A Modest Proposal

Peter N. Stearns, May 2005

The ongoing debate between partisans of Western civilization surveys and fans of world history continues, with no signs of any abatement. Without pretending that the debate can be extinguished entirely, one can point to an interesting option thus far unexplored. A long shot, admittedly, and one with some drawbacks of its own, it is also intriguing enough to warrant discussion.

We're all aware of the fierce contest for 10th-grade and college first-year surveys. World historians seem to be winning the 10th grade, though sometimes with pyrrhic victories when a course relabeled world history turns out to be Western civilization with a bit of hamburger helper. The surge of AP world history is a clearer-cut gain, though AP European grows still as well. World is gaining a bit at the first-year college level, though here the competition remains keen. The obvious point is that there is no current paradigm for the history survey at present. Perhaps this doesn't matter, though the West and the rest approach, as an unstated compromise, really is unsatisfactory and risks burdening high school students with such massive memorization tasks that neither analysis nor pleasure will have much room for play. And there is potential public damage from an unresolved controversy: if educators can't agree, questions might be raised about the need for history requirements of any sort. Here too, it would be useful to find new ways to frame the issues.

Advocates of Western civilization pursue several key goals, along with a clear appreciation for a course that has often been very appealing. They seek connections between the United States and an older European tradition, to help provide additional legitimacy and heft for the still-brief American experience per se; sometimes this gains trite expression in the lists of largely Western facts that “every educated person” should know. They also seek an agreed upon past at a time when (as in the 1920s, when the Western civilization tradition was launched) immigration is rising rapidly and troubling challenges to the United States in the wider world are mounting as well. On both counts—legitimacy and some intellectual order amid chaos—it may seem desirable to circle the wagons around a Western core.

World history partisans are less concerned with forming identities, though some reference to global citizenship may attach. Here, the justifications focus on the need for world history knowledge and perspective as a means of better understanding global issues and patterns today, and as a basis for honing analytical skills in dealing with large-scale change and continuity and in developing comparisons. Both sides worry, at least implicitly, about citizenship, but the gap between identity formation and the inculcation of skills and perspectives adds to the challenge of defining what a history survey should be all about. It's hard to figure out how to have one's historical cake while eating it.

And this is where a new angle might prove interesting. So far, the debate is an either/or contest over one survey slot—whether in high school or college general education (with neither side willing to concede either level). Often, however, another slot is left untouched, its sacrosanctity assumed: the U.S. survey. Certainly in high school, and sometimes in college, history requirements typically encompass a definite non-U.S. and a U.S. segment. Here's a curricular deck that could be reshuffled, in trying to force three frameworks into two openings.

Why not consider, certainly at the college level and sometimes in 11th grade as well, a merger of U.S. and Western history, leaving a clear space for a world history course that would also deal appropriately with Western civilization from a different vantage point.

Such a merged course would have four major elements: (1) origins of Western civilization—when did it really begin—and principal evolution to the American colonial period; (2) what was transported to the colonies, in terms of values, institutions, and social forms, and what was not, including of course the American encounter with traditions outside the West; (3) ongoing trans-Atlantic contacts, and what borrowing continued to occur in both directions; and (4) the oscillating pattern of convergences and divergences from the 18th century onward, the latter including the impact of American diversity, geographical mobility, and the legacies of slavery as well as, more recently, the increasing importance of things military at a point when Western Europe was moving in different directions. Overall, the course would offer a clear chance for a really intelligent discussion of identity, with due space for the non-Western components of American diversity and for some explicit grappling with the evolution of values with which many Americans identify. It would virtually require explicit treatment of exceptionalism tested with the society—Western Europe—against which it usually applied: the new combination would in fact directly address the current anomaly of highlighting Western traditions as foundational (the Western civilization approach) while talking about how the United States blissfully departs from the European model (as in most current U.S. surveys).

Obviously, developing a course of this sort—let us call it the United States and the Western Tradition (USWT) course —will be challenging, though there are in fact a few models. Some coverage would have to be compressed, though it's important to remember that students get quite a bit of American narrative before the 11th grade and that the world history course will also treat both the West and the U.S. in its own way. The tension between the Western Tradition and other elements in the American trajectory would have to be carefully addressed, lest the national experience be oversimplified and some of the more unpleasant aspects of the nation's past be obscured or whitewashed—but this is an issue in current frameworks as well. Intriguing current discussions about “internationalizing” the U.S. survey might have to be modified, though here too there are opportunities when both the nation and the West are considered in international contexts.

Obviously also, the two courses—USWT and World History—would need mutual contact, lest students be exposed to ridiculously stilted judgments, one glorifying a tradition that the other sets out to bash. Building analytical links between the two courses, and appropriate skills development, for example, in the different kinds of comparison required, would be essential as well, though here the bridges might be built more easily than is currently the case given the U.S. survey's typically splendid isolation.

Other issues would be intriguing. How much time would each course require—a full high school year or more, a college semester or more? How should the two courses be sequenced—world history first, as is now the case in the schools, or perhaps the other way around? Varied patterns could be attempted, for there is no need for a single arrangement, particularly given differences in students' backgrounds and abilities.

What's really interesting, at this very preliminary point, is the possibility of recasting existing discussions, of admitting somewhat different, but legitimate sets of purposes for the history surveys that can however be managed without mutual exclusivity. The new USWT course would prompt some clarifications of crucial issues—about American identity in the Western context—that are currently muddled. It would also suggest some changes—challenging, but potentially salutary—in training programs for U.S. and European historians. A world history course that builds in a recognition of a complementary counterpart would be usefully recast as well.

Is there much probability here? Of course not at first blush, given the long-standing functions of the U.S. survey and the current national mood. But if world history does continue to gain, however haltingly, some new combinations might prove appealing to the Western civilization crowd. And world historians might welcome a chance to escape the rigid confines of the current debate, with its culture wars overtones. At the very least, some programs that are not simply tied to routine might seize the opportunity to reslice the survey cake, with results that could then illuminate the larger discussion.

—Peter Stearns is provost and professor of history at George Mason University. He was vice president of the AHA's
Teaching Division, 1995–98.