From the Teaching column of the October 2009 issue of Perspectives on History

Getting the Big Picture: Teaching World History Teachers

Peter N. Stearns, October 2009

Reading the article by Bain and Harris was a stimulating experience. I appreciated the new and compelling data about the growth of the world history field and the resulting need for teachers with more training than most are now getting. Framing this as the most pressing challenge in the history education field makes good sense. I confess I don’t see the federal government stepping in with Teaching World History grants (though the idea of adding a global component to the TAH program would be eminently justified and might just sneak under the radar), but one can always hope. The need to stimulate college history departments to do more to provide future world history teachers with relevant experience is truly pressing, and we have been shamefully remiss in not stepping up sooner. As the article suggests, the “do more” involves, in the first place, establishing more uniformly a good survey course in world history; but it also means going beyond, to offer some definable advanced world history courses so that the introductory offering is not the only entrant. Thinking of world history at the college level in terms of a brief but defined curricular sequence is both pressing and achievable, to help meet the need not only to train more future teachers but to provide them with the kind of depth that, as Bain and Harris suggest, moves beyond initial exposure.

The part of the article that spoke to me most immediately, partly because it tapped my own experience in moving into the world history field largely through self-training, involved the more specific challenge of finding a framework for the whole teaching effort. I once brashly suggested that world history was a hard subject, and was urged by a colleague to soften this—but that teachers find it “most difficult” is hardly surprising, and the problem of establishing coherence, and helping teachers find coherence to their own satisfaction, is absolutely crucial.

As Bain and Harris stipulate, one problem rises from the significant variety in state approaches. Different state standards lead textbook publishers, eager to sell everywhere, to include every possible stipulation, which means that books swell beyond reasonable size, and coherence is, at least to some extent, right out the window. One state wants particular attention given to the Holocaust; another requires affectionate treatment of the Renaissance. The list of requirements becomes ridiculous. No solution is in sight, but we need to work with teachers (and take their guidance) in how to manage textbooks with this complication in mind.

The jumble of state standards involves another problem that needs to be faced candidly. The growth of world history courses is impressive and—properly handled—truly welcome, but let’s be frank: many of them aren’t real world history courses, but rather mishmashes of “the West and the rest” (or as Bain and Harris put it, Western civilization plus). I know this is a debatable evaluation, but I think it explains part of the complications that Bain and Harris rightly point to. Lots of high school courses, and some college offerings, have simply not made a full transition from Western civ to world history, though they eagerly embrace the latter label. This places teachers—many of whom have Western civ experience and, sometimes, deep commitments to making sure that many familiar Western staples are conveyed—in a serious dilemma. It makes it hard for them to sort out what to leave out of the Western record in order simply to make room for other materials. It almost guarantees a coherence problem when world developments don’t fit neatly into a Western mold. There is a need, therefore, to continue working with curriculum officials to make sure that world history courses can be framed in terms of a world history conceptualization. We’re not there yet.

This specific issue, not easily in historians’ control in an American society that is still more than a bit ambivalent about truly global education, bleeds into the problem of finding coherence even in courses that are reasonably framed. Here, where things ought to be manageable, we still have some work to do—but it is work that can be done. Bain and Harris rightly note the tendency to seek to put too much “stuff” in the world history courses, often in part a residue of the Western civ experience and a resultant sense that we should do for other societies and nations what we used to be able to do for Britain or France in Western civ, with all the loving detail.

But it’s not just novice teachers that cause the problem here. Almost everyone involved in the world history enterprise seems bent on trying to put too much in. Textbooks are too big, often trying to do too much with individual societies. When historians had a shot at defining standards back in the 1990s, with the abortive National Standards movement, they created criteria that covered 314 pages—and these were just main subject headings (in contrast, geographers managed to produce a 60-page guidebook for their discipline). Admittedly, historians did the same thing for U.S. history, even a bit more, but as Bain and Harris point out the problem of “stuff” is less problematic in U.S. history because we have more experience in handling it. Even the Advanced Placement program in world history, initially bent on making sure world history was as manageable as possible, seems to be falling victim to the “put-more-in” syndrome, as its stipulations become increasingly detailed and complex. Understandably, the temptation is very difficult to control. We used to think, for example, that we could cheat a bit, by largely leaving Persia out, but now not only the purists but also the demands of the contemporary world require that this be rethought, so that we have some historical perspective on Iranian society. But those of us who put Persia in have not usually figured out what to take out. The escalation continues.

Granting all this, everyone in the world history game needs periodically to step back, take a deep breath, and remember the injunctions of one of the founders of the teaching field, Lefton Stavrianos, who said that the first thing to do in entering world history was: DARE TO OMIT. Historians involved in instruction at the college level—framing courses and maybe even contributing to textbooks—need to take a lead in helping to winnow out, to prevent world history from becoming a growing and unwieldy catalogue of facts; and we need to listen to experienced world history teachers who have figured some of this out on their own. We are, sometimes, our own worst enemies in disciplinary manageability.

What is particularly striking about the Bain and Harris study is their finding that mere experience in teaching world history, at least amid the demands of high school engagement, does not necessarily help to develop and sustain coherence—but that exposure to structure does advance the cause. This means that those of us who teach existing or upcoming teachers need to keep this charge very much in mind.

And this means, in turn, that we must not only help teachers decide how to dare omissions, but also that we need, more vigorously than we sometimes imagine necessary, to emphasize the basics, the big picture, far more than we need to display our dazzling specialist knowledge of this or that regional case or particular topic.

Here I would add to the Bain and Harris statement about the substantial coherence world history seeks, the extent to which, in defining world history periodization, substantial coherence has in fact been established. I agree of course that all sorts of world history frameworks exist, that debate undoubtedly extends to fundamentals, and that no single formula has been or should be projected. The fact remains that a lot of world historians have agreed not only on what a number of key periods in world history are, but through what major themes they can be defined. And the themes, in turn, are not usually either too numerous or too complex. My favorite example, because it involved a personal intellectual trajectory that began in complete inexperience, involves the period 600–1450 CE (sometimes, admittedly, divided in two, around 1000 CE, but that’s a detail that need not delay us here). On my first world history project—a collaborative high school text—we all agreed to call this period “the age of diversity” because, amid the increasing number and variety of societies we had to deal with (after the comforting simplicity of three to five cases in the previous, classical period) it looked like the only recourse was to pick them off, one by one, because there were no crosscutting themes. It turns out—and I think there’s substantial agreement on this—that a first take on the period actually involves merely two primary, and very clear, themes, to which all the societies of Afro-Eurasia had to respond in some fashion: the spread of world religions and the increase in transregional trade and contact. One can go on to add a larger number of patterns, like the unusual importance of Islam or the rise of explicit efforts at neighboring imitations, but they in fact derive from the two basics. Amid everything that happened, the fundamentals—both involving substantial and enduring change—are strikingly clear. This is precisely the kind of back-to-basics discovery that can be shared with teachers, with teachers’ own experience in translating to the classroom adding to the message, so that we start more clearly with the conceptual forest, rather than the trees of detail. This is where the kind of collaboration that Bain and Harris recommend—among teachers of various levels, among world historians, and scholars of teaching and learning—can usefully center.

Admittedly, the conceptualization of world history is not always as clear cut as what (in my view) we can suggest for the postclassical centuries. The hardest period to conceptualize is, or should be, our own age, where by definition, since we don’t yet know the end of the story, the identification of fundamental themes is going to be most complex and most open to debate. It’s here, as well, that we risk being particularly distracted by conventional sub-periods, like the world wars or cold war decades, which can easily trample any larger scope or vision. Even here, however, coherence, if by definition somewhat tentative, is not impossible to uncover, and working with teachers on defining the fundamentals can be particularly rewarding.

The key, always, is first to identify the big changes—the small number of really big, crosscutting changes—that divide one major world history time period from another. This done, one can turn to concomitant continuities, subdivisions of change, regional variations—but with a sense of the larger picture firmly in mind. World history teaching is hard, but it can also be thoughtful and organized. As we work on this vital teaching challenge, there are many strengths to share.

—Peter Stearns is professor of history at George Mason University, where he is also the provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. He is the author, coauthor, or editor of numerous books and encyclopedias, many of which are on world history.