Western Civ in the Global Curriculum: A Response

Edmund Burke III and Ross E. Dunn, October 1998

Michael Doyle (Perspectives, May 1998, pp. 1, 24–28) has thought carefully about world history as a teaching field and has exchanged ideas with colleagues who advocate it. He concludes, however, that Western Civ should not relinquish its place as the dominant model for the introductory college course. He exposes what is surely the greatest weakness of the world history survey these days: the tendency for some instructors to let the chapters of comprehensive textbooks, rather than a coherent conceptual design, guide the organization of their course and to ask students to absorb helter-skelter a great deal of information about all major world regions and civilizations. Even global texts that are based on clear and imaginative principles of selection tend to include a great deal of traditionally standard information in order to pass the "wet thumb" test of prospective adopters flipping the pages looking for their favorite teaching topics.

Doyle prefers Western Civ to world history, not only because global texts try to cover too much ground but also because they make onerous demands on instructors to "retool." They also divert students from in-depth study of "their own civilization." Doyle proposes instead a modified Western Civ that would take greater account of "all the contributions made by others" to the Western tradition and that would stress, for the modern centuries, "interaction between the West and the world." He invites Western Civ teachers to rethink their courses in light of the challenge from world history. We support that recommendation. We also believe, however, that he rests his objections to world history on questionable premises and on some misunderstanding of what the movement for world history in collegiate education aims to achieve.

The Western Civ tradition to which Doyle refers has itself evolved considerably since its 19th-century genesis. With the advent of the Cold War, as Gilbert Allardyce has argued, the Western Civ narrative became the "history of freedom," and as such an important ideological component in the struggle against communism.1 This civics lesson version of Western Civ was always uneasily yoked together with other, more complex understandings of the European past. Though Doyle's nostalgia for a time of greater moral and political certainty resonates for many Americans, it is unclear how his call for renewed vigor is an adequate response to the manifest differences between U.S. society of the 1950s and the 1990s.

In part this is because Doyle argues for Western Civ from assumptions that he leaves unexamined. He appears to assume that college world history may be largely defined as the study of the main narratives and distinctive characteristics of a number of different named "cultures," and that these categories may be thought of as stable, totalizable entities. From this premise, the argument follows logically enough that students should investigate "their own civilization," the one they "belong to," in greater detail than they do other civilizations.

Champions of Western Civ in both colleges and high schools, as well as educators on the political right, have often contended that civilizations, conceived as the most historically significant "cultures," may reasonably be regarded as possessing good qualities and bad qualities. They have also argued that all cultures, in one way or another, have transgressed their core values but that Western civilization's essential qualities, despite periodic outbreaks of militarism, racism, social oppression, and other anomalies, are on the whole particularly appealing and beneficial to humankind. Therefore, young Americans should be proud to belong to "the West" and should know more about it than the "non-West."

Such arguments for Western Civ rest on an ahistorical and curiously anthropomorphized conception of civilization, in which "the West," likened to an individual historical actor, performs this or that deed on the world stage: the West "gave science to the world," the West "ended slavery," the West "has committed its share of crimes," the West "is penetrating all other cultures," and so on. According to Doyle, the West has revealed "its many warts and scars," a rhetorical reification akin to claiming that Oklahoma has more "warts and scars" than Vermont or that Norway has "committed more crimes" than Portugal.

Doyle refers to the "narrative," the "fundamentals," and the "features" of Western civilization as if the historical profession generally agrees about what these things might be. In fact, they don't agree at all. If, as Doyle claims, the Western narrative is no longer simply the cavalcade of liberty, then what exactly is the story about? If our first responsibility is to teach the "fundamentals" of Western civilization, then we need to define those timeless facts or characteristics. Doyle seems to assume we all know the answers. In fact, many scholars would teach as an axiom of good historical methodology that seminal or essential cultural traits can never be ascribed to societies or civilizations, or for that matter to tribes, ethnic groups, or hunting bands.

Sometimes it seems to us as if the Western Civ and world history camps talk past one another. One side defines introductory history education as exploration of the differing traits of civilizations as revealed primarily in their respective canonical texts and other primary source documents. The other side defines it as the study of change in sundry spheres of life—social, economic, epidemiological, and so on. Defenders of Western Civ, who are often deeply committed humanists, tend to think of the field's subject matter in terms of the continuities, enduring characteristics, and intellectual/cultural achievements of civilizations. World history partisans, whose fields of specialization are more often than not tilted toward the social sciences and history of the non-Western world, have tended to see the appearance, florescence, and decline of civilizations in a broad comparative perspective and to regard all historical inquiry as an endeavor to investigate processes rather than fixities.

We have no objection to students pondering European canonical texts as part of their humanistic education. Quite the contrary—we support it. However, as academic subjects carrying general presuppositions about time and space, European history and Western Civ are not at all the same thing. Embedded in the very structure of Western Civ is the wholly teleological notion that an actual chain of cause and effect may be discerned that links Paleolithic East Africa to Sumerian Mesopotamia, Mesopotamia to republican Rome, Rome to the Italian Renaissance, and the Renaissance to global "Westernization." This view of history is a well-ordered ideological construct, but it is no longer convincing or sufficient as a way to explain how the world, or even Europe, has changed over the centuries and millennia. Indeed, it can be seen as an effort to construct an "imagined community" in order to endow the West with a uniquely privileged status, rather than to situate it alongside its sister civilizations. Designs for teaching world history are, of course, constructs as well—as indeed are all history syllabi. But these designs are not, on the whole, founded on an ahistorical quest for "origins." They recognize that change takes place in consequence of the interplay of numerous forces and circumstances prevailing at any particular moment of the past, and they offer students a more plausible foundation for thinking about how and why change occurs in our own complicated times.

Doyle has made proposals for a more up-to-date Western Civ. We would like to offer a few counterproposals as grist for the mill when history departments in both two- and four-year institutions debate the relative merits of Western Civ and world history.

  1. If a department offers or proposes to offer an introductory world history program that sweeps across the millennia from Paleolithic times to the present, then it should develop an explicit conceptual framework to guide selection and organization of content. This means adopting specific principles of selection and making clear thematic choices. The tables of contents of comprehensive global texts are no substitute for the instructor's or department's own conceptual plan. Consider assigning a comprehensive text as a reference tool rather than as the main reading. The textbook may then support rather than determine the selection and ordering of themes and topics. In place of long weekly textbook assignments, ask students to read and discuss some of the many excellent books and articles available on specific topics in world history.
  2. Consider replacing the broad multicivilizational survey with courses that are emphatically comparative, interregional, or global but that embrace smaller chunks of time. Consult the periodization scheme in the National Standards for World History for ideas on designing courses around discrete time periods and major world-historical developments.2 It is worth noting that the teachers and scholars who recently drafted a curriculum for Advanced Placement World History chose a one-year course limited to the period 1000 C.E. to the present rather than a survey starting with the Lower Paleolithic.
  3. Consider, on the other hand, adopting the very large-scale model of "big history" as developed by David Christian, Fred Spier, and others. As Christian has written, doing big history means exploring the past on all different scales "up to the scale of the universe itself."3 He argues that questions about human origins, evolution, and long-term impact on the natural environment are historical questions, and very important ones at that. Undertaking such explorations, however, demands appropriate contexts, in some cases astrophysical.
  4. Reexamine critically not only the premises of Western Civ but also those of multiculturalism, which tend to support rather than challenge quasi-static descriptions of civilizations and which sometimes encourage students to reify Asian, African, and Latin American societies as grossly as they do "the West." World history teachers should invariably adopt what Andre Gunder Frank has called a "humanocentric" approach to world history. They should never be in the business of debating which civilizations were the most glorious and which committed the worst crimes.
  5. Because it provides an effectual context for integrating knowledge acquired in several courses, world history seems especially suited as a capstone course for history majors and other upper-division students. We propose two intellectually and pedagogically distinct kinds of advanced world history courses. One program would focus on the study of particular periods and developments to throw light on larger-scale, transcultural patterns of change in a variety of spheres. This program would give much attention to interactions among peoples, set civilizational change in wider interregional or global frames, and invariably address in some measure environmental and ecological issues. A second program would emphasize the study of key texts, literary works, aesthetic movements, and scientific innovations of particular times and places. Its central aim would be to illuminate the ways in which these texts, images, and discoveries speak to the human condition. While much of the content might represent the work of Europeans, the course would eschew any teleological agenda for revealing the "essence" of this culture or that. It would also present great writings and art never as "belonging" inherently to any group but always to all humanity.
  6. Since more and more states are instituting academic standards that require schools to teach world history, postsecondary instructors need to address the challenge of providing a rigorous and coherent world history curriculum for future teachers. Unfortunately, most of the comprehensive textbooks published for the K-12 market embody no clear conceptual plan or world-historical point of view but aim merely to "cover" the requisite civilizations one by one in a way that balances the demands of multiculturalist and traditionalist interest groups. Therefore, prospective K–12 professionals should be given opportunities to think about globe-embracing history as a distinct field of study that involves particular conceptual problems and that presents creative, engaging angles of vision on the human past as well as investigations of particular regions. San Diego State University has recently created "World History for Teachers," a semester course whose subject matter is specifically correlated to the chronological scope and content of the world history program for grades six and seven taught in virtually all California public schools.
  7. Abandon the Western Civ model entirely but urge students to study European history, as well as other regions, as part of their general education. European history, including attention to canonical texts, is a perfectly valid subject of inquiry. Students should understand, however, that a distinctive European urban and high cultural tradition arose sometime around 1000 C.E. It did not arise on the plains of East Africa three million years ago, not on the banks of the Tigris-Euphrates in the fourth millennium B.C.E., and not in ancient Athens, whose civilizational context was the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea basins, not Europe as conventionally defined.

Doyle has pointed out some of the failings of world history surveys and offered good ideas for making Western Civ better. Our aim in making this rejoinder is simply to carry forward the debate he initiated. We believe that the Western Civ structure is beyond repair but also that there is much more in world history's future than the comprehensive civilization-of-the-week survey.

—Edmund Burke III is professor of history at Merrill College, University of California at Santa Cruz. Ross E. Dunn is professor of history at San Diego State University.


1. Gilbert Allardyce, "The Rise and Fall of the Western Civilization Course," AHR 87 (1982): 695–725. See the same author's "Toward World History: American Historians and the Coming of the World History Course," Journal of World History 1 (spring 1990): 23–76.

2. National Standards for History, Basic Edition (Los Angeles: National Center for History in the Schools, UCLA, 1996).

3. See David Christian, "The Case for Big History," Journal of World History 2 (fall 1991): 223–38. Also Fred Spier, The Structure of Big History: From the Big Bang until Today (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1997).