 lines). Why is study of the “Arab rejection of the [1947] UN decision and subsequent armed conflict against Israel” (WH.25.e) prescribed without any mention of numerous Israeli rejections of UN decisions?

In a unit on the Post Cold War Era, Standard WH.27 takes up “political, economic, cultural/religious and environmental issues in the modern Middle East, including” “the OPEC oil embargo,” “the Iranian Revolution and the establishment of a repressive fundamentalist regime,” “the origins of the Persian Gulf War and the post-war actions of Saddam Hussein,” “conflicts between various religious groups.” The OPEC embargo and the Iranian Revolution both long preceded the “Post Cold War Era,” but more important questions arise. How can one understand the OPEC oil embargo after the 1973 Israeli- Arab war without ever having mentioned the century-long global dominance of Western oil companies and their influence on their home governments? Should the “repressive fundamentalist regime” of Iran be examined in isolation from growing “repressive fundamentalist” movements worldwide and across all religions?

The final standard, WH.24 (an apparent misprint for WH.30), rounds off World History with “the impact of global terrorism.” The standard and its related tasks emphasize September 11, the Middle East, and “conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.” There is no suggestion that terrorism has been around as long as civilization, that it involves anyone other than Middle Easterners (read: Muslims), or that its distressing incidence today might not be the grand climax with which to end the study of all human history. Some “fundamentalists” in the three cousin religions of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism may sense an approaching Apocalypse, and some politicians may find terrorism a useful issue for their own purposes. But most citizens, teachers, scholars, parents, and students would support a world history curriculum that examines Middle East history in all its variety—as well as the very real problem of terrorism—in far broader contexts. Such contexts would make possible not only real understanding of the Middle East but would also allow for a more hopeful vision of the future.


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Jesse David Lamovsky - 2/28/2004

Mr. Williams,

A response, if I may,

1.) Actually, I would object to any effort to politicize history, from either the right or the left. More to the point, I object to the use of tax dollars toward any kind of indoctrination in a public school setting. If people want to privatize their local schools, and teach whatever kind of history they want in those schools, I have no objection to that either. But critical analysis is just another term for opinionating and politicizing, and no, I don't think the taxpayers should have to pony up to have their kids indoctrinated into any viewpoint, whether it be right-wing, left-wing, afrocentric, whatever. My personal opinions swing well to the right, that's true. But that doesn't mean I would approve of John Birchers in public school classrooms, any more than I approve of cultural marxists in the classrooms.

2.) I have no argument here. Nobody is suggesting that we pretend slavery didn't happen in this country, or that we didn't conquer the continent in a violent fashion from the native population. But there has got to be a happy medium between a hagiography and a hatchet job, right? We all know that most of the men who bankrolled the Middle Passage, and who profited from slavery in the Western Hemisphere, were white Christians of European descent. Obviously! But so too were the men who formed anti-slavery societies. So too were the men who outlawed the slave trade. William Wilberforce was a white Christian. So, for that matter, was John Brown.

We all know slavery was an abomination. I doubt today's high school students need a dose of "critical analysis" to figure that out. My argument is with the notion that the North American slave system was somehow "more evil" than the Arab slave system, or the notion that slavery and wars of conquest were a phenomenon unique to the Christian West. That's bunk. It seems obvious that slavery was an economic issue as much as a race issue- that race was used as an ex post facto justification for the subjagation of people who happened to be, for the most part, black Africans (surely the Arab slavers had their own justifications, probably based on the "infidel" status of their black slaves). Wouldn't it be more enlightening to teach it as such?

3.) You're partially right here, but certainly the common law traditions that developed in Great Britain during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance had some influence over the Founders. As well as the experiences of religious conflict in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries.

4.) I agree with you as to the dismal level of knowledge among high school and college graduates these days, but I don't know if we would agree on the whys. I would say that students have had too much nonsense driven into their brains- marxian deconstructions along race, class and gender lines, and pc trivia like the "role of women" in neolithic societies (matters that should be left to specialists, and not to high school kids who should just know the facts- the TRUTH, as you would put it).


William H. Leckie, Jr. - 2/27/2004

From out of the woodwork, might I suggest that one of the most valuable things youngsters can learn from studying history--a subject they very often find uninspiring--is to ask questions?

Critical thinking need not be characterized as "deconstruction," a term alas much abused by people who have not cracked a book of Derrida's, apparently, and by a kind of middlebrow (or sloping brow, if from the US Right) rhetorical inflation.

I should add that I am in full agreement with anyone who argues that the old notion of "Western Civilization" as a core subject needs to be restored or reinforced. But I am uncertain, indeed, that we should embrace either a knee-jerk "multiculturalism" or conservative indoctrination of some rather equally fuzzy notion of a virtuous and triumphal Christian nation.

One contributor to this list has already written, erroneously, that the recent history of Europe was not important to the Founders. Nonsense, that is, too. Well on their minds was the great tragedy of the religious wars of the century preceding theirs. Some of our enthusiasts for for right-wing educational notions need a bit of instruction in Western Civ. themselves. Languages? Once again, we can stay close to home and enjoy a plethora of languages in the US heritage and should. In St. Louis, where I lived for decades, there is a statue of Schiller (I've done a street poll there more than once and found no one who knew who that dead white guy was) in a downtown park, erected to celebrate that city's German culture, obliterated by mass hysteria and persecution during WW One...even a street named Berlin was changed to Pershing!

Let's start a little closer to home before we wax urgent about fitting folks for a global economy or whatever. Besides, if current policies, corporate and government, are any harbinger, US workers--I shudder that we still think education is for getting a job and holding one, just like the 19th century right-Hegelian educational school luminary and first US commissioner of education, William Torrey Harris thumped--anyway, US workers less and less have to worry about following their jobs anywhere.


Dennis William Johnson - 2/27/2004

I work in the New Jersey office of Multinational Corporation and teaching world history is vital for our children in this global economy. Basic geography is one area that needs to be emphasized. I had to update several country tax tables on our systems because the system had a list from thirty years ago. Also there is a need to explain the different territorial statuses (Hong Kong is part of China, but it treated separately). A knowledge of the languages a nation speaks is also important (not all nations in South America speak Spanish). Also we write February 27, 2004 as 02-27-04, but in part of Europe it is written 27-02-04. The are so many American business people who get robbed, kidnapped, or arrested in developing nations because they don't know anything about the country that they are in.


Don Williams - 2/27/2004

Sentence 4 of paragraph 4 above should read: "Not only can today's historians not see the forest for the trees, they can NOT even look at more than 3 or 4 trees."


Don Williams - 2/27/2004

1) I found it hilarious that one poster above
denounced the Georgia State proposal in the following terms:
"I do know that this document has nothing to do with "educating" students. It has everything to do with indoctrinating high school kids into a political ideology that is implacably hostile to the Christian, European foundations of the United States. I certainly don't think that teaching hatred of Christianity or European civilization is a necessary part of a history education."

Why is it that I suspect that same poster would have no objection to right wing propaganda developed by --say, the purchasing power of the Texas Board of Education?

2) Our children are entitled to know the TRUTH -- the bad aspects of US history as well as the good. The extermination of Indian nations, Congresses repeated deceit and breaking of treaties, and the vile form of racism used to justify slavery in the South are part of that Truth.

3) However, I would agree that the moral and cultural relativists are equally full of crap. Lest anyone forget, we dropped the atomic bomb on Asia --Asia did not drop the atomic bomb on us. Lest anyone forget, the history of mankind is one of roughly 9000 years of tyranny with only occasional moments of respect for the individual's civil rights. Ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and the United States are among the few republics in human history.

4) Modern historians are no longer competent to teach history simply because they are ..er.. modern historians. Narrow specialists with no experience of government, politics, war, leadership, diplomacy, or business. History consists of an enormous mass of factual details -- one must sort out the important from the unimportant. Not only can today's historians not see the forest for the trees, they can even look at more than 3 or 4 trees. By contrast, real historians of the past were men of affairs. Thucydides, Polybius, Sallust, and Edward Gibbon would look on today's historians with contempt.

For example, the emphasis in high school curricula today is on modern European history (1400 to present) while the study of ancient Greece and Rome is being discarded.

Yet our Founding Fathers did NOT look to European history when designing the COnstitution --because Europe's history after 35 BC was largely one of various dictatorships contending for power. Our Founding Fathers looked to the lessons of ancient Greece and Rome -- to the history of Thucydides, Sallust,and Tacitus and the political philosophy of Aristotle and Polybius --to try to steer a course which would avoid the self-inflicted disasters which have destroyed so many past nations.

A measure of the stupidity of our academic establishment is that perhaps 3% of US citizens --including college graduates -- could discuss politics and current events intelligently with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison if those men were somehow brought forward to the present.
Our republic will not survive another 100 years.


Oscar Chamberlain - 2/26/2004

And doesn't this exchange prove it.

There are multiple ways of looking at World HIstory with due reagds to the facts. Each reflects a world view.

My concept of an ideal standard would acknowledge that mulitiplicity even as it settled on an approach (or perhaps a set of approaches). My ideal would be, therefore, openly provisional, though still asserting that it is the best that I can come up with.

Others differ, as has been expressed above. They believe that there is a clearly superior approach, at least for our culture.

But you know what, the more I teach at university level, the more I simply wish for students who have a coherent version of how the world has changed, what the United States has done, etc. The more I teach, the less I care which version.

If students have learned a coherent view of history, with some facts attached, I can work with them. I can work with them because they know a coherent version is possible and because they have the beginning of a sense that what one knows of history can matter.

I can help their knowledge grow and their ability to interpret improve whether they be Fundamentalist, agnostic Jews, fallen Buddhists, right wing, left wing, up, down. I don't care. The exception would be a totally indoctrinated soul, but they can be produced in any number of contexts.

The terror we all face is not a bad standard. The terror is the student who has no idea that a coherent vision of history is possible. Therefore what little he or she knows has no context, and without context, it is meaningless. And so is the course they take.

I prefer the University standards to the Georgia public standards, but I would cheerfully prefer students who experienced the Georgia public standards well taught over my personal standards, done in a half-assed way.

In short we should be less worried about setting standards than about hiring people who have them.


John Michael Bodi - 2/26/2004

The purpose of eeducation is to increase my wealth? Maybe in this capitalist culture but if we're really looking at the purpose of education historically it was indeed to become educated for the sake of knowing something.

I do agree that to deconstruct our various views of history is worthwhile and needed. I also believe that we must teach in the k-12 schools the truth as best as we can understand it with the disclaimer (said to the pupils) that this is what we know now, what do you think?


Robert Harbison - 2/25/2004

The Middle Ages were ONE THOUSAND YEARS, covering everything from the birth of modern political thought to the development of most modern religions. There was ALOT that happened between the fall of Rome and the rise of the Modern world.


Bill Heuisler - 2/25/2004

Professor,
You posit and ask, "...critical deconstruction is a crucial tool for daily life, political understanding and economic advantage. How else is a counter-culture supposed to survive?" But History isn't supposed to be about counter culture; history is first about culture and then counter culture in opposition. Call it dissection or examination (presupposing structure) but calling it deconstruction is to call history nothing at all.

History should be information, not indoctrination. Want to inflict Derrida? Teach philosophy. Deconstruction is, by my definition, destruction, and coincidentally, fits quite famously with Marx in that this peculiarly evil and selective existentialism hollows out the density of Western culture and leaves nothing but questions - moral and political relativity - and visions. Fallow ground for theorists, Professor, but certainly not history.

Notice: Certain assumptions aren't usually academically deconstructed. Poverty is bad; class is bad; man is good. Aboriginal thought is pure; Western thought is suspect.
Doctrinaire and ignorant; anti-intellectual in fact.

Want to teach history? Deconstruction is anti-history. Deconstruction, as a so-called poststructural theory, declines the "structuralist" assumption of structural principles. Deconstruction denies essences - denies there are universal structural language principles that existed before the incidence of language, thus conveniently excusing less developed cultures from responsibility.

Decnstruction denies. History explains. Deconstruction stresses how emphasis on the concrete, historical and contingent is in opposition to the eternalities and transitions of our journey. Sounds like Sartre to me.

The problem? Principles, cultures experience and religious assumptions are supposed to be historically situated and therefore structured by the interplay of individual experience and institutional force, through language, symbols, environment, etc. But that's all to be questioned almost by rote in deconstruction. Humans work, strive, think, read, write and then achieve certain structures. Structures are historical.

Deconstruction doesn't deny the existence of a physical world, but refuses to allow description of a force and experience that shaped that world. History's description, isn't it? Or do we deconstruct the word too.

Teach Sartre, Derrida; lionize Luddites and Bolsheviks, but please don't try to call it History.
Bill Heuisler


Jesse David Lamovsky - 2/25/2004

Whatever one thinks of the quality of Mr. Livingston's rhetoric, or his idea of what the teaching of history should entail, he's onto something here. The purpose of the Georgia State educators is undoubtedly to marginalize Christianity (and to a lesser extent, Judaism), and to paint it, along with Western, European civilization, with the brush of "racism", colonialism, and slavery.

Let's not forget that the Georgia State educators are public servants, and the suggestions they are making would be applied to schools that are paid for by taxes. As white, European-American men are still the most productive class, they pay the most taxes. What is being asked is that these people, who live in the most Christian, conservative part of the United States, pay for the priviledge of sending their children to schools that mock and demonize their own culture, their own heritage, their own ancestors. In effect, this is an act of cultural genocide- and the victims of this genocide are to be forced to foot the bill for their own disenfranchisement. This is evil. Why must the citizens of Georgia be forced to support these people and their abhorent and stupid ideas?

I don't know if I agree with Mr. Livingston's idea of the purpose of a history education, but I do know that this document has nothing to do with "educating" students. It has everything to do with indoctrinating high school kids into a political ideology that is implacably hostile to the Christian, European foundations of the United States. I certainly don't think that teaching hatred of Christianity or European civilization is a necessary part of a history education. And I don't think the moral idiocy of the Georgia State people (Arab slavery is better than European slavery because the Arabs weren't "racists"; the Armenian genocide was simply a minor detail in the glorious history of the Ottoman Empire) has any place in a classroom either.


Jonathan Dresner - 2/24/2004

"Throughout history" intones Mr. Livingston, as though he had any idea what that means. In almost every generation and society that I have studied, education's purpose was to enable people to work effectively at the highest income possible. Sure, there've been mutterings about education developing moral character, and the Confucians even have a whole theory of education as the root of social harmony. But hardly anyone in history has pursued an education because it would make them heirs to a great culture. People pursue education because it is to their economic and personal advantage to be knowledgeable and appropriately socialized.

In an age of oppressive paradigms and mass media, critical deconstruction is a crucial tool for daily life, political understanding and economic advantage. How else is a counter-culture supposed to survive?


Ralph E. Luker - 2/24/2004

Livingston, I presume, but not David.


Ralph E. Luker - 2/24/2004

"education mafia"? David, I assume that you must agree with the Secretary of Education that the NEA is a "terrorist organization." He, at least, repudiated that statement. What drives the right to such extremist claims?


William Livingston - 2/24/2004

Throughout history a principle aim of education has been to pass along to subsequent generations the essence and values of the dominant culture, in short to reinforce bonds of culture so that a society may maintain coherence and unity. It is only in recent decades that academics have taken it upon themselves to deconstruct the history of our culture, with the evident purpose of undermining and evenually destroying our society.

For instance, upon this nation's founding Protestant Christian mores and values permamented our society. Beginning in the 19th Century with the arrival of huge numbers of Catholics from Ireland, Eastern Europe, and Southern Europe Catholicism established something of a cultural beach-head, with, for example, the widespread celebration of Christmas, Christ's Mass. In reaction to the miltant Protestantism professed in the public schools Catholics felt it necessary in order to defend the preservation to develop its systems of Church governed schools.

In recent decades there has developed a concerted militant secular effort, led by the political Left, to abolish all Christian expression from the public square in the West, especially in the United States. This assault upon Christianity has been remarkably successful in large part because paganism has become the dominant faith in the education mafia. As a result, Christians once again are the counter-culture, as they were in 3rd Century Europe, struggling to survive in a pagan culture.

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