Publication Date

April 1, 1989

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning


  • United States
  • World


Teaching Methods

The dilemma is obvious, visible in most history texts and in all but the most experimental curricula: the past is divided into two parts, the United States and whatever else in the world is studied historically or, more simply and obviously, US and THEM. We can modestly rejoice of course, that there is often something beyond the national horizon, as against some teaching traditions that pay little attention to anything save the glories of one’s own country and its antecedents (a narrowness true in some school systems here as well). The fact remains that the characteristic split, between purely United States courses and a world or something-else course, not only leaves bridges unbuilt but fosters in many students a truly unfortunate tendency toward historical isolationism, as the complexities, and troubles of most of the world’s history seem oddly unrelated to the glorious saga of our own ascent.

Students do absorb from school and from the general culture a number of myths and half-truths about America’s uniqueness and its separation from most larger world processes. They can discuss these in some detail, despite their ignorance about all sorts of United States history specifics and despite considerable cynicism and intelligence in other respects. It is perpetually amazing to me how many good college freshmen know for certain that the United States has historically offered unparalleled mobility opportunities, unprecedented openness to change and progress, and unique altruism in foreign affairs (this last with specific subsets such as the fact that we “gave” the industrial revolution to Japan after World War II, a hardy perennial in my world history courses until I took firmer steps to hammer home the Meiji era).

The fact that beliefs of this sort are oversimple, verging on outright incorrect, in situating the United States in a larger world and comparative framework, suggests a serious task for world historians in helping students locate what they know or think they know about their own national past in a more general history. For students’ beliefs affect not only their perceptions of the United States, but a tendency to downgrade other societies because of an implicit impulse to measure these societies against an unrealistically demanding standard. It is probably true, as Leften Stavrianos has argued, that the United States has been unusually lucky in its past, compared to other societies, though even this cannot apply to all key groups in American history, but it has obviously not exceeded world norms so blithely as many students—including students who do very well in world history per se—continue to believe.

The task of addressing these issues, of finding ways to integrate the United States to some degree into world history courses, is at least as formidable as it is compelling. World history courses almost by definition have too much to do already. At the same time the habit of assuming that students “get” their United States history in repetitious abundance, and certainly in separate courses in school and college, remains deeply ingrained. It has been undeniably convenient to let the twain not meet, given the traditions of history teaching and the burdens on those of us who foolhardily present the whole rest of the world in a semester or two. Yet the result has been to leave the task of connecting—or more commonly, of failing to connect—to students themselves. This is a conceptually demanding job, when a world history framework is juxtaposed to a usually rigorously national context presented additionally in a separate course taken in a different year. The task is complicated further, as I have suggested, by the biases many students bring to it. The result, in my firm belief, is a need to do more to provide some suggestive guidance to the process of integration, so that students do not emerge with prejudices unchallenged or simply with the sense that God decreed two different histories, one ours and one theirs.

Having said this, admittedly a fairly obvious point save for our curricular traditions, I have no magic formulas that will make the resulting integration easier. I do have some ideas that may stimulate other suggestions and actual curricular experiments, plus further knowledge of experiments already undertaken. The goal, certainly, should be clear: the need to deal with what seems to me a significant challenge in history teaching now that a world framework is increasingly envisaged.

The challenge does not add up to a need to handle a great deal of narrative detail about American history in the world history course. There is no time, and hopefully, given the possibility of cross-referencing to previous work at least in a college-level course, some limits to the necessity. The desirability of sketching key themes in the United States’ past, however, and tying them into the world history framework may seem still more difficult than simply designating a few weeks’ chunk to American details. It is this approach, however, that I wish particularly to address, not again with complete plans but with some thoughts on how to proceed.

The first distinction is chronological: the issue of handling American history before the 1870s differs markedly from that afterwards. While the North American colonies and the new United States were not without some economic, demographic, and symbolic significance in the wider world before 1870, these points of contact can be fairly quickly evoked and are readily outstripped by the impact of most other inhabited areas including Latin America. After about 1870 this situation changes, among other things as a result of the growing world-scale operations of American agriculture and key corporations such as the Singer sewing machine company. The familiar world political role, becoming visible by the 1890s, followed close on the heels of these earlier contacts and ushered in the overt world power impact with which we still live today, for better or worse. For a world history course that pays serious attention to the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, then, the claim of United States history for a treatment in detail comparable to that lavished on other major societies, qualified only by a hope of greater student knowledge, is considerable. The suggestion is, then, for a chronological shifting of gears between very broad-brush treatment from the seventeenth to the later nineteenth century, and more meticulous integration over the past 100 years, based on a change in world significance that can be explicitly presented and justified to a world history class.

While detail is not required, for world history purposes, the first long period of United States-in-the-wider-world history should not be entirely neglected. It does help illustrate some themes in world history from the seventeenth century onward, as will be suggested below. It is essential as the basis for understanding later United States patterns when world significance cannot be gainsaid. Just as some sketch, albeit brief, must be offered for Russia before 1480, or Japan before and during civilization’s initial advent, not for their own sake so much as in order to set some themes that persist into later periods when the societies occupy a more visible place on a world stage, so a formative United States period—if a long one—should not be entirely ignored. And this is all the more important in that student awareness and some common misconceptions begin to apply to this period, making it essential to establish some links to wider themes even before United States inclusion becomes imperative in world terms outright.

Given inherent lack of time and the need not to exaggerate American themes while paying them some heed, the first three centuries of what became United States history must obviously be inserted in a careful analytical framework, not rehearsed in a narrative for its own sake; and this analytical framework is most logically comparative. Some ingredients of North American history may of course have been developed in discussions of Amerindian societies and the European voyages of discovery; I do not mean that focus on 1600 and after has no preparation. In this treatment, however, the principle contributions of a world history framework are, first, to help students see how landmarks of what became United States history fit into larger world trends in this timespan and, second, to located major features of this history in a comparative context.

The world history course provides an opportunity to ask students—and most of them have never really been presented with questions—what aspects of emerging United States history are truly distinctive, in a comparative framework, and whether indeed the United States was building toward becoming a “civilization” in its own right. Of course the debate about American exceptionalism needs to be framed with care, lest it escape the proper time limitations of a world history course and take on undue significance. In a course, though, that builds on a civilizational approach to some degree, and has already established the importance of careful comparison as one means of gaining intelligibility and managing data, these basic questions about early United States history follow logically. They also allow, again if only briefly, some treatment of certain of the common student misconceptions. I spend at least one session, and it is usually a lively one, talking about the American exceptionalist argument particularly as it applies before 1900. I want students to know in capsule form the latest findings about comparative mobility patterns, which indicate that American mobility culture differed from that of other frontier or early-industrial societies considerably more than the reality of mobility differed, and what this all means about the way we conceive of the United States’ past in larger comparative terms. I want them to remember that key distinctive ingredients of the United States’ past, such as the importance and some unusual characteristics of slavery, do not fit easily into the most conventional God-bless-America comparative framework.

And for my purposes, in a short and highly thematic world history course, I want students to see that for the most part the United States can be grasped as an extension of Western civilization. This is not, I admit to them, an incontestable choice. American exceptionalism has some valid as well as exaggerated bases in fact, even if established on carefully comparative ground rather than—as is the wont of most Americanists themselves—merely asserted. Students should acknowledge some ingredients here, as in racial and frontier issues (including proclivity to violence and relatively weak government controls), or religious and family patterns that began to take shape as early as the seventeenth century. It might be desirable, where time permits, to develop a larger civilizational category that would embrace the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, admitting close connections to Western civilization but emphasizing distinguishing experiences not all of which, however, were those of the United States alone.

But I try to defend the extension of Western civilization hypothesis, arguing indeed that there are fewer problems integrating United States history into modern Western history than there are in treating Japan as part of a Chinese-inspired East Asian civilization, a comparative civilizations problem with which my course has grappled earlier. (Indeed, an essay assignment on precisely this topic has worked rather well.) Arguments about shared cultural origins—due reminders offered about non-Western groups in the developing North American population—here blend with the startling degree of chronological parallelism around such trends as the late eighteenth/nineteenth century demographic transition; the industrial revolution; new sexual behaviors and Victorianism; more democratic politics (though here with the vital caveat that the United States was unusual, and has seen unusual results, in establishing majority male universal suffrage prior to industrialization rather than afterwards, in contrast to most other Western countries).

The exact degree of United States participation in modern Western trends, and key qualifications such as the existence of slavery and its racial aftermath or the unusual persistence of religious belief in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, must obviously be discussed and treated as interpretive problems rather than a set of tidy historical findings; but its analytical advantages, as well as the issues left dangling, can be indicated in a fairly brief discussion. The claim of shared Western-ness can be further discussed from the vantagepoint of more clearly different societies in the same period of time, including in many respects Latin America, from whose angle of vision the United States as a frontier outpost of the West would seem if anything more obvious than it does to most of us and our students.

With early United States history sketched comparatively, and its civilizational position—or lack of fully separate position—established, it is then possible to show United States participation in key world historical trends in the same three-century span. The simplest aspects involve showing United States inclusion in general Western evolution, through the industrial revolution, the growing fascination with science, and participation in political upheaval. There are, however, crosscutting currents that among other things bring early United States history into different comparative contexts without vitiating (necessarily at least) the basic Western-ness argument.

The place of the North American colonies in Wallerstein’s world economy is a case in point that allows contact with some familiar facts about colonial economic dependence. North America was in some sense a peripheral economy, though outside the South a less important and therefore less closely regulated one than Latin America at the same time. Relatively weak government and coercive labor systems established in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries certainly follow from peripheral status as Wallerstein defines it, and this can in turn (where time permits) serve as framework for more extended comparison of slave systems both in this world economy and in relation to slavery in earlier societies. It is obviously true that to the extent the North American colonies were peripheral, they managed to pull out of this status, into industrialization, unusually rapidly. This may occasion a bit of student boosterism, but it can be explained, while the lingering effects of peripheralism, in the South-North relationship or in the ongoing United States indebtedness through 1914, should also be noted.

A second crosscutting trend context, again shared with Latin America and, later, with many twentieth-century societies, involves new nation status. While students will readily see that the United States avoided some new nations problems that beset Latin America slightly later, they can also see some classic new nations issues in, for example, the Civil War. Furthermore, some ongoing effects of new nations experience, suitably glossed with an exaggerated version of the Western ideology of liberal individualism, showed in the persistent weakness of the American state. Here is a striking United States departure from Western norms until at least the 1930s, and again an interesting similarity to Latin American patterns. I have found the theme increasingly useful as a followup to the civilizational comparison, not because it is more important than the world economy determination but because it is more complex. It jolts students more, and usefully. American government weakness, while not a total surprise given anti-statist ideology, deserves some careful statement as against dominant Western trends and despite the tendency of conventional United States history courses to treat the state as central actor from the revolution onward. Rates of crime and vigilantism, compared to Western trends, form one useful illustration. While American political characteristics did touch base with Western (particularly British) political ideology, they also deserve assessment in the light of new nations theory and the concurrent experience of new governments in Latin America.

It is important, obviously, not to chop up the United States patterns into too many discrete fragments. Indication of basic civilizational characteristics, however, can allow crosscutting participation in certain other world patterns where the United States position differed, at least initially, from that of the Western leaders. This in turn amplifies other comparative possibilities and simultaneously shows how world patterns really apply to our own society and not simply to more remote corners of the world where the absence of full historical free will is less surprising and (to most American students) less important, less jarring. The same process, of diverse comparison and insertion in larger world trends and relationships, helps students make United States historical data, new or previously acquired, coherent and assessable in world-historical terms. And, in broad outline at least, depending on student capacity and the level of detail which time permits, it can be sketched fairly economically, precisely because it calls on skills and concepts already utilized in other segments of the world course.

Elements of the same approach obviously can continue in the amplified treatment that becomes desirable from the 1870s onward. The comparative context must be retained. As the United States matured as an industrial society, and as Western Europe shed further vestiges of traditional structures that had never taken root in North America, from peasant agriculture to monarchical government, convergence in key features of the main segments of Western society became a leading theme. Some—though by no means all—of the qualifications necessary in the earlier period, in inserting the United States as part of a large Western civilization, now declined in salience. Indeed, from the 1920s onward the United States took a leadership role in defining many key features of the Western version of advanced industrial society, particularly in the realm of consumerism and popular culture. While political differences remained (indeed widened, in comparing the United States and Britain) during the twentieth century, the “new nation” limitations on American government waned somewhat and reduced the distinction in state functions.

Obviously, world economy analysis remains useful, as the United States moved more firmly into core status along with the rest of the West (and ultimately Japan).

The principal new theme to handle is of course the United States’ ascension to superpower status. This evolution, familiar enough in many ways, can organize this second of the chronological segments devoted to the United States-world interaction, centered of course on the twentieth century rather than the early-modern, industrial decades. Quite apart from the narrative material to adduce—world war roles, emergence from isolation, postwar diplomacy, the rise of multinational corporations—the theme builds on the world economy approach, in linking the more recent articulations of core status to the changing world power balance of which the United States has been a major beneficiary. There is a link too, though a more complex one, to the expanded Western civilization theme set earlier: to what extent did the United States, in gaining new military and diplomatic power, pick up distinctively Western interests and approaches? Tensions between United States-Western affiliations and the actual geography of the United States usefully inform a number of diplomatic trends in the twentieth century and shape some questions about world politics (Pacific vs. Atlantic foci) in the near future. Assessing the United States as a Western imperialist newcomer, though a distinctive one because of twentieth-century world power realities and the revolutionary heritage of the United States itself, is another useful application of earlier comparative efforts to the new world power balance. American diplomatic moralism, plus certain racist themes, obviously evoke Western impulses that were only slightly more blatant a century ago.

At the same time, the United States’ world power rise complicates earlier comparisons in important respects. The United States has become, since 1945, more militarized and diplomatically conservative just as much as the West has become somewhat less so. Here, trends are at work which muddy the convergence theme. And superpower status also invites a comparison with the Soviet Union in attributes and goals beneath rhetoric; this comparison, like the new nations analysis in the previous period, may highlight complexities in the United States-as-Western model without necessarily overturning it.

The invitation, then, is to an adapted comparative approach that will build upon the obvious shift in power position over the past century while utilizing the comparative themes sketched a bit earlier in the world history course. This approach allows some extensive narrative passages where time permits. It provides students some opportunity to deal with major changes (including growing attachment to more conservative international interests—from Yankee Doodle to Great Satan in less than ten generations). It also establishes continuities with earlier features of United States society, such as the close relationship to larger Western patterns including now the movement toward a service economy and new immigration streams. It yields, finally, a chance to discuss United States world impact in something more than random fashion, by using themes from the world economy, the new superpower concept and attendant comparison, and assessment of relationships with earlier Western imperialist impulses seen not simply as thrusts toward political or economic domination but also as assertions of cultural hegemony.

Much is not covered in the scheme outlined here, given the emphasis on analytical frameworks rather than staples of the United States history game. There are surely many alternatives to the schema itself, in the whole or in part. Some instructors would doubtless find too much comparative complexity hard to handle for their student clientele and would prefer to limit the vantage points. What I do think can be widely urged, apart from some of the specifics already outlined, boils down to three main points. The first is that the United States should be discussed in the world history course for several good reasons. The second point is that this discussion can be manageable by using comparison, by dividing treatment into two basic chronological segments very simple to define in terms of world power roles, and by hooking into leading world history themes such as the unfolding of basic international economic relationships. The third point is that a variety of frameworks exist by which the inclusion of the United States can fit analytical goals and not involve an occasional, somewhat random narrative stroll through episodes. Frameworks exist, in other words, that can encompass discussion of United States history within other course goals. Furthermore, these frameworks can apply to the United States a rule that I believe must be fundamental in a world history course: societies worth discussing at all must not be simply popped in and out sporadically, but given enough character that major actions, such as diplomatic initiatives, can be interpreted in terms of causation and evaluated in terms of change and continuity in light of past trajectories. The frameworks applied to the United States may be evoked only briefly, for want of time, but a sketch at least is possible, so that students can begin to think of American history as part of a world pattern, in which some of the issues they discern in other societies can be carried over.

There is, then, a need to rethink the United States-world history relationship; the need can be manageably met, though various emphases are possible; and manageability can and should include coherence, not in terms of masses of detail but in terms of one or more analytical frameworks consistently applied.

Four final points must be made beyond these basic assertions. First, any new experiments with greater attention to the United States in world history should assume a certain amount of student obduracy. Beliefs about American separateness—a large if informal adherence to the exceptionalist school—die hard (and of course in some cases, carefully stated, they can be defended). It is easy to be disappointed about how much students can separate one framework of analysis from older habits that will crop up when a new topic or problem is addressed. Without pushing any particular conceptual agenda, it is worth noting that some points about reconceptualizing American history need to be hammered dramatically, if only to open a more questioning outlook.

Second, while good lectures and class discussions are possible around some of the points discussed above, it is obvious that some provocative reading matter that puts the United States into one or more comparative contexts would be a tremendous boon. World history books don’t do this, because of their normally unanalytical approach and their particular uncertainty when it comes to United States history. Americanists tend to discourage the approach because of their normally blithe unawareness of comparative issues and possibilities (slavery and maybe why-no-socialism excepted). Some attention to relevant, and suitably brief, teaching materials would be timely, certainly feasible, and potentially a real advance in structuring history curricula.

Third, the task of relating United States and world history should be a two-way street. Without changing all their habits, Americanists should become more alert to the possibility of linking what they teach about to what students have learned or will learn in world history. This means some attention, from the more strictly United States perspective, to comparative issues and larger world trends; it means picking up systematically not only on changes in world power roles but also the impact of international influences on American life. Too much has been written of late about the problems of world history in diverting students from the values of their own society, without dealing with the total history package to which more students are exposed not only in college but in schools. While world historians can take up some responsibility for helping students to see how “our” history fits the world framework, the interchange must be mutual, as Americanists take fuller cognizance of what world history is about and how it bears on what they teach. The compartmentalization that students learn too well in history, which a world history course must attack to some degree, reflects lack of sequenced curricular relationships and, often, a real compartmentalization among historians. World historians must and can learn that their bailiwick is not “everything except the United States.” American history teachers can correspondingly learn that one of their themes must be a positioning of United States development amid larger trends.

This leads to the final point, which can return us to the larger world history thrust. Until American history instructors convert to greater utilization of an international and comparative framework, world history teachers may justly fear that inclusion of United States topics will divert from their basic commitment to provide cultural breadth to a stubbornly parochial student body. Some students may indeed rivet on the United States entry into world affairs over the past century, as if this alone provided coherence in a global hodgepodge. This can be guarded against by restricting allocations of class time to reasonable proportions, and by the careful comparisons and application of larger themes already recommended. Focused discussion of the exceptional features of the United States position in the 1950s and 1960s, and the subsequent relative decline explained through a combination of American and world developments, can be a timely corrective. So can some exploration of views of the United States held by other societies, and how these link both to larger cultural diversities and to American behaviors.

Students need not emerge from a sensible presentation with a belief that the United States has become the pivot of world history, though it remains desirable if comparable attention to international influences and constraints, applied to coverage of the twentieth century in United States courses enhances this message. While risks exist of some lack of proportion, then they can be addressed. The current system, encouraging assumptions about United States-world connections to go almost entirely unexamined, is riskier still. Quite apart from its implications for properly balanced perspective on our own society, it misses opportunities for challenging analysis where students need it most, in seeing the relationships between “their” environment and the past and the wider world to which, happily, history teachers are increasingly trying to expose them.

Peter N. Stearns

George Mason University