Published Date

September 1, 2005

Resource Type

AHA Archival Document

AHA Topics

Teaching & Learning, Undergraduate Education

A Report to the American Council on Education

The task force presented its final report in September 2005 to a national gathering of higher education administrators in Washington, DC.

Committee Members: Noralee Frankel (American Historical Association); Kevin Gaines (University of Michigan); John Gillis (Rutgers University); Dane Kennedy (George Washington University), Chair; Patrick Manning (Northeastern University), Sonya Michel (University of Maryland at College Park); Kevin Reilly (Raritan Community College); and Peter N. Stearns (George Mason University).

  1. Introduction
  2. General Goals
    1. Knowledge
    2. Skills for Students
    3. Objectives for Teachers
    4. Outcomes for Students
  3. The American Survey: Rethinking Periodization
    1. Themes for the Colonial Era (1400s–1770s)
    2. Themes for the Age of Revolutions and Nation-Building (1760s–1860s)
    3. Themes for the Age of Industry and Empire (1840s–1920s)
    4. Themes for the Age of America as a World Power (1898–present)
  4. Connecting to Other Disciplines
  5. Dissemination
  6. Selected Bibliography


A. Introduction

Now, more than ever, the cumulative effects of global exchange, engagement, and interdependence make it important that we provide our students with an international perspective on the past. Such a perspective is essential if they are to make sense of the world they confront.

An international perspective can be integrated into the history curriculum in various ways.  This committee chose to focus on the general education courses in history, particularly the American history survey.  These introductory courses communicate with the largest number of college students, and successful internationalization at this level will have its widest impact.   Moreover, it may help to differentiate these courses—particularly the U.S. history survey—more effectively from their high school counterparts, reducing the sense of repetition for students and providing them with a more challenging educational experience.

Three history survey courses—world history, Western civilization, and U.S. history—are variously deployed to serve the purposes of general education at the college level, and all  three of them warrant some scrutiny with internationalization in mind.  World history courses, though international by definition, often need further attention to ensure appropriate inclusion of the United States, which helps to make global issues more meaningful to students. Western civilization courses must frequently be challenged to open out to wider comparisons and wider consideration of the interactive nature of contacts; though international in one sense, such courses sometimes encourage narrowly ethnocentric thinking. The American history survey courses present more obvious challenges to “internationalization,” evident in  what critics have referred to as their insular, exceptionalist orientation.  By the same token, they  hold the greatest potential for reconstitution along lines that would provide students with an accessible entry point into the analysis of larger global forces in the modern era.

This report addresses both the general challenge of internationalizing history survey courses and the particular challenge presented by the American history survey.  The first section identifies the themes, skills, and outcomes that are applicable to all three of the general education history surveys.  The second section focuses on the American history survey, offering specific recommendations for  internationalizing its curriculum.  It should be added that these recommendations also carry implications for the history major.  The measures taken to internationalize the survey courses should be explicitly reiterated in the courses and sequences of the history major as well.

The committee appreciates the complex web of factors that affects any curriculum change. These include the intellectual, content-driven issues entailed in making the general education survey more genuinely international in focus, the pedagogical challenge of making such a survey course more meaningful to students, the institutional issues arising from state educational requirements, the graduate training of faculty who teach the survey course, the tendency by universities to resort to part-time faculty to teach introductory courses, and so on. The report also reflects some thinking about who the ideal student is, the “new” American whom we would like to see emerging from this process.

Finally, the committee understands that some caution is necessary in using the term “internationalization,” particularly in contexts such as the American history survey, lest it privilege national terms of analysis even as it seeks to transcend the nation as its focus. We also want to stress that  “internationalization” need not merely signify the global.  It can refer to other units of analysis, which are larger than the nation but still smaller than the world itself (the “Atlantic world,” for example).  The type of inquiry being undertaken determines the size of the analytical unit.

B. General Goals

1. Knowledge

Historical knowledge can be specific or general, descriptive or interpretive.   It may apply to a particular locality, a specific moment, or a given topic, but it also may reference wide regions, long time periods, and a range of topics within the human experience. Descriptive knowledge operates on multiple scales, providing information on events, characters, and processes at levels from local to national to comparative to global.  Interpretive knowledge works on multiple scales as well, integrating descriptive evidence into causal or correlative analyses. The study of history should emphasize linkages between the local and the global, the immediate and the long-term, the topically specific and the civilizationally general.

The topics and themes identified below are, in our opinion, those that will bring a substantial re-contextualization of the history survey. (Here “topics” are taken to mean statements of subject matter, and “themes” are taken to mean relationships within the subject matter of a topic.) They address major historical issues that are equally applicable to the World history survey, the Western Civilization survey, and the American survey. Balancing the coverage of these challenging issues confronts both teacher and student with the problems of selection, reasoning, and memory. Yet the additional effort of choosing and linking selected areas of knowledge brings, in compensation, a higher level of student involvement in historical analysis through their participation in the choices. We encourage teachers of the history survey to address these topics and themes on varying scales: through comparative studies of communities and nations, through investigation of global patterns, and through study of links and interactions among communities or between local and global levels.

  • Political institutions and practices: empires, states, and nations; imperialism, colonialism, nationalism
  • Wars and revolutions
  • Structures of governance, constitutional and legal developments
  • Modes of production, exchange, and consumption (agriculture, industry, trade, etc.)
  • Migrations and diasporas
  • Culture contact and exchange; cultural transfers and innovations
  • Systems of labor and social inequality and their rationales (notably race, class, and gender)
  • Social movements, social reform, emancipation
  • Impact of environment and disease
  • Modalities of belief:religions, ideologies, educational practices
  • Science, technology, and the manipulation of nature
  • Frontiers and borderlands
2. Skills for Students

The skills acquired in the introductory survey course constitute the building blocks of a liberal education.  They can be applied not only to upper division history courses but across the entire curriculum. Chief among these skills are the ability to recognize and analyze change over time and space, to handle diverse forms of evidence, and to master forms of written, oral, and visual expression that facilitate communication with peoples of other regions and cultures. The goal should be to provide all students with ways of approaching the world and thinking about themselves in the dimensions of time and space. These are skills that will both enhance their own lives and enrich the global communities of which they are a part:

  • Identify how causation relates to continuity and change in global frameworks
  • Recognize connections between the past and the present; i.e., locate both self and others in time and spaces
  • Acquire familiarity with the uses—and the limitations—of historical comparison as an analytic tool
  • Appreciate the constructed nature of geographical categories when thinking about geographical space
  • Grasp temporal relationships and integrate multiple chronologies within the same analytical frame of reference
  • Demonstrate the capacity to deal with differences in interpretation
  • Critically analyze narrative structures and construct narratives
  • Demonstrate an ability to recognize and interpret multiple forms of evidence (visual, oral, statistical, artifacts from material culture)
  • Recognize the distinction between primary and secondary sources, understand how each are used to make historical claims
3. Objectives for Teachers

The following teaching objectives are a modified version of recommendations made by the “La Pietra Report on Internationalizing the Study of American History: A Report to the Profession”. This project, sponsored by the Organization of American Historians and New York University, suggested ways to rethink the history of America in the Global Age, but many of its recommendations are more broadly applicable. They identify pedagogical objectives for historians as they seek to internationalize their curriculum.

  • Better prepare students to understand the contemporary world by learning about its historical development
  • Develop in them a fuller sense of the historicity of nation-making
  • Enable students to recognize the multiple spatial and temporal contexts of history
  • Help students to understand better the processes of identity formation, exclusions, boundaries, and different forms of solidarity
  • Enrich students’ understanding of how others perceive their own society and promote in students a more informed sense of and commitment to a global human commons
  • Develop in students habits of historical analysis sensitive to context, interrelations and interactions, comparison, and contingency, always with an awareness that such sensitivity might well require rethinking assumed or traditional historical categories and narratives.
4. Outcomes for Students

In addition to its goals of increasing knowledge and developing the skills that mark a liberal education, the general education course in history has traditionally had the goal of creating engaged and responsible citizens. Yet the purview of that civic goal has broadened with America’s place in the world. Nineteenth-century American history gave the children of immigrants a national identity. Twentieth-century “Western Civilization” courses taught Americans to participate in an Atlantic community. More recently, the world history survey has arisen in response to the increasingly globalized character of the American experience. The “new” American faces a smaller, but vastly more complex and interdependent world than any previous generation. American actions, private and public, leave larger footprints than ever before. The lines between foreign and domestic, international and national, even global and local, diminish and blur. Consequently, the introductory history course must prepare future citizens to understand and navigate a far greater kaleidoscope of cultures and countries. Among the outcomes of such a course will be the following:

  • Ability to see contacts among societies in terms of mutual (though not necessarily symmetrical) interactions, benefits, and costs.
  • Ability to look at other societies in a comparative context and to look at one’s own society in the context of other societies.
  • Ability to understand the historical construction of differences and similarities among groups and regions.
  • Ability to recognize the influence of global forces and identify their connections to local and national developments.

C. The American Survey: Rethinking Periodization

The American (U.S.) survey course can become a vehicle for students to rethink (or begin thinking about) basic tools of historical analysis, not only with regard to the U.S., but also more generally. These tools include periodization, territorial boundaries, and causation. From the outset, the field of U.S. history has operated on (and reinforced) a set of unquestioned assumptions: that U.S. history and the existence of the nation itself are more or less co-extensive (the colonial period is included as a run-up to “the birth of the nation”); that the boundaries of the nation have been determined by nature; and that it makes sense to examine the history of the rest of the world from the perspective of the United States.

Internationalization of the course would help students become aware that these assumptions are themselves intellectual constructs by asking some of the following questions: When does American (U.S.) history start? Why does it start when it does? Where does it start? How, and why, have its boundaries shifted over time? In what ways would a history of the North American continent look different from U.S. history? What ethnographic divisions of space existed prior to the colonial era? What nations existed before the American nation? What is the relationship between land and sea as human spheres of interaction and connection? How has the U.S. appeared to the peoples and governments of other nations (e.g. Britain, France, Germany, Cuba, Nicaragua, Iraq, Vietnam, the Soviet Union/Russia, Japan, China, South Africa, etc.) at particular points in time? How is the U.S. discussed in the histories of these nations?

A more self-consciously internationalized U.S. history survey offers an escape from the tyranny of “coverage,” with its obligation to take up an ever-expanding range of topics. An international approach encourages a more rigorously thematic orientation, requiring the identification of and concentration on topics that open up U.S. history to comparative scrutiny. The proposed outline that follows is meant to signal some of the ways that the survey can be connected to historical patterns that transcend the nation. Several points should be noted about the outline. First, our intent in preparing it is to be illustrative, not prescriptive. Second, we have sought to stress both continuity and change by dividing the outline into sections that are thematically distinct but overlap in periodization. Third, we have taken care to ensure that all of the bulleted items in the following sections correspond to one or more of the general themes listed in B1. Fourth, we have concluded each section with a brief consideration of some of the many ways that U.S. history can be framed in comparative perspective.

1. Themes for the Colonial Era (1400s–1770s)
  • The existence of an “international” system of national polities of indigenous peoples before—and during—the colonial period
  • European imperial expansion and the creation of settler states
  • The Columbian exchange of microbes and plants, and their environmental consequences
  • Slavery and other forms of unfree labor
  • Mercantilism and state-regulated trade, markets and consumption
  • Cultural encounters and exchanges among Europeans, Indian, Africans—religion and missionaries; sexuality and Creole populations; pidgin languages
  • Invention and institutionalization of race and racism
  • Demographics, sexuality, and marriage patterns
  • Technologies of production and destruction
  • Democratization, freedom, citizenship, social mobility, written constitution

Comparisons can be made to patterns of European settlement, systems of production and trade, and uses of slave labor in other parts of the Americas and Africa. The English American colonies were part of a much broader Atlantic and, indeed, world economy, and their development should be framed in these contexts. Similarly, the issue of cultural encounters and their ideological and demographic consequences opens up fruitful comparative possibilities regarding religious conversion, race mixture, and more in English, French, and Spanish colonial territories. Another prominent theme in U.S. history that has parallels elsewhere is the frontier, which plays a comparable role in the histories of Russia and other states that expanded at the expense of neighboring peoples.

2. Themes for the Age of Revolutions and Nation-Building (1760s–1860s)
  • The influence of liberal political philosophy on revolutionary thinking and its role in the construction of a national ethos and identity
  • The American Revolution as a political and social upheaval
  • Redefining relations between Euro-Americans and American Indians; American Indian removal
  • Growth of a market economy and urbanization; transnational trade and migration
  • Expansion of system of African-American slavery; creation of free African-American communities
  • Poverty, charity, and public assistance
  • The Great Awakening, Abolitionism, early feminism, utopian socialism, and other social movements
  • The challenge of nation-building: Civil War
  • The challenge of nation-building: politics, public schools, and the creation of a public sphere

The American Revolution, its ideological foundations, social character, and political consequences, can be compared to the Haitian, Latin American, and French revolutions, among others. The territorial and political processes of nation-building in the United States occurred in an environment that generated similar dynamics in other parts of the globe, from France to Japan. Attention could be given to ways that slavery in the U.S. resembled coercive labor systems like Russian serfdom. By the same token, the abolition of slavery in the U.S. occurred in conjunction with similar shifts to free labor in Brazil, Russia, and elsewhere. While the Civil War figures prominently in the story of abolition, it also bears notice as an event comparable to other bloody upheavals in the mid-19th century, such as the 1857 uprising in India , the Paraguayan War, and the Taiping Rebellion.

3. Themes for the Age of Industry and Empire (1840s–1920s)
  • Post-slavery system of social inequality: Jim Crow and sharecropping, sweatshops and ethnic labor ghettos
  • Urbanization and immigration, assimilation, shift from rural to urban-oriented society and economy
  • Industrialization, mass production, mass consumption, mass culture and the rise of leisure
  • Rise of an industrial working class: labor unions and social protest
  • Commercialization of agriculture: meat-packing industry, export production of grains
  • Technological change: railways, electricity, medical advances
  • Feminism and changes in family demographics
  • Progressivism and social welfare; public education, land grant colleges
  • Internationalization of banking and trade
  • Continental expansion: the Mexican War, the destruction of American Indian nations, and the closing of the frontier
  • Manifest Destiny, the missionary impulse, and American ambitions abroad
  • US involvement in world politics: the Spanish American War, World War I, intervention in Latin America, the treaty system
  • National, industrial, and imperial forms of culture

Many of the themes of U.S. history in this period—mass migration, urbanization, industrialization and technological change, labor struggles—correspond directly to processes elsewhere across the globe. The comparisons are not merely structural, but instrumental: they reflect the increasing social and economic interactions that we refer to as globalization. Patterns of production and consumption in the United States can be compared to—and considered in interaction with—countries such as Britain, France, Germany, and Japan. Their impact on gender roles and the impetus they gave to international feminism also deserve consideration. Politically, too, the United States becomes an increasingly active participant in international affairs, culminating with its involvement in World War I. It increasingly assumed the characteristics of an empire, both in its expansion across the continent and with its claims to overseas territories. The former process, which included the destruction of autonomous American Indian polities, can be considered in the context of developments in Australia, New Zealand, and other settler states. The latter process, which resulted both in the political integration of Hawaii and the military subjugation of the Philippines, offers interesting points of comparison to the European colonial empires.

4. Themes for the Age of America as a World Power (1898–present)
  • Growth of the modern American state: bureaucracy, militarism, mass politics
  • Rise of the corporation and welfare capitalism; rise (and demise?) of the labor movement
  • Depression and prosperity: production, consumption, and the redistribution of wealth
  • US involvement in international agreements and organizations: from isolationism to United Nations, NATO, and NAFTA
  • Planes, trains, and automobiles: suburbanization, the expansion of the highway system, and the making of mobile America
  • Changing role of women in the public sphere, the workplace, and politics
  • Export of US commodities and culture, contestation over its influence
  • Identity politics and civil rights/human rights movements: non-violent social change among African-Americans, native Americans, others
  • Cold War: global ideological struggle, interventions and conflicts (Korea, Vietnam, Latin America, etc.)
  • Environmental politics: the struggles over water in the West, the use and abuse of natural resources, environmental contamination and human health
  • The struggle between secular and religious views on education, the family, and sexuality
  • Demographic shifts: aging and the “Latinization” of the U.S. population

The synergistic expansion of state, corporate, and technological power in the United States intensified its involvement in global affairs and brought it into a series of collisions with other countries, making American history an integral element of world history in the 20th century. How the United States came to conceive of its interests and obligations as a global power should be juxtaposed to the aims and ideological claims of its rivals, ranging from Britain to the Soviet Union. Many of the social, economic, and political movements that shaped the American domestic experience had their counterparts elsewhere, opening up a range of opportunities for comparative consideration of civil and human rights struggles, environmental movements, ideological clashes over capitalism and state power, the rise of international corporations, and more. The rise of an American consumer culture and its contested impact abroad bear particular attention.

D. Connecting to Other Disciplines

In considering ways in which survey courses can be infused with an international perspective, the committee was conscious that the role of history as a discipline in advancing the internationalization of student learning outcomes must be carefully connected with similar efforts in other disciplines as well, where, for example, data and habits of mind relevant to comparison or to the relationships between the local and the global are developed.  By demonstrating how change and continuity affect global patterns and also how larger constellations of global forces like migration and cultural diffusion influence regional patterns,  the history survey can be a vital building block for internationalization efforts in the curricula of higher education more generally.

E. Dissemination

We recommend that the following measures be taken to disseminate this report.

  • Place article in the AHA newsmagazine, Perspectives
  • Post report on AHA website
  • Solicit response on History Chairs’ Listserv to the following questions: “Does your Department teach an internationalized American history survey course? Is your major or capstone course transnational?”
  • Organize panel on the subject at an AHA meeting
  • Contact OAH and American Studies Association about the report once it is posted to the AHA web site for possible linkage
  • Present report to AHA Workshop for Directors of Graduate Studies in August, 2005.
  • Present report to the AHA summer institute, 2005, funded by National Endowment for the Humanities entitled “Rethinking America in Global Perspective” for undergraduate and community college faculty.  The Community College Humanities Association and the George Washington University Department of History cosponsored the institute.
  • Contact College Board about the AP U.S. history course
  • Produce an edited volume on internationalizing American survey
  • Seek out small grants for universities and colleges willing to teach internationalized American survey courses.

F. Selected Bibliography

Anderson, Fred, and Andrew Cayton. The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America 1500–2000 (Viking, 2005).

Bayly, C. A. The Birth of the Modern World 1780–1914 (Blackwell, 2004).

Bender, Thomas, ed. Rethinking American History in a Global Age (University of California Press, 2002).

Burton, Antoinette, ed. After the Imperial Turn: Thinking with and through the Nation (Duke University Press, 2003).

Christian, David. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (University of California Press, 2004).

Degler, Carl. Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (Macmillan, 1971).

Drescher, Seymour. From Slavery to Freedom: Comparative Studies in the Rise and Fall of Atlantic Slavery (New York University Press, 1999).

Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe. The Americas: A Hemispheric History (Modern Library, 2003).

Frederickson, George. White Supremacy: A Comparative Study of American and South African History (Oxford University Press, 1981).

Guarneri, Carl J. America Compared: American History in International Perspective, 2 vols. (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

Hartz, Lewis. The Founding of New Societies: Studies in the History of the United States, Latin America, South Africa, Canada, and Australia (Harcourt, Brace, 1964).

Hemphill, C. Dallett. Bowing to Necessities: A History of Manners in America, 1620–1860 (Oxford, 2002).

Kocka, Juergen. White Collar Workers in America, 1890–1940: A Social-Political History in International Perspective (Sage, 1980).

Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery and Russian Serfdom (Belknap, 1990).

Laslett, John. Failure of a Dream? Essays in the History of American Socialism (Anchor Press, 1974).

Lepore, Jill. The Name of War: King Philip’s War and Origins of American Identity (Vintage Books, 1999).

Lipset, Seymour Martin. Continental Divide: the Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada (Routledge, 1991).

Manning, Patrick. Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

McNeill, John and William McNeill. The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History (Norton, 2003).

Moore, Jr., Barrington. The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Beacon Press, 1966).

Stearns, Peter N. The Industrial Revolution in World History 2nd ed. (Westview, 1998).

———. Global Outrage: The Origins, Evolution and Impact of World Opinion (One World, 2005).

Siegel, Micol. “Beyond Compare: Comparative Methods after the Transnational Turn,” Radical History Review, 91:1 (2005), 62–90.

Stoler, Ann Laura. “Tense and Tender Ties: The Politics of Comparison in North American History and (Post)Colonial Studies,” Journal of American History, 88, 3 (2001).

Wigen, Kären and Martin Lewis. The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography (University of California Press, 1997).