From the Letters to the Editor column of the December 2009 issue of Perspectives on History

What Is "World History"?

Dwight Simon, December 2009

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To the Editor:

I found Robert Bain and Lauren McArthur Harris’s article on the preparation of world history teachers (“A Most Pressing Challenge: Preparing Teachers of World History,” Perspectives on History, October 2009) to be a much-needed yet problematic point of entry into the discussion of world history curricula and those who attempt to teach it. Their most valuable service was to point out the unacceptably privileged place of U.S. history in the development of teaching materials for secondary school teachers. As a middle school teacher of both U.S. history and the history of several other parts of the world, I am continually struck by the wealth of resources available to U.S. history teachers while I search in vain for workshops or materials that will allow me to help students meaningfully access complex themes and problems in the histories of other parts of the world.

However, the benefit of Bain and Harris’s assessment seems to stop there. Most problematic was their use of the term “world history” throughout the article. While “world history” may be commonly used, the term has little value for their analytical purposes. After all, world history courses at the secondary level are inevitably an incongruous hodgepodge of histories from various times and places, likely chosen according to some mixture of instructor preference, departmental guidelines, state standards, or textbook content. Some world history courses are actually courses in western civilization. Few are probably truly global in reach. Bain and Harris treat world history as if it is a specialized historical discipline. They hope our secondary school teachers will be taught more about world history by “world historians.” This is an interesting claim. Who, exactly, is a world historian? Everyone? No one? A more fruitful approach may be to design courses and orient teachers toward historical specialties that actually exist, such as classical, medieval, or modern; Africa, Asia, Latin America, or Europe. These are just a few examples of helpful avenues along which world history training and materials could be developed for secondary schools. Another problem arises when Bain and Harris suggest that world history courses lack coherence because the instructors lack knowledge of world history. But perhaps it is not the courses, but world history itself that lacks coherence. While teachers may find it valuable to study the histories of various cultures and continents using certain unifying themes, questions, or problems, it seems troubling to have Bain and Harris pushing for teachers to get professional development in order to impose false coherence on the complex and often disparate histories from different times and places around the world. While I share Bain and Harris’s concern about the privileging of U.S. history in professional development and teaching materials, their solutions will likely offer little substantive progress until they are aligned with the realities of the historical discipline.

Dwight Simon, Epiphany School