Publication Date

May 1, 2000

Each generation must write its own history, not because past histories are untrue but because in a rapidly changing world new questions arise and new answers are needed.
—L. S. Stavrianos1

The debate over national world history standards that raged for several years confirms that the presentation of history is inherently controversial, and often involves a dialogue between historians and the public. When published in 1994 the standards generated a major discussion well beyond the confines of the campuses.2 It involved politicians (some of whom boasted they had never held a passport), educators, talk show hosts, newspaper columnists, and other interested parties. Rarely has a history project elicited such national furor.3 The sharp differences of opinion about what should be emphasized in teaching history underscores many of the inherent issues in the complex relationship between historians and the society at large over what students (the future informed citizenry) should learn from history courses, and who will make the decisions about that content.

The history canon always changes with the times. Often these changes are related to the prevailing political climate. This included the shift to Western civilization courses in U.S. universities after World War I, as Americans became more involved in European affairs.4 These survey courses dominated American colleges for half a century, playing a formative role in educating generations of citizens. Indeed, studying Western civilization both reflected and shaped the world view and political power of a United States rising to global leadership, in which Americans tended to see themselves as the inheritors of Western history and the protectors of global democracy. As a prominent Western civilization text (tellingly titled The Mainstream of Civilization) put it, “there is unbroken continuity between the civilization of the Greeks and the Romans and that of the modern West.”5

The ideas that shaped the Western civilization survey course began to be seriously challenged in the 1960s and 1970s, when the notion of shared American values was shattered by domestic turbulence and unpopular foreign wars. Many historians concluded that the old Western civilization course was outdated and that its approach gave students a misleading view of history reflecting only American orientations. These developments did not establish a new consensus but did enlarge the debate. The recent trends have been toward expansion and inclusiveness of subject matter and voices, fostering many new fields, including world history. These constituted something of a "paradigm shift" in historiography that reflected the rapid changes of the post–World War II years as well as vastly increased understanding and hence reassessment of Asian, Islamic, African, and Western hemisphere history.

Many public officials and educators shared the view that an outward-thrusting, globally involved, increasingly diverse nation needed a broader understanding of history and of the world. Federally funded area studies centers and programs proliferated, while returned Peace Corps volunteers became teachers and public officials. The long-established Eurocentric history seemed outmoded in a world where over half the population lives in Eastern and Southern Asia, and whose major patterns include Asian economic revival, global warming, an increasingly transnational economy, and the World Wide Web.

Nonetheless, history and its study, teaching, and interpretation have always played a complicated role in American life. The past few years has seen extraordinary public attention to concerns such as Smithsonian exhibitions and university general education programs that might, in less electric times, be left to professional historians. The national standards debate confirms George Orwell's argument in his novel, 1984, that who controls the past controls the future, and who controls the present controls the past.

Today the debate over the world history "canon" is partly a struggle over who owns history and which version of the past should prevail. It takes place among professional historians as well as between historians and the public. Some of the most vocal critics of the world history standards, and of replacing or supplementing Western civilization courses with world history, have not been professional historians or authors of scholarly books in the field but "public" or politically active intellectuals, often based in right-wing think tanks or the mass media. For the most part they finished college before the rapid increase in knowledge of and scholarly interest in non-Western histories. Many were educated in an era when Java meant a caffeinated beverage rather than an island with a 1,500-year-old civilization, when the history of Africa was contemptuously dismissed by a famous Oxford don as "the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe."6

Conservatives imbued with this mind-set have seen the national standards issue as a way of waging "cultural war" against interpretations of history that recognize the achievements of non-Western cultures. Some influential historians also support this view; for instance, David Landes, the most prominent current exponent of Eurocentric history, whose recent work mostly treats non-Western civilizations with contempt, calls his critics "Europhobes" who value "feeling over knowing" and who mistakenly promote a globalist and multiculturalist agenda.7

Two of the most vocal nonacademic critics, Lynne Cheney and William Bennett, zealously promoted (as heads of the National Endowment for the Humanities and Department of Education, respectively, in the 1980s) the study of the Western tradition while waging war against world history and international studies programs. Bennett believes that education should focus on the Western cultural and intellectual heritage as the basis for modern American society and values. Responding to such views, the U.S. Senate voted 99 to 1 to reject the national standards, and require that any recipients of federal money "should have a decent respect for the contributions of Western civilization."8 The resolution had no legal force but the ultimate effect on history education was chilling nonetheless.

The national world history standards are actually more Eurocentric than some college texts. Intended only as guidelines, they constitute a middle-of-the-road committee product very much in keeping with the broad mainstream of the world history field over the past several decades. The large number of people involved, drawn from all levels of education, insured a reasonably diverse set of ideas. But the public opposition forced a revision of the standards that eliminated, modified, or embellished some of the material.9 While the revisions satisfied some critics, the uproar made most school districts and states afraid to adopt such controversial standards.

The public debate about teaching world history mirrored differences of opinion among historians and academic leaders about what history undergraduates should learn. Many would teach either Western civilization or world history with a special emphasis on western Europe and the pre-Greek Middle East but with some attention to China, India, and Islam. Advocates of Europe-centered courses reason that American students must understand the dominant cultural and intellectual underpinnings of the United States before they can begin to grasp other traditions.

On the other side have been those advocating a broader global perspective.10 They contend that not only do American students live in an increasingly interdependent world, but that they also live in a multicultural nation whose inhabitants come from many parts of the globe. American society developed as a creative mixture of influences from various European, African, Latin American, Asian, and indigenous peoples. Today immigrants are rapidly transforming many cities into hubs of world culture and commerce while bringing Latin American grocery stores, Southeast Asian restaurants, Japanese factories, Caribbean music, and African art galleries into once provincial heartland towns. Hence a grounding in world history also helps students better understand the United States.

World history takes the globe rather than Europe as the field of interaction with a more balanced treatment of the various civilizations and societies. Most world historians argue that the "mainstream of civilization" for several millennia, the Afro-Eurasian historical zone, encompassed most of the lands between Morocco and Japan, with China, India, and the Middle East as important cores. Furthermore, there were remarkable developments in the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa long before 1492. With a broader perspective they describe not a unique, hermetically sealed Western civilization but rather a merging of the contributions of numerous cultures, such as the ideas, science, mathematics, and technology developed in Asia that later dispersed to Europe. The argument for a truly global history has become urgent as Americans require increased knowledge of the world beyond national borders. Debates about the history curriculum and the role of world history take place on the campus, in state education offices, and within professional organizations. An Advanced Placement world history examination will soon be available. Many courses have been reshaped or introduced as a result of these discussions. After nearly 30 years of college teaching, I believe many students do understand the need for a broader view; often they deliberately choose world history courses. Such classes have grown steadily on college campuses due to both student interest and changing secondary school curriculums. While some students complain there is too much material to learn, many are grateful for the comprehensive coverage, which they see as helping prepare them for the globalized world they must encounter after graduation. As part of the public, students are clearly voting with their feet.

A broad vision, such as that contained in the national standards, is precisely what our students and future teachers need to comprehend a global village where the "sun never sets on" churches, McDonald's, CNN, Reader's Digest, Hard Rock Cafes, symphony orchestras, and Hollywood films but also mosques, Toyotas, Mexican and Brazilian soap operas, Chinese restaurants, Indonesian batik arts, and African-derived rhythms. Hopefully we can produce students comfortable in, and able to navigate confidently through, a diverse world filled with multiple histories and cultural backgrounds.

But in a nation where culture wars and ideological struggles rage, academic decisions are subject to public scrutiny and debate. Political considerations have undermined the national standards. My job as a college history teacher would be made considerably easier if all of my students came in with some of the knowledge and skills promoted by this project. Clearly world historians in both secondary and higher education must try harder to sell this approach to the general public, including political leaders and education officials. Older perspectives remain influential, not least in many university history departments. Perhaps the growing number of national and state conferences and workshops on world history could invite more participation by interested noneducators. The modest dialogue with area studies scholars should also be expanded, and possibly extended to ethnic studies as well. But as globalization increases, the public discussion of world history in school and college curriculums will continue.


1. Lifelines from Our Past: A New World History (New York: Pantheon, 1989), 13.

2. National Standards for World History: Exploring Paths to the Present (Los Angeles; National Center for History in Schools, University of California at Los Angeles, 1994).

3. For a first hand view of the controversy by participants, see Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn, History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past (New York: Knopf, 1997).

4. For an overview, see Gilbert Allardyce, "The Rise and Fall of the Western Civilization Course," American Historical Review, 87/3 (June, 1982), 695-725.

5. Joseph Strayer, et al., The Mainstream of Civilization (New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1969), pp. xx-xxi.

6. Hugh Trevor-Roper, quoted in Philip Curtin, "African History," in Michael Kammen, ed., The Past Before Us: Contemporary Historical Writing in the United States (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1980), p. 113.

7. See his The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are Rich and Some Are Poor (New York: Norton, 1998), especially 513–14.

8. The Congressional Record, January 18, 1995.

9. National Standards for History, Basic ed. (Los Angeles: National Center for History in Schools, University of California at Los Angeles, 1996).

10. For a survey of the rise of world history, see Gilbert Allardyce, "Toward World History: American Historians and the Coming of the World History Course," Journal of World History 1:1 (spring 1990), 23–77; Ross Dunn, ed., The New World History (New York: Bedford, 1999); , “The Contributions of Philip Curtin and the ‘Wisconsin School’ to the Study and Promotion of Comparative World History,” Journal of Third World Studies, 11:1 (spring 1994), 180–223. On the intellectual underpinnings see Jerry H. Bentley, Shapes of World History in Twentieth-Century Scholarship (Washington, D.C.: American Historical Association, 1996); Craig Lockard, “World History,” in Kelly Boyd, ed., Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing (London and Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999), 1330–35; Philip Pomper, et al., eds., World History: Ideologies, Structures, and Identities (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998).

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