Publication Date

December 1, 1996

I write this essay with all the zeal of a recent convert to world history who has been academically energized by his newfound devotion to the subject. I also write with at least some awareness of the problems involved in teaching the subject.

I began my career in 1972 as a specialist in British history. I happily taught the required two-semester Western civilization course for nearly 20 years. Having secured promotion and tenure, I could have continued with Western civ until retirement. But something kept troubling me about the course. In particular, I wondered occasionally if the rumblings about world history within the profession were worth further consideration. Increasingly, the answer for me became a resounding "yes," not because of political correctness, a desire to attack Western civ, demands for multiculturalism, or the ethnic diversity in my classrooms, but simply because of what I considered to be more "e.c."—educationally correct. It came down to a question J. H. Hexter once posed: Which of the two courses is more beneficial for our students? I like the way he phrased that question, because it can be used to validate both Western civ and world history. But for today’s students, who will be spending most of their adult lives in the 21st century, I came increasingly to see the advantages of world history. (See T. H. Von Laue, "A Declaration of Interdependence: World History for the Twenty-First Century," Perspectives, April 1993, pp. 5-8.)

Furthering my interest was a six-month faculty exchange, in 1988, with Carl Smith, a noted Middle East scholar from San Diego State University. Teaching in southern California left me with several observations: (1) the American Civil War was not the staple in the curriculum; this; was especially noteworthy to me as a Virginian; (2) the term "Pacific Rim" took on new meaning in San Diego; and (3) provincialism exists but with a different geographical perspective on the West Coast. I reflected on this point after one student remarked, "I'm working 'back East' next summer; I'm going to Arizona." But above all, I remember having an office near Carl's colleague, Ross Dunn, who more than anyone conveyed to me the satisfaction that comes from teaching world history. After six months, I returned to Virginia, with a determination to leap into the world history arena. It took five years to develop a world history course at VMI. I made the following discoveries along the way.

Institutional Support

Moving to world history becomes easier if you have the support and encouragement of your department head, academic dean, and college president. I was fortunate to have all three on my side. My experience has been that deans and presidents are often supportive of academic innovations that respond to perceived needs in higher education. In Virginia, for instance, the state has made a major commitment to implement the recommendations of an influential report issued by the Commission on the University of the 21st Century. One recommendation was to internationalize the curriculum to expose students to global perspectives. This shift in focus can be accomplished in many academic disciplines, but the obvious place to start for many educational leaders is with the introductory history course. Educational leaders like signs of innovation and fresh thinking in the curriculum. That does not automatically make them cheerleaders for world history, but the fact remains that the shift to global history is often seen by administrators as one positive way of responding to the educational needs of today and tomorrow. These leaders also favor innovations that do not require substantial changes in faculty staffing. I also find that boards of trustees are inclined to support the shift to global history, particularly those trustees who work in the business community and regularly think about international markets and the movement of goods and services across cultural boundaries.

Departmental Support

In a department that has long offered Western civ as its basic first-year course, the idea of a transition to world his tor was not embraced uniformly by all the faculty with joy and eagerness. My colleagues' reactions ranged from healthy skepticism to guarded enthusiasm. I treated all responses with respect, including the view that Western civ was the educationally preferable approach to introductory history.

A few of my colleagues expressed doubts along these lines: "My two-semester Western civ course is already superficial, so how could I ever be satisfied if I had the entire globe to cover?" I replied by raising the issue of what we include and exclude in every course we teach, regardless of its scope. A specialist could easily conclude that a yearlong course in the American Civil War is superficial because of all that's left out. As historians, we always face issues of selection and organization, whether the scope is local or global.

Another major argument was expressed this way: "As a 20-year teacher of Western civ, how could I ever teach myself enough about China, India, and Africa to feel comfortable—in a sense, legitimate—in front of a class?" This is a valid concern, but there is an appropriate answer. It boils down to personal professional commitment and the willingness to make time to read more broadly. Those who conclude that world history is the better course educationally will find or make the time to prepare, especially if there is institutional support. And teachers who agree to teach world history will need help along the way, but I’ll always remember this comment heard during my own transition: “Moving to world history will inevitably involve a lot of time devoted to reading and teaching yourself.” For those who remain reluctant and daunted by the task of going global, another observation comes to mind: “Teaching world history is a lot easier than contemplating the task” In other words, “just doing it” is the way to overcome many of the anticipated problems.

Time and Money

There are many helpful people and useful resources available to faculty who want to begin teaching world history, but the journey will be immeasurably more difficult without two key ingredients. To start, colleges might consider small summer stipends to support the initial reading required to begin such a course. In addition, they might provide instructors with a reduced teaching load during the first year of offering the course. Since so many educational voices speak in favor of global awareness, institutions need to show their support in substantial ways.

In the fall semester of 1991, I took a sabbatical leave for the sole purpose of examining world history as an introductory course and making specific recommendations. I methodically worked my way through numerous books and articles, starting with selected issues of the History Teacher and with J. W. Konvitz’s splendid collection of edited essays, What Americans Should Know: Western Civilization or World History? (Michigan State Univ., 1985).1 I obtained Kevin Reilly’s useful World History: Selected Course Outlines and Reading Lists from American Colleges and Universities (Markus Wiener, 1990), and I reviewed readings suggested by Ross Dunn (e.g., Douglas D. Adler and William F. Lye, “Dare We Teach World History? Dare We Not?” History Teacher 20 [May 1987]: 327-32; Edward L. Farmer, “Civilization as a Unit of World History,” History Teacher 18 [May 1985]: 345-63; L.S. Stavrianos, “The Teaching of World History,” Journal of Modern History 31, no. 2 [June 1959]: 110-17; and H. Loring White, “A Technological Model of Global History,” History Teacher 20 [August 1987]: 497-517).2 I also invited Michael Galgano of James Madison University and Carl Smith to share their world history experiences with my departmental colleagues in afternoon seminars. Teachers at James Madison University made the switch from Western civ to world history several years ago, and I sought to benefit from their efforts.

A major boost came from my joining the World History Association and reading articles in the Journal of World History and the World History Bulletin, which are aimed at teachers wanting to get started in global history. I found the following Perspectives December 1996 articles from the Journal especially helpful: George E. Brooks, “An Undergraduate World History Curriculum for the Twenty-First Century,” vol. 2, no. 1 (spring 1991): 65-79; J.R. McNeill, “Of Rats and Men: A Synoptic Environmental History of the Island Pacific,” vol. 5, no. 2 (fall 1994): 299-349; and Lynda Shaffer, “Southernization,” vol. 5, no. 1 (spring 1994): 1-21. From the Bulletin, I benefited from Julia Clancy-Smith, “The Middle East in World History,” vol. 9, no. 2 (fall/winter 1992-93): 30-34; Craig A. Lockard, “Integrating African History into the World History Course: Some Transgressional Patterns,” vol. 10, no. 2 (fall/winter 1993-94): 21-31; and Loyd S. Swenson, “A Jump-Start Reading List for Prospective World History Teachers,” vol. 9, no. 1 (spring/summer 1992): 26.

I savored the writings of William McNeill and Peter Stearns on world history, and I believe that despite their differences (e.g., on the relative significance of cultural diffusion), the two share some thoughts in common. For instance, both contend that the study of global history prepares one for an understanding of the modern world-more so than any other introductory first-year history course. Both argue in favor of focusing initially on the major, enduring civilizations in the world and on their legacies, although McNeill stresses the contact between the regions as the primary motor that drives civilizations forward, while Stearns focuses more on the distinctive elements in different societies and on the forces that shaped their experiences. (See William McNeill, Mythistory [Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986]; Peter Stearns, et al., World Civilizations: The Global Experience [HarperCollins, 1992].)

In addition to reading, I attended my first world history conference where I learned, for instance, about the effectiveness of bringing area specialists to one's college for weeklong summer seminars-e.g., engaging African or Middle Eastern experts to discuss the best books, themes, and organizing principles for teaching their subjects. I also learned from the conference where funding might be obtained for such seminars. Not incidentally, I was reminded that teaching universal history was once the norm and that the traditional Western civ course had a definite history of its own, rising to prominence in this country only after World War I. (See Gilbert Allardyce, "The Rise and Fall of the Western Civilization Course," American Historical Review 87 [June 1982]: 695-743.)

When I completed my sabbatical, I wrote a report to the administration that outlined my conclusion: VMI should initiate a two-semester world history course for first-year students as a pilot project. In the three semesters that followed, I hammered out the details of the proposed course with my colleagues, who became increasingly supportive, especially when they saw I was not trying to draft any of them as reluctant participants. Further assistance came from my department chair, Blair Turner, a Latin American historian who had taught Western civ for years; he proved quite eager to teach the new course. In the spring of 1993, Turner and I made final plans and selected books. For the first semester (pre-1500), we chose William McNeill's History of the Human Community, 4th ed. (Prentice-Hall, 1993), Peter Stearns’s Documents in World History (HarperCollins, 1988), and Ross Dunn’s Adventures of Ibn Battuta (Univ. of California Press, 1986). We began the course in fall 1993, and here’s how we did it.

The First Semester

The university registrar selected 100 first-year students from the entering class of 360 and placed them in world history; the remaining students were enrolled in Western civ. We met with our world history students three times per week, with each week in the semester being devoted to 1 of McNeill's 14 chapters. His chronological organization and emphasis on cultural diffusion provided the structure to our course and the framework for our lectures and discussions.

For the first meeting of each week, a lecture was presented to all the students. With 14 major lectures in the course, Turner and I gave half of them, spread throughout the semester. The other 7 were given by teachers in our community invited to discuss a particular aspect of each week's chapter in McNeill. For instance, a Far Eastern historian gave an overview of classical China (comparing the Yellow River communities in the north with those along the Yangtze to the south), the early Chinese dynasties, and the different philosophies espoused by the Legalists, Taoists, and Confucians. A Middle Eastern historian gave a lecture on Mohammed and the origins of Islam. Another colleague intrigued me with his talk on Africa before European contacts. I learned about Monomotapas and the city of Great Zimbabwe, and I also gained much from the lecturer who described the Mongols and their expansion over the steppes of Eurasia. During the past decade, my own department has hired several new teachers with area specialties beyond Europe and North America, a fact that helped us compose the lecture list.

In regard to my own lectures, I enjoyed researching and delivering a talk on early India and the Hindu religion and on the Kushite civilization in northeast Africa, but I think my favorite discovery was preparing a lecture entitled "The World in the Year One." I started my preparation by asking our reference librarian about calendars and differing methods of measuring time, learning for the first time what “the year one” was for the Chinese, the Jews, the Indians, and the Zoroastrians.

For the second meeting in the week, students attended one of eight discussion sections scheduled over a fourth-day period. Turner and I had about 12 students in each discussion group, and we expected them to be conversant each time we met on the content of the week's lecture and on the assigned chapter in McNeill's text. In our effort to improve the discussions, we emphasized techniques of good note taking, and we allowed students to consult their notes during the brief weekly quizzes that took place during our second weekly meeting. The quizzes were based solely on that week's lecture and textbook assignment.

After all the discussion sections had met, Turner and I were ready for the week's third session with our students, when we met collectively with our respective discussion sections (his three, my five) to review and expand upon the primary lessons of the week's material and to preview the corning week. We also used these meetings for periodic hour tests.

As for grades, we offered the students varied opportunities. In addition to weekly quizzes, two hour-long tests, and an examination that counted 30 percent of the final grade, we assigned two papers to be composed outside of class. The first was an essay addressing the question of why democracy developed in Greece but not in India and 'why the caste system emerged in India but not in Greece. The second paper required students to write an analytical review of Dunn's book. While some students complained about the difficulty of following Battuta's travels in unfamiliar parts of the world, most seemed willing to meet the cultural challenges posed by a book set in the 14th-century Islamic world; they also began to see the global interconnections in the Dar al-Islam. To assist students, I show them the December 1991 issue of National Geographic, which featured a cover picture and major article about a modern-day replication of Battuta’s journey. Somehow, reading that article and viewing a current picture of Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka seemed to help students. The proof of this book’s educational usefulness came from the quality of papers students submitted. Perhaps my enthusiasm for Dunn’s book and Battuta’s travels also affected my students’ willingness to engage this new material.

The Second Semester

Par the second semester, Turner and I continued with McNeill's textbook (volume two, post-1500). We used Alfred Crosby's Columbian Exchange (Greenwood, 1972) and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (Ballantine Books, 1983, c. 1959) for outside reading and reports plus one book on an aspect of world history that students selected themselves. Crosby and Achebe seemed particularly effective for teaching about the consequences of “culture contact” and for altering student perspectives.


In looking back at our initial foray into world history, Turner and I are pleased. Students accepted the course and its broad, global perspective more readily than we had expected. The final grades resembled the distribution in Western civ. And the two teachers were happy to have had their own intellectual batteries recharged. While favoring the format just described, we recognize that other approaches could also work (e.g., the traditional arrangement of a teach meeting the same group of 25 or 30 students 3 times per week). Pedagogically, however, we benefited from our tea approach featuring the common lecture at the beginning of each week, the common syllabus, and our working together to produce the course's common assignments and final examination.

We recognized after our first attempt at teaching the course that some areas were in need of improvement. For example, we now try to help our first-year student glean more from the weekly lectures by giving them samples of our own lecture notes and by asking all lecturers to dispute a topical outline at the start of their talks; this latter technique increases the attention level of our students as the 50- minute lectures progress. In discussion classes, we strive to elicit more comments from the group and to have students respond to each other instead of engaging in two-way discussions with the teacher. We are seeking innovative techniques for teaching and learning more about geography, especially techniques and computer programs that take advantage of new technology in the classroom.

Although the "work-in-progress" sign is still hanging on our world history course, we are encouraged by the initial results and by a recent unanimous department vote to abandon the Western civ course for world history. Teachers new to the subject are getting institutional support to assist their transition. As more colleagues consider making the transition from Western civ to world history, more seem willing to "work up" a fresh lecture in a new field—as long as they can commit the time and complete the suggested readings. Visits from outside experts and discussions with more experienced world history teachers are helping novice instructors gain the confidence to "take over" new subject material.

For myself, I savor comments made by students who were asked if the course had made any difference to them. One said: "I saw the movie Malcolm X during the holidays and understood the parts about Islam because I’d had your course.” Another remarked: “I was at home with my girlfriend during vacation, watching ‘Jeopardy’ on television. When the category of ‘world religions’ came up, I just devastated her with my answers; she couldn’t believe all I knew.” Another student told me that he understands China far better now, having read The Analects by Confucius; yet others tell me that they can read the morning newspaper with far more understanding, thanks to the course. I will gladly add those comments to my list of justifications for world history, a list headed by my favorite reason: the world is round.


1. Some of the helpful articles in the History Teacher include William McNeill, “Beyond Western Civilization: Rebuilding the Survey,” 10 (August 1977): 509-48; Peter Stearns, “Periodization in World History Teaching: Identifying the Big Changes,” 20 (August 1987): 561-80; Craig Lockard, “Global History, Modernization, and the World-System Approach: A Critique,” 14 (August 1981): 489-515; and Julio C. Pino, “Notes on Teaching Comparative Modem Latin American History,” 27 (November 1993): 73-78.

2. For teachers thinking about starting a world history course, I recommend the following books as good general studies: John Fairbank, Edwin Reischauer, and Albert Craig, East Asia: Tradition and Transformation, rev. ed. (Houghton-Mifflin, 1989); Stanley Wolpert, A New History of India, 5th ed. (Oxford Univ. Press, 1997): E. Bradford Bums, Latin America: A Concise Interpretive History, 6th ed. (Prentice-Hall, 1993); Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab People (Harvard Univ. Press, 1991); and Basil Davidson, Modern Africa, 2nd ed. (Longman, 1989).

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